Chris Sautter: The Sanders surge and Clinton comeback
Sunday, January 31, 2016 9:41 AM
WASHINGTON - The celebrated Bernie Sanders campaign ad featuring the classic Simon and Garfunkel recording “America” helps explain what is behind the Bernie Sanders surge in Iowa. The ad with its lovely imagery and uplifting message encapsulates what the Sanders campaign is about—ordinary people coming together to form a political movement in order to restore America’s promise.
Like the iconic song recorded in February 1968, on the eve of the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the ad conveys a search for lost idealism. The 60-second spot contains no dialogue. Rather, it consists of a panorama of everyday Americana images—small towns, farm fields, working people—intertwined with huge Sanders rally shots. In the background, the duo sings their beautiful tune concluding with the refrain “they’ve all come to look for America.” Of course, the actual Paul Simon lyrics—like the year 1968--end on a darker note as the song moves prophetically from hope to disillusionment. Nonetheless, the Sanders spot resonates as a sweeping political statement about hope and change in 2016.
In his campaign and in the ad, Sanders is targeting a key component of the Obama coalition — educated white Democrats, particularly baby boomers who grew up on the idealism and music of the 1960’s. This is underscored by the fact that the spot is virtually devoid of urban America, whose voters form the core of the Obama coalition.
Barack Obama was elected president on a coalition composed mostly of minorities, young people, women, and white progressives. The roots of that coalition can be found in Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign of 1968, though Kennedy’s coalition represented more of an attempt to bridge the gap between poor white and black America. Ever since RFK’s campaign was tragically cut short, progressives have been attempting to create a winning multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cross-class coalition in presidential campaigns, succeeding eventually with Obama in 2008.
In Iowa, Obama’s coalition is the one Sanders is seeking to replicate — young people and anti-war boomers. He also hopes to follow Obama’s example by attracting a record number of new voters to the caucuses, and, in fact, leads in polling among first-time caucus participants—mostly younger voters--by more than 50 percentage points.
The “America” ad is aimed at cutting into Hillary Clinton’s natural constituency — people over 45 years old. Clinton started out with overwhelming support from the older demographic, but Sanders’ focus on fundamental change has been luring older liberals away. In Iowa, Clinton’s lead among the 45-year old and up vote is down more than 20% to 53%, according to a Quinnipiac poll released last Wednesday.
Sanders led overall in the Quinnipiac Iowa poll 49% to 45%, though the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll—historically the most reliable Iowa Caucus poll - released Saturday has Clinton leading Sanders 45% to 42%. Both results are within the margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The Sanders surge is a product of both a compelling message and wariness of the Clintons. Clinton’s slide in the polls began with the e-mail server scandal, reminding older voters of the drama of the Clinton years and introducing new voters to Clinton as a politician with serious baggage. She seemed to have found her footing during the House Benghazi hearings last fall and in a debate that focused on her comparative strength, foreign policy. Those coincided with Larry David’s hilarious “SNL” impression of Bernie Sanders that portrayed Sanders as a cranky, shouting old man who makes little sense.
Then Clinton seemed to take her foot off the pedal, allowing Sanders to regain traction and take a slight lead in Iowa in January. But with success has come more careful scrutiny. As a result, in the past week, the Sanders surge seems to have stalled giving Clinton at least an even chance to pull out a win.
Clinton has also begun to make a stronger case that she is a lifelong champion of progressive change and that her proposals stand a better chance of becoming reality. Clinton is now airing an effective closing ad, one that includes footage of her over many years advocating for children and families. Many Democrats instinctively find her more electable, though current polling and the revelation Friday that 22 e-mails from her private server are now classified “top secret” might suggest otherwise.
In short, Iowa is too close to call and will come down to turnout and a dwindling number of undecided voters. “This race is as tight as can be,” former Obama strategist David Axelrod told the Des Moines Register Saturday. “If Bernie Sanders had momentum headed into the final month, the race is now static and essentially tied.”
For those yet to decide, the election is a choice between competing messages: Clinton’s message of political realism that continues the progressive Obama policies versus the Sanders message that real change is not possible unless we fundamentally alter the political system and equalize power between corporate interests and the people.
As wonderfully inspirational as the “America” ad is, alone it is probably not the right one for the Sanders campaign to close the deal in Iowa. “Feel good” ads motivate supporters, but rarely move undecided voters. That’s why the Sanders campaign is now also airing a “comparative ad.” Comparisons between Sanders and Clinton positions on Iraq, Wall Street, and campaign finance can only help Sanders.
The stakes in Iowa are high for both Clinton and Sanders. But they are greater for Sanders. It is difficult to see how he stops Clinton in states with racial diversity if he can’t win in Iowa, a state that is overwhelmingly white. Sanders’ strategy is to generate so much momentum early that Clinton’s leads in the later states evaporate. That strategy will only work if Sanders wins both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Either way, Democrats face a quandary. Bernie Sanders the socialist may not be electable, at least in a conventional presidential campaign (which 2016 has not yet been). But Hillary Clinton the candidate may be too fundamentally flawed to overcome doubts about her honesty and the country’s yearning for real change. Once again Democrats may have to rely on self-destructive Republicans to hand them the White House.
Sautter is a political consultant based in Washington.