In it, but not of it. TPM DC

When Should Clinton Start To Panic About The Sanders Insurgency?

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AP Photo / Patrick Semansky

Even Clinton fundraiser and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) admits he's taken calls from donors and union leaders over the last few weeks who are watching Clinton and getting a little nervous.

"I am preaching significant calmness," he said.

It isn't time for the Clinton campaign to sound the alarm. At least not yet.

Here is why.

Iowa and New Hampshire were always slated to be steeper climbs for Clinton than the primary map that followed. For one, New Hampshire borders Sanders' home state of Vermont where the Democratic socialist is beloved with an 83 percent approval rating. Both Iowa and New Hampshire are far whiter and less representative of the national electorate than later states like South Carolina or Georgia where Clinton is expected to mobilize African American voters.

As David Wasserman wrote in the Cook Political Report last week, "98 percent of pledged Democratic delegates will come from states with lower shares of liberal whites than Iowa and New Hampshire." That is a big problem for Sanders who has yet to prove he can expand his base.

There is no mistaking that a loss in Iowa or New Hampshire, or both would be a major blow to Clinton's campaign and boost Sanders's momentum and fundraising. Yet, political observers agree that it would not be the end for Clinton. To actually transform early wins into long-term success, Sanders would have to significantly up his game.

"He has to be able to crack the aura of inevitability," says Tony Corrado, a political science professor at Colby College and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "If he wins New Hampshire and Iowa, he will be in a position now to be able to compete until the middle of March. The key is going to come down to places like Texas, Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Illinois and probably North Carolina and Ohio."

Yet, even then, delegate allocation is proportional, which means that Sanders would have to begin winning by major margins to make the race a serious contest.

Wasserman estimates that according to his models, Sanders would "need to win 70 percent of Iowa's delegates and 63 percent of New Hampshire's delegates" to even "be on track" to stay competitive with Clinton in later states where demographically speaking, Clinton has shown she has more support. And in a states like Florida and South Carolina, Clinton leads in recent polls by 36 points and 19 points, respectively.

"It is not merely the delegate process that favors Hillary, it is the voters. She has earned the loyalty and support of communities of color, women, the LGBTQ community, environmentalists, and other vital parts of the Democratic coalition," says Democratic strategist Paul Begala, a Clinton supporter. "Bernie's coalition - so far - is more narrow. It is impressive in its energy and its passion, but it is, I think, more narrow."

If Sanders starts winning by huge margins in New Hampshire or Iowa, then Clinton's campaign will have plenty to worry about. But short of that, Clinton's next big test will come on March 1 –Super Tuesday– where most observers are predicting Clinton will have a solid command of Southern states like Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia. If she doesn't manage to secure solid victories there or if Sanders begins to perform well in states like Minnesota, Massachusetts or Colorado that day, Clinton could be in trouble. After that, the mid-March contests in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio will show just where voters' hearts are in states that will be key in the general election.

But, Sanders will have his own battles to wage. Corrado says Sanders will have to translate victories in New Hampshire and Iowa into success in states like Colorado, Minnesota and Massachusetts where white liberals are a major part of the voting block. And, similarly to Clinton, Sanders would have to show he's viable in Ohio and Florida, states that can make or break the Democratic nominee in the general election.

Sanders campaign spokesman Michael Briggs says he questions that math. He says it is clear that Clinton's campaign wouldn't be in the aggressive mode it is now if it was not worried about the Sanders challenge.

"There was a marked turn in her campaign," Briggs says of a shift he noticed days ago. "She began to have surrogates launch attacks on Bernie that were not based on the issues he has been happy to talk about with her and debate with her."

But primaries and caucus is just one piece of the delegate game. Clinton's firewall is the cadre of super delegates.

In the Democratic Party, Wasserman notes in his piece that 15 percent of total delegates come from super delegates. In November, Clinton already had a 45 to one super delegate advantage over Sanders, NPR reported. Out of the 712 super delegates–individuals who are part of the party's establishment including members of Congress and party officials– Sanders had earned the support of 8 super delegates. Clinton had the backing of 359, according to a survey from the Associated Press. While super delegates aren't locked in and are always subject to change (as was the case in 2008 when Clinton had a decisive lead over then-senator Obama's super delegate count and then lost support), Clinton has a decisive lead over Sanders just a week before Iowa. Even in 2008, NPR noted that Clinton had only a three to one advantage over Obama's super delegates and many still had not made up their minds.

Moreover, the kind of party officials and party establishment types who switched their allegiances from Clinton to Obama as the primary contest dragged in 2008 may be institutionally less likely to switch their support to a self-proclaimed Democratic socialist.

Sanders' spokesman Briggs says that he is confident that if Sanders begins taking ground in early states that Sanders will not have to worry about super delegates.

"Super delegates can change. They will go with the people," Briggs says.

Some party bigwigs have already been open about how Sanders at the top of the ticket would imperil Democrats' chances of holding the White House and could even damage Democrats' chances in down ballot races.

"You've got to win states like Missouri if you want to win the presidency. States like Indiana, states like Ohio, states like Pennsylvania. It is very hard I think for most Americans to see how socialism would cure the problems that we are facing right now," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), a Clinton supporter, told NBC News.

For Clinton, the nomination is far from a lock, but Sanders would need a lot more than big wins Iowa and New Hampshire to knock her off course.

About The Author

Lauren Fox is a reporter at Talking Points Memo.