Bernie Sanders is gaining on Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, with an appeal as an issue-oriented protest vehicle potentially capable of slowing any coronation of the popular front-runner.
In simultaneous surveys, the U.S. senator from Vermont received nearly a quarter of support from likely Democratic caucus and primary voters in the states that host the first presidential nomination balloting early next year, cutting sharply into Clinton's still-huge lead.
The polls suggest substantive and symbolic support for the socialist, as well as a craving among some Democrats for a Clinton rival to rise.
“I want to try to get him along as far as I can,” said Democratic poll participant John Murphy, 74, a retired railroad worker in West Des Moines, Iowa. “He’s going to bring up some issues that she may not want to talk about.”
The surveys were commissioned to test sources of strength for Sanders, who has seen audiences at his campaign events swell in recent weeks. The polls were conducted June 19-22 by West Des Moines-based Selzer & Co. in Iowa and Washington-area Purple Strategies in New Hampshire, the latter done in cooperation with Saint Anselm College. The margin of error on the full samples—401 in Iowa, 400 in New Hampshire—is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
In Iowa, Clinton leads Sanders 50 percent to 24 percent, and in New Hampshire, 56 percent to 24 percent. That's a six- to eight-point increase in his support since those states were polled by Bloomberg Politics and partners in May.
With nearly identical support in Iowa and New Hampshire, the polls suggest Sanders' rise isn’t just because he enjoys New England neighbor-state status. In both states, he gets higher marks than Clinton on authenticity and willingness to take on Wall Street and financial elites.
Along the campaign trail, Sanders appears to be changing some minds: His unfavorable rating in Iowa is just 4 percent, down 8 percentage points since May. At the same time, 57 percent now view him positively, up 10 points from the last poll.
“You can make the case that a certain amount of Bernie Sanders’s support is a protest vote, but there’s more to it than that,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co. “People like him. They like what he stands for. They like showing up at his events and hearing him say things they believe in.”
Clinton’s support has dropped by 7 points in Iowa and 6 points in New Hampshire. Among likely Democratic voters, she's viewed favorably by 88 percent in Iowa and 86 percent in New Hampshire. That's up two points since May in Iowa and unchanged in New Hampshire, and comparable to the popularity of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Yet Sanders' team points to mounting evidence that the white-haired, sometimes seemingly grumpy senator could offer voters an appealing alternative to Clinton, a former U.S. secretary of state, senator, and first lady viewed as the overwhelming Democratic nomination front-runner.
“It's tremendous progress that he is making with voters in the first two states,” Tad Devine, Sanders' chief political strategist, said of the poll findings. “It's something we felt on the ground.”
While Sanders is indeed enjoying something of a mini-surge in the two states, the polls show he's almost certain to hit a ceiling eventually, said Purple Strategies' Doug Usher.
“Clinton remains enormously well-known and well-liked in New Hampshire, a state she won before,” Usher said. “She benefits from a gender gap in a primary that will be disproportionately female, and even Sanders’ voters admit Clinton is likely the nominee. As long as Democrats like both candidates simultaneously, Sanders will have an uphill climb.”
The New Hampshire survey shows the race not as close there as a poll released last week by Suffolk University, which had Clinton at 41 percent and Sanders at 31 percent. Unlike the Bloomberg Politics/Saint Anselm poll, the Suffolk survey didn’t start with a database of registered voters, instead relying more on the self-reported likelihood of voting in the primary. It also included Vice President Joe Biden, while this one didn’t.
Clinton swamps Sanders on who can beat the Republican nominee in the general election, foreign-policy experience, and knowing how to get things done in Washington. The two find roughly equal support among likely Democratic voters on who will fight for average people and who will care for people like themselves. Depending on the state, Sanders has a 7- to 18-point edge on taking on Wall Street and a 12- to 17-point advantage on authenticity.
“His priorities are right and he’s not going to just crumble under the status quo,” said Anne Welch, 59, a caregiver who lives in Penacook, New Hampshire. “He won’t compromise.”
Welch, who once lived in Vermont and met Sanders, said she supported Clinton in 2008. “I kind of feel like I’m betraying my gender,” she said.
Clinton's team has worked to dampen expectations, noting that it's rare for a Democratic candidate who isn't an incumbent president to win more than 50 percent in Iowa's caucuses. The goal is to try to avoid having her seen as a wounded front-runner should she fail to dominate the first contest. In 2008, she finished third in Iowa and her aura of inevitability was badly damaged by an insurgent Barack Obama.
That sense of inevitability is strong again in Iowa and New Hampshire, with four-fifths of likely Democratic voters in both states saying they think Clinton is destined to be the nominee. Even among supporters of Sanders, 69 percent of those in Iowa say she'll be the party's eventual nominee. Clinton’s own Iowa supporters are even more confident, with 93 percent saying she'll be the standard-bearer. Her campaign declined to comment on these polls.
Among independents likely to participate in the Iowa caucuses—about a fifth of the probable electorate—Sanders leads Clinton, 35 percent to 29 percent. In May, she led with that group by 19 points. (The margin of error is higher in subgroups like these.)
Women in Iowa are much more likely to back Clinton than men are, 59 percent to 39 percent. Among women, she leads Sanders 59 percent to 19 percent, while it’s much narrower advantage among men, 39 percent to 30 percent.
While some Democrats and independents are welcoming Sanders to the race with their support, it doesn't mean they're rejecting Clinton.
Almost nine in 10 who are supporting Sanders in New Hampshire, and 83 percent in Iowa, say they're backing him because of what he stands for. Just 13 percent in Iowa and 9 percent in New Hampshire say their decision is because they don't want Clinton to get the nomination, or because they want to send her a message.
Matthew Cook, 27, who just completed a physics degree and lives in Waterloo, Iowa, said Sanders has been “a really consistent politician, which is hard to find.” He plans to vote for Sanders if for no reason other than to push Clinton on the issues he cares most about, including gay marriage, climate change, and fair trade.
“She needs to come out and firmly state where her opinions are,” he said. “There can’t be any ambiguity.”