Polls

Is the Bernie Sanders Poll Surge Real?

Some reasons to be skeptical the Vermonter has what it takes to win the Democratic nomination

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Bernie Sanders
Phil Roeder / Flickr

As late as January 10, 2008—or almost exactly eight years ago—former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was beating Arizona Sen. John McCain in the RealClearPolitics Republican primary polling average. Four years later, the lead for the GOP nod changed hands five times between New Year's Day and early March.

What's my point? A lot can happen in the first few months of an election year. And a snapshot taken today may tell you nothing about the final outcome of a race.

In fact, things are changing fast in the 2016 race right now. Less than 20 days out from the Iowa caucuses (which are happening a month later, it should be noted, than in the previous two cycles) Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders appears to be closing the gap with Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

The RCP polling average went from giving the former secretary of state a 25-point lead on December 20 to giving her an eight-point lead today. And a new poll from Investors Business Daily has her up just four points nationwide.

At the state level, the news for Clinton is even more grim. The RCP Iowa average has the two Democratic hopefuls in a statistical tie and the RCP New Hampshire average has Sanders ahead by six. So the momentum definitely appears to be in the "democratic socialist" senator's favor.

Does this mean he's likely to actually win the nomination? I wouldn't go that far. As mentioned earlier, public polling this time of year is susceptible to violent swings. And the betting markets continue to see Clinton as the overwhelming favorite.

Part of what's going on here is that, believe it or not, a lot of Americans are only just starting to tune in to the election. In a mid-December CNN/ORC poll, more than half of Republicans and Republican leaners said they didn't even watch the marquee GOP debate held on the 15th of that month. And as I've noted before, Google searches for terms like "Republican primary" spiked in January of the last two presidential years as voters began to do their research.

Many Americans still know very little about some of the major candidates. An online YouGov poll taken the first week of this month found that nearly one in five Americans weren't sure if they had a favorable or an unfavorable view of Bernie Sanders. On the Republican side, 28 percent didn't know what they thought of Carly Fiorina and ditto for Rand Paul.

So voters have a lot to learn. They'll do this by watching the upcoming debates and reading the news—but also by tracking how the various candidates do in the early primary states and by passively absorbing the barrage of campaign ads that are starting in earnest only now. Over the next eight weeks, many of them will change their minds, perhaps repeatedly, about who they believe is best-suited to lead the country.

The polls will do their best to wring from people meaningful data about how the election will turn out. But that's not as simple as it might sound.

(Editor's note: Check back tomorrow morning for a deep dive from the February issue on why polling is so gosh-darn hard to do well these days.)

One of the major challenges pollsters face is predicting which of the people they interview will actually turn out to cast a ballot. Not guessing right can very easily lead you to the wrong conclusion, a new report from Pew Research Center has found.

The outfit interviewed registered voters before the 2014 midterms, asking whether they planned to vote for the Republican or the Democratic candidate for House of Representatives. In September, Pew's researchers found 42 percent going for Democrats compared to 38 percent going for Republicans. But come November, Republicans garnered 51 percent to Democrats' 46 percent.

What happened? According to the study, the missed pre-election call was not the result of people changing their minds—it was a result of more Democrats choosing to stay home on Election Day than Republicans:

Fully 73% of pre-election registered voters who supported a Republican candidate in the pre-election survey ultimately turned out to vote on Election Day, based on verified vote from the voter file. By comparison, only 61% of registered voters who supported a Democratic candidate were verified to have voted.

All of which is a long way of saying that, yes, Bernie Sanders is doing well in the polls at the moment. But if a lot of the people who say they support you don't show up to actually vote, those strong polling numbers mean very little.

Turnout matters, and it's not yet clear whether the largely grassroots Sanders campaign can compete with the Clinton machine at getting warm bodies to their polling places. On that, only time will tell.

NEXT: Politico Makes Strong Case for Rand Paul To Be on Main Stage at GOP Debate

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  1. Without reading the actual article, I’ll just say that, yes, there’s a chance Sanders might lose the nomination.

    1. Woah, now. Let’s not go too far out on that limb. You’re telling me people sometimes don’t read the articles?

      1. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I come here for the same reason I come to Playboy: the articles.

        On a related note, Trevor Noah lampooned Bernie last night, and the butthurt comments of the Berned are so deliciously entertaining, I read them with whip cream.

  2. You know, you could just start reading tea leaves or roll the bones or read the entrails of a goat or something, because that’s just as effective as polls, and far more entertaining to boot.

    No Tarot, though. That’s just way too goth-y.

      1. Burglekutt, you’re troll dung!

    1. “Internet commenter Episiarch admits he reads goat entrails to predict who will win the Democratic nomination.”

      1. Sometimes he reads the entrails and he just laughs and laughs.

        I wondered about that, so i got myself trained as a haruspex and gave it a try. It turns out goat entrails are all just completely packed with reprints of ‘Cathy’ comics.

        1. So…basically haggis?

  3. At Bernie’s age, this is the fastest he’s gone up without chemical assistance.

    1. Boom! goes the dynamite!!

  4. You know Bernie’s strongest base of support? Young people – and he does even better with young women than young men.

    Hey, you know who doesn’t vote? Young women. If his support is among people under 35 and a huge percentage of them are women, he’s in trouble because that’s a demographic that doesn’t show up on election day.

    1. Not if there’s a shoe sale on the same day…

      is what sexist would say.

    2. I think Democrats genuinely like Bernie, and that probably helps when it comes time to show up at the polls.

      Hillary’s support comes from people who think she’s more likely to win in the general election.

      They’re not voting for her. They’re voting against the Republicans.

      But in the primaries, there isn’t a Republican to vote against. I think she has trouble getting people to take a different way home from work so they vote for her on primary day. Bernie’s support actually likes him.

      1. I agree; nobody votes ‘for’ Hillary Clinton; they vote their interest if it aligns with her pablum/shtick – but as soon as a better messenger of said pablum/shtick shows up, and looks viable, they ditch Hillary.

        Given this is same way Bill and Hillary have treated everyone they’ve encountered along their gilded path, it is poetic justice.

        1. “Given this is same way Bill and Hillary have treated everyone they’ve encountered along their gilded path, it is poetic justice.”

          Whatever else happens, seeing Hillary Clinton rejected again would be sweet!

        2. “I think she has trouble getting people to take a different way home from work so they vote for her on primary day.”

          Making people think you’re so important that they’ll actually take a different way home from work to vote for you–this is how our emperors are chosen.

        3. nobody votes ‘for’ Hillary Clinton

          Oh, come on. Thinking about HRC as President makes me queasy, but there are plenty of people who love her blindly and unconditionally (about the only way you can).

    3. he does even better with young women than young men

      And here I never thought I’d have something in common with ol’ Bernie.

  5. One of the reasons to be pessimistic is that we’ve seen Hillary fail before.

    She’s going after the same Democratic primary voter market she went after before–and last time they rejected her.

    You might think Mitt Romney would be less likely to win the nomination than other Republicans, but at least he demonstrated that he was capable of putting together a primary coalition sufficient to win the nomination. Hillary doesn’t even have that to her credit.

    Has anything fundamentally changed about Hillary since the last time Democrat primary voters rejected her?

    No!

    The only thing different now is her competition. She doesn’t have to to run against that Kenyan lion lyin’ Kenyan. Now she has to run against an affable old guy that people genuinely like. Any affection people feel for Hillary is completely manufactured by her campaign. She’s like cozying up with a lizard. No one genuinely likes her. Democrats just like her better than Trump or anyone else that rolls out of the Republican clown car.

    They actually like Bernie. Obama won by playing as the underdog against her, too.

    1. Yeah, but Obama and his supporters were indignant when people called him a socialist.

      Because he thought avowed socialism was political poison for a national candidate.

      And I hope that’s true.

      1. Oh, and the large number of big donors to Obama’s campaign.

        How many capitalist running-dogs are donating to Bernie?

        (I don’t actually want to know)

        1. How many capitalist running-dogs are donating to Bernie?

          Ben & Jerry’s are all for Bernie, so he has Big Ice Cream locked up. I would also imagine Silicon Valley unicorns and the Elon Musk public-VC corporate crowd are all-in for Bernie.

          1. There’s too many ice-cream flavors out there.

            Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry are good enough for the workers, the rest is just capitalist decadence.

            1. Vanilla beans are a foreign import, so vanilla will have to be tariffed into unaffordability. Ditto cocoa. Strawberries are grown domestically, but they’re often picked by immigrant workers who are thereby taking jobs away from all these unemployed American BAs, so obviously the labor costs will have to increase, in the name of fairness, until only apparatchiks can afford berries.

              Hope you proles like milk-flavored ice cream!

      2. “Obama and his supporters were indignant when people called him a socialist.

        Because he thought avowed socialism was political poison for a national candidate.”

        Obama ran from day one with an eye toward swing voters.

        He horsetraded with Hillary (gave her the Secretary of State job) to drop out of the primaries–so he could stop competing for support from hardcore Democrats and start pitching himself to swing voters in the center.

        Like I said, I think Hillary is the default candidate. If there’s no one better to vote for, they’ll vote for her. But that’s a weak ass mandate.

        “Well, if there’s nothing else to order, I guess I’ll have the vanilla ice cream.”

        *sigh*

        1. “Well, if there’s nothing else to order, I guess I’ll have the vanilla ice cream.”

          *sigh*

          “Well, if there’s nothing else to order, I guess I’ll have the vanilla ice cream. shit sandwich”

          FTFY

      3. It was, but the danger of having an economic downturn or collapse in the next ten months (which is looking like a thing now) is that people will go into try-anything mode. Expecting the voters to understand that debt and spending and interest rate manipulation is the cause of the economic malaise is asking too much, and if the lefties can somehow manage to polish the turd that is Bernie Sanders, they could take the White House.

        That last part being the most difficult, as Trump and Cruz are both much better or in Trump’s case more overwhelming debaters who’re better suited to the big stage. Sanders has the same kind of back bench crazy uncle feel that Ron Paul did, and that’s not what voters buy into in general elections.

        What a shit show.

    2. “One of the reasons to be optimistic is that we’ve seen Hillary fail before.”

      FTFY.

    3. Uh you know Romney failed before too right?

    4. “You might think Mitt Romney would be less likely to win the nomination than other Republicans, but at least he demonstrated that he was capable of putting together a primary coalition sufficient to win the nomination. Hillary doesn’t even have that to her credit.”

      Clinton still benefits from her family name. She’s a hit among the Latino crowd. A lot of blacks famously considered Bill Clinton to be the first black president. I honestly think Sanders will get wiped out in states in which whites aren’t a comfortable majority.

      Brand will usually beat principles. Romney already made a name for himself with Romneycare and came in second or third in his tango with Mccain. He left enough impression on the minds of GOP voters that he could win.

  6. I’ll file this with your prediction back in July in an article entitled “Trump leading in the polls. He still won’t get the nomination.”

    https://reason.com/blog/2015/07…..-polls-hes

    1. joe tried to participate in this poll, but he was too short to reach the phone, and missed the call. He’s understandably upset.

      1. Are we sure that’s joe?

        joe was smarter than this.

        1. No, he really wasn’t (isn’t).

    2. He still hasn’t gotten the nomination, so what’s your point?

      1. That I am filing with that earlier prediction.

        1. …so what’s your point?

          1. See what I mean about the smarts?

            1. joe wouldn’t stumble over that.

          2. joe doesn’t have actual points. He only has talking points. And a custom miniature RealDoll that he had specially made for himself. He calls it “Hillary”.

          3. That I fled the two Skade predictions together.

            1. *filed

            2. *slade.

              Yikes.

            3. So what, though?

              1. Just an observation.

    3. Jackand,

      Question: why are you voting for Clinton?

      1. Yes! TROLLFIGHT!

        1. Simple question. Geesch, not everything around here need be such a bitch-fest.

          1. It’s an improvement. No one cursed at you.

      2. I am voting for Clinton?

        1. I didn’t know. I thought you were.

          1. Not in the primary.

            1. Feel the bern. I will vote for Trogdor.

    4. Why file it with that article? Yes, that article could reasonably be called a prediction, but this one isn’t. If you read it you’ll see that. It is merely suggesting that polls indicating a surge of support for Sanders may not mean much.

      If anything, I’d say a suggestion that political polls are overrated as predictors is like saying that water’s wet.

      1. Fair enough.

  7. Amazing – companies don’t like paying higher taxes, so GE is leaving Connecticut.

    http://www.4-traders.com/GENER…..-21685092/

    1. Ummm…. they’re talking about moving to Boston. I wouldn’t be so quick to presume what a masochist might think of getting kicked in the nuts.

      1. They probably did their due diligence, and being GE, they realized they’d get more in regulatory privileges and tax payer kickbacks than it would cost them in compliance and tax burden.

        1. That, little to no relocation payments to employees, and – GE is run by East Coast liberals, they aren’t going to relocate someplace with yucky rednecks like Texas.

  8. So voters have a lot to learn. They’ll do this by watching the upcoming debates

    Actually, since Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has hidden the Democratic debates so no one sees them, they probably won’t be watching.

    1. What are you talking about? The next debate is on the Sunday night of a three day holiday weekend. I’m sure that will pull big numbers.

    2. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz thinks these people will be unappealing to the American voter. Let that sink in for a moment.

      1. And she would know from being unappealing!

  9. I’ve said here a number of times that a lot of Republicans, if you press them on principle, will eventually admit that the libertarians are right. The Sanders phenomenon is kind of similar. A very large portion of Democrats believe that democratic socialism is, ultimately, right. What Clinton’s got going for her is that she is what is “practical”.

    Now, consider, how do the Republicans vote when there’s a libertarian in the race?

    Hillary will be the Democratic nominee.

    1. This. Sanders is an amusing kook. Doesn’t matter if the Dems ‘like’ him, they’re going with the ‘strong horse’.

    2. One thing she won’t be is asked to be VP on the ticket. Nobody wants to be one bullet away from her being President.

  10. “Turnout matters, and it’s not yet clear whether the largely grassroots Sanders campaign can compete with the Clinton machine at getting warm bodies to their polling places.”

    “Who said anything about *warm* bodies?” /Cook County Democratic Party

  11. So I added a XKCD Substitutions add-on to my browser that substitutes a bunch of political words on every page I visit. This one was especially enjoyable, so I wanted to share:

    “Fully 73% of pre-eating contest registered voters who supported a Republican airbender in the pre-eating contest survey ultimately turned out to vote on Eating contest Day, based on verified vote from the voter file. By comparison, only 61% of registered voters who supported a Democratic airbender were verified to have voted.”

    Yup.

  12. Hey Stephanie, remember you said not to be concerned about Trump and you cited how bettors didn’t favor him? And you cited Election Betting Odds website?

    Well, Bettors there now think Trump will win. He is the favorite, according to Stossels site.

    Uh oh.

  13. Imagine ; If Bernie reverted back to an Independent candidate. After all it is obvious that the Democratic Machine is Not going to
    nominate him. about 43 % of voters lean independent.’ I do.
    when is he going to switch. ?

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