On the morning after Bernie Sanders unveiled his presidential candidacy along the windswept shores of Lake Champlain, the pundits on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” were speculating on the Vermont senator’s prospects against Hillary Clinton.
Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin said he could easily surpass 25 percent in Iowa or New Hampshire. NBC’s Chuck Todd observed that, “if he’s flirting with 40 percent somewhere, then all of a sudden it is Gene McCarthy territory,” a reference to the Minnesota senator’s 1968 insurgency that helped end Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.
No one predicted Sanders — or former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley — would beat Clinton. But their discussion spotlighted her real problem in next year’s caucuses and primaries: expectations and, more precisely, the likelihood her rivals will do “better than expected.”
The history of the Democratic Party tells us that threat is real. For half a century, insurgent Democrats generally representing the party’s left have repeatedly outstripped expectations, either winning nominations outright or forcing front-runners into longer, more damaging battles to secure what initially seemed theirs.
McCarthy ultimately lost, but his 1968 campaign revealed party divisions that undermined the eventual nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and helped elect Richard Nixon. Four years later, antiwar insurgent George McGovern won the nomination, but suffered a devastating general election defeat.
Jimmy Carter, victorious as an insurgent in 1976, was himself the victim four years later, when Sen. Edward Kennedy’s challenge helped elect Ronald Reagan. Walter Mondale survived Sen. Gary Hart’s 1984 challenge but lost decisively in November.
More recently, insurgent Barack Obama defeated establishment favorite Clinton in 2008, and won comfortably in November.
That brings us to Sanders, O'Malley and Clinton’s latest challenger, former Rhode Island Gov. and Sen. Lincoln Chafee.
Already, a significant minority of Democrats say they want an alternative to Clinton — or at least a choice. Polls show two of five Iowa Democrats and up to half in New Hampshire resist naming her their choice; she is so well known, those numbers seem more valid than most early polls, though subject to change.
Clinton may benefit from a divided opposition preventing any single rival from doing too well. But reporters, anchors and pundits, always eager for a contest, will probably focus on her percentage, especially if it’s under pre-caucus and pre-primary polls.
Her campaign has already sought to lower expectations with a memo noting no contested non-incumbent ever won more than 50 percent in either state. But Kurt Meyer, the Democratic chairman of three north-central Iowa counties, expressed the reality by warning in an interview with The New York Times that a Clinton victory “by less than 20 percent” will create a two-person race heading into New Hampshire.
The classic example was 1984, when Mondale led a large Iowa field with 49 percent, Hart finished a distant second with 16, but the press immediately characterized it as a two-person race, noting Hart’s strong New Hampshire organization. Hart won there, but had difficulty sustaining his momentum, while weakening Mondale in the process.
Yet, in 2000, Al Gore’s slim New Hampshire margin over challenger Bill Bradley (50-46 after winning Iowa 63-37) proved more than enough when Bradley was unable to maintain his challenge in later primaries.
The existence of multiple Clinton rivals means a heated scrap to become her prime opponent. Sanders has advantages: He announced first, and has more money, a sharper persona and more genuine ideological identity as a progressive spokesman.
He could stand out when debates start, probably in October, though Sanders is seeking earlier confrontations.
Some Democrats fear pressures from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and her rivals might push Clinton too far to the left. But their leftist rhetoric and positions — Sanders advocates breaking up big banks, a single-payer health care system and increased Social Security benefits — might help Clinton confirm her more centrist image.
Barring a Clinton implosion or a Sanders or O'Malley breakthrough like McCarthy’s 42 percent in New Hampshire, the former secretary of state remains heavily favored for the Democratic nomination.
But her road there could be unexpectedly difficult.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: email@example.com.
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