Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a town hall meeting in Toledo, Iowa, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Scott Morgan

DES MOINES -- The new ad from Hillary Clinton warns Iowa's Democrats that only she can win a general election. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) begs to differ -- and so does his math.

"My opponent says this is an important issue; she is the person who can win the general election," Sanders said at an American Legion hall here, at an event that largely focused on the city's fast-growing Latino population. "I respectfully disagree. Look at which candidate is doing better against Donald Trump. Look at the last national poll and you find that Bernie Sanders is beating Donald Trump by 13 points, Hillary Clinton by seven points.”

Sanders has been making that argument at almost every Iowa stop this weekend, a head-turning addition to his extremely consistent stump speech. Frustrated by media coverage that has covered Donald Trump's insurgent campaign far more closely than Sanders's -- by one calculation, 23 times more closely -- the candidate and his supporters are starting to ask why his strong poll numbers aren't news.

Republicans have picked up on this, if not with the Democrats' best interests in mind. "Trump is smothering [the] attention Sanders should get," tweeted former Mitt Romney strategist Stuart Stevens last month. "He is historic. A socialist most liked candidate? Amazing."

At a Friday rally in Toledo, a small city in the state's northeast, Sanders introduced an audience of several hundred voters to the "very respected" Quinnipiac poll, based at the eponymous university in Connecticut. While taking care not to criticize Clinton, he noted that he was leading each Republican by more than she was.

Later that night, in Cedar Rapids, the Vermont senator set up the polling riff with a question.

“We have got to beat right-wing Republican extremism," said Sanders. "So the question is, who is the stronger candidate to do that?”

Members of the 1,600-person crowd yelled out his name before Sanders had a chance to answer. He then shared that a recent national poll had him leading Trump by twice as much as Clinton and that a just-released poll from New Hampshire that had him up by higher margins than Clinton -- several more points, in most cases -- against virtually all of the GOP candidates in hypothetical general-election match-ups. Sanders ticked off his margins and Clinton’s against Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, “our good friend” Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

“And I must confess to you here is my favorite one,” Sanders said before relaying how much he is up over Trump in New Hampshire.

The electability boast contrasts with the rest of Sanders's speech. In its pride, and its use of the third person, it also echoes what can be an endless-seeming section of Trump's stump speeches. The mogul-turned candidate often assures audiences that they have picked a winner, reciting whatever poll numbers give him the biggest leads over Republican rivals. (As recently as last Saturday, Trump was still citing an outdated Nevada poll that gave him a lead with Republican-leaning Latino voters.)

Clinton includes no such numerology in her speeches. She would be hard-pressed to do so. As Sanders supporters often note, Clinton's favorable numbers have swooned since her largely apolitical days as President Obama's first secretary of state. A Fox News poll released this week found every Republican, even Trump, leading in a trial heat with Clinton.

Democratic voters have yet to internalize, or take seriously, numbers like those. The ad Sanders referred to, "Incredible," calls Clinton "tested and tough." After running through some of the top Republican candidates' most explosive moments, it insists that Clinton is "the one candidate who can stop them."

 

In Cedar Rapids, Sanders acknowledged -- in a very un-Trumpian fashion -- that his best general election numbers were from “just one poll” in one state. Still, he said, anyone who looks “objectively” at his campaign and Clinton’s will come to the same conclusion: “Our campaign is the campaign that has the energy, has the enthusiasm.”

“So Hillary Clinton is right, electability is enormously important, and we are the campaign that’s going to win this election,” said Sanders.