While Bernie Sanders appears to be coming on strong against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president, he is unlikely to dislodge Clinton from the front-runner position.
WASHINGTON • Surely 2008 can't be happening all over again?
After spending the better part of the year looking absolutely untouchable in the polls, Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton enters next week's election primaries under circumstances that evoke uncomfortable memories of the last time she made a run for the White House.
Eight years ago, she was also deemed the inevitable candidate, with a massive lead in the polls going into the first few primary contests. But her campaign was caught off-guard when then Senator Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus, came in a close second in New Hampshire and then walloped her in South Carolina. It was at that point that the bottom fell out for her and, though she stayed in the race until the end, her campaign never properly recovered.
Fast forward to today and it was clear from the beginning that Mrs Clinton was determined to learn the lessons of 2008. She did her best to shed her relatively dowdy image of campaigns past and pushed back repeatedly against suggestions that her candidacy was somehow pre-determined. Yet, there is an inescapable sense of deja vu.
FEELING THE BERN
In Mr Bernie Sanders, Mrs Clinton once again faces an upstart senator with an inspirational message, a good catchphrase and a passionate group of young supporters.
Once again, her nationwide lead in the polls appears to be evaporating just as the voting is about to begin - and observers are raising the possibility that the anointed one could somehow lose in the first two influential contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
While anything still can and will happen in this campaign... a repeat of 2008 seems extremely unlikely. It would take a scandal of epic proportions or a severe health issue for Mrs Clinton's campaign to be derailed, however well Mr Sanders does in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The opinion polls make for a sobering read for the Clinton campaign. A year ago, she held a lead of nearly 60 percentage points over Mr Sanders nationally. Today, that number is just 14. More to the point, at approximately the same stage in the 2008 campaign, her lead over Mr Obama was over 20 percentage points, and she ended up finishing third in Iowa.
In recent polls for Iowa, the state now looks like a toss-up - about half the surveys give Mrs Clinton the lead while the rest put Mr Sanders ahead. Prior to January, only two out of over 100 polls predicted a Sanders victory .
And if Iowa looks iffy, New Hampshire looks like an entirely lost cause. Mr Sanders, who has the benefit of being senator for the neighbouring state of Vermont, has a significant lead. A recent CNN/WMUR poll put him up by as much as 27 percentage points. On average, he leads by 14.7 percentage points.
The 2008 experience has taught everyone that no matter how badly an upstart candidate is doing in polls leading up to the votes, strong victories in the early stages can really turn a race around.
One clear school of thought now is that big victories for Mr Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire could be a game-changer. The senator entered the race without brand recognition nationally and is still trying to introduce himself to the country. Make waves in the early states and more people will get to know him and his message quickly.
And though his description of himself as a democratic socialist led many to disregard him early on, Mr Sanders does have some advantages over Mrs Clinton in trying to woo the Democratic base.
He has a longer record fighting against income inequality and doesn't have the kind of ties to corporate and Wall Street donors that Mrs Clinton has. She is estimated to have been paid at least US$3 million (S$4.3 million) in speaking fees and received a further US$17 million in donations from Wall Street entities over the years. Mr Sanders also voted against the 2003 Iraq war that Mrs Clinton supported.
Then there is the perception that while Mrs Clinton is a stiff, scheming career politician, Mr Sanders is a regular guy who speaks his mind. His position as a long shot and a political outsider also gave his campaign a freedom and enthusiasm that Mrs Clinton - who was part of the Obama Cabinet - simply cannot match. It is hard for voters to be excited about a candidate they have seen so many times before.
President Obama said as much when talking about the two candidates this week. "I think Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete long shot and just letting loose," he said in an interview with news outlet Politico. "I think Hillary came in with both the privilege and burden of being perceived as the front runner."
He added: " And, you know, you're always looking at the bright, shiny object that people haven't seen before. That's a disadvantage to her."
Finally - and perhaps most significantly - is the fact that Mr Sanders has thus far been relatively scandal-free. Mrs Clinton, on the other hand, has the problem of having used personal e-mail while Secretary of State and continues to face questions about her handling of the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the killing of the American ambassador.
All that has likely been taken into account when media mogul Michael Bloomberg announced last week that he might consider running in the November presidential election. It is highly unlikely that Mr Bloomberg would jump into the race as an independent to challenge Mrs Clinton but he may fancy his chances if it looks like Mr Sanders is about to become the nominee.
BERNIE IS NO BARACK
For all the similarities between 2008 and this year, there are some vital differences that keep Mrs Clinton as firm favourite to clinch the Democratic Party nomination.
For one thing, Mr Sanders is no Barack Obama. He doesn't have the same grassroots organisation strength and has no clear way to rack up momentum-building victories after the first two contests. He lacks support within the establishment and struggles with courting the non-white vote.
Even among African-Americans, Mr Sanders now barely polls above 13 per cent, compared to Mr Obama's 80 per cent in 2008. Mrs Clinton's support among the black community, a core of the Democratic Party base, overpowers Mr Sanders' four to one.
The fourth primary for the Democrats - South Carolina - is shaping up to be an even more important indicator for where this race goes than Iowa or New Hampshire. Unlike the overwhelmingly white electorate in the first two states, party voters in South Carolina are 56 per cent black. If Mrs Clinton wins big there, as she is expected to, Mr Sanders' campaign would have hit a wall. More states' electorates resemble South Carolina's diversity than New Hampshire's homogeneity.
Mrs Clinton's pragmatism is also likely to resonate more with minority voters than Mr Sanders' idealism. For instance, Asian-American Democrats would be uncomfortable with Mr Sanders' pledge to provide free healthcare and free university education, even if he argues that the savings will be higher than the tax hike needed to pay for it.
As for establishment support, it has been abundantly clear thus far that the party leadership favours Mrs Clinton over Mr Sanders.
The former Secretary of State has to date received the endorsements of over 153 of the 201 Democratic congressmen, 38 out of 44 senators and 12 out of 18 state governors .
In the book The Party Decides, political scientists concluded that endorsements were the best predictor of a candidate's success in the primaries because they influence the voters who trust the judgment of their representatives, and they provide an important signal to other party elites about who is acceptable. And while they often start to coalesce around a candidate only after a few primaries, Mrs Clinton is already far ahead this time.
The establishment does not want a confessed socialist to be the standard-bearer for the party and does not believe Mr Sanders can win the White House. He has the endorsement of two congressmen.
The extent to which the party leadership is behind Mrs Clinton can even be seen in how the televised debates have been scheduled. Mrs Clinton is said to have more to lose than gain from these debates and it would be in her interest for viewership to be as low as possible. That way, the fallout of any stumble would be minimal.
Though party leadership has refused to comment, it has escaped no one's attention that while Republican debates take place on weeknights, Democratic ones have been all on weekends. The most recent one was on a Sunday in the middle of a long weekend, right after a big American football playoff game. It's one thing to organise a football watch party on a weekend night, but only the truly hardcore political junkie would stay in on a Saturday night to watch a debate.
One other major factor in Mrs Clinton's favour is her curriculum vitae. The 2008 Obama-Clinton fight did not feature such a lopsided qualification gap. Eight years ago, both of them had time in the Senate on their CVs. This time around, Mrs Clinton can add Secretary of State to that list. While qualifications may not count for all that much in these contests, concerns over national security could make a difference.
In 2008, a war-weary public wanted to see US troops pulled out of Iraq and the predominant issue was the economic crisis. Today, there is growing concern the US is not being assertive enough overseas in dealing with terror threats in the Middle East. Polls show that terrorism - and not the economy - is now the top issue with voters.
While Mrs Clinton can (and often does) trot out her record dealing with such issues, Mr Sanders is an unproven quantity who has run a campaign nearly entirely focused on domestic issues.
Now while anything still can and will happen in this campaign - brash businessman Donald Trump continues to defy all predictions for the Republicans - a repeat of 2008 seems extremely unlikely. It would take a scandal of epic proportions or a severe health issue for her campaign to be derailed now, however well Mr Sanders does in Iowa and New Hampshire.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2016, with the headline 'Sanders or not, Clinton's the firm favourite'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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