Nothing particularly noteworthy or race-altering had occurred during the Democratic primary race in the last months, yet during January, Bernie Sanders has suddenly gained polling steam the more closely the race moves to the Iowa caucus. It all started in the first week or so of the new year, when for the first time in four months, two polls showed Sanders with a lead in the crucial first state of the primary race.
The surge gained plenty of media attention, as the narrative in cable television and print journalism–mediums that typify “media”–decidedly proclaimed a contested Iowa caucus and Democratic primary race more broadly. The following five polls that showed leads for Hillary Clinton, and eight of the next 10, did not change much of this perception on the other hand.
On a related note, one should always consider the prism through which the political media views these political races. Namely, it is in its best business interest for the primaries on both party sides to stay as tightly contested as possible, as this drives awareness and interest from the public–thus manufacturing better ratings and more article clicks.
Yet as much as an overestimation of Sanders’s strength in the last weeks should be implied from this, the race does indeed seem to be tightening. Of course, much of the recent caucus race dynamics have grown from a self-fulfilling media prophecy: if more attention is given towards Sanders, then the salience of his candidacy rises in the minds of voters. A decline in media coverage would then likely coincide with a dip in his polling strength. (This trend–a linear correlation between media coverage of a candidate and the level of support in polls–became first apparent with Donald Trump).
Nevertheless, the Sanders campaign has renewed potential. Such recent trends bode especially well, as indicators of support become more predictive of eventual success the closer we get to the primary/caucus date. Sanders and Clinton have now split the last six poll leads, with Sanders possessing a lead in the seventh one out as well. Over the span of these last seven Iowa Caucus polls–which encompass results from the last week–Clinton has held a paltry .14 percentage point average lead over Sanders. Considerable variance has defined this aggregation, but this still reveals a very clear neck-and-neck race as we approach February 1st. Moreover, in the latest two polls, Sanders has grabbed a 3-4 percentage point lead.
However, a few crosstab-specific aspects of these last two polls in particular should temper Sanders’s supposed recent rise in strength.
A Quinnipiac Poll conducted from January 18th to 24th revealed a sharp divide between Sanders and Clinton support on the basis of previous caucus attendance.
Among first-time caucus goers, Sanders has the support of 72 percent of this group as opposed to the 26 percent for Clinton. On the other hand, 54 percent of previous caucus goers side with Clinton to the 38 percent with Sanders. Considering the consistently low turnout in Iowa caucuses in the past, and well-established and evidenced notion of previous participation in elections as a very strong predictor of future participation, this split benefits Hillary.
Results from a later question also showed that college degree holders far more greatly make up survey respondents who previously attended a caucus than for those going for the first time. Education signifies another powerful predictor of voter turnout; that previous caucus attendees, who already are more likely to support Clinton, have higher education lends further evidence towards better turnout potential for the establishment favorite. (The same dynamic and split can be observed for income, another key turnout predictor).
The second significant aspect of the Democratic primary race comes from an American Research Group survey that took place from the 21st to 24th of this month. Though the aspect I identify has less weight, it should still be considered.
While likely Democratic caucus-goer respondents overwhelmingly identify as Democrats, support from those with “no party” tilts towards Sanders, 55 to 36 percent–and even offers him a lead from the deadlock among Democratic identifiers. One should note, however, that voters can only participate in a party’s primary/caucus if they are registered with that party (but do have the opportunity to switch affiliations).
If some of Sanders’s support is coming from people without Democratic Party registration, then they must register with the party between now and the caucus date if they are to vote for Bernie. This could of course easily occur for some people, but most likely not fully across all his no-party supporters, and thus depressing his caucus strength a bit.
Both of these qualities of his support are surely not new developments, but their persistence could help explain part of the outcome next Monday.
At a broader and more technical level, the way the Iowa caucus operates is also less conducive towards Sanders’s potential success. One example that immediately stands out pertains to how if Martin O’Malley fails to reach the 15 percent threshold from participants in initial balloting, his supporters will be required to go to other contenders. All candidates and almost all politicians sit to the ideological right of Bernie; one can only presume that this O’Malley support will shift to Clinton after initial balloting takes place. His four percent HuffPost Pollster average may not seem like much, but in the context of an extremely close Iowa caucus, this provides another slight advantage to Clinton.