It’s a truism that general election polls in May don’t tell you much about an election in November. But if you see clear trends, they can tell you something about what’s happening in May. To bring you up to speed there’s a NBC/WSJ poll out this morning which shows Clinton ahead of Trump by 46% to 43%. There’s also an ABC/WaPo poll which shows Trump up by two points, 46% to 44%.
There are two clear things we can draw from these polls.
The first is that there’s a very real chance that Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States, a prospect which should genuinely scare people in a way that a conventional, even very conservative, Republican would not. The second is that Trump’s move into what is for now something like a dead heat is largely or perhaps entirely do to the fact that Republicans are consolidating around their nominee in advance of Democrats doing the same, something that seemed wildly improbable in March or even April.
Another way to look at this is that these results is that they should be deeply worrisome to you if you’re expecting that Hillary Clinton is going to win in a blow out in November. On the other hand, these numbers should be mildly encouraging if you recognize the powerful draw of partisan alignment (the fact that partisans of both parties, but especially Republicans, will fall in line behind almost anyone from their party) and the difficulties of either party winning a third presidential term in office.
The key is that even with what should be a momentary advantage (having Republicans unify while Democrats are still battling it out) Trump is still at best even and probably a couple points back. As long as Democrats can unify in the relatively near future, Hillary Clinton should get her own nudge forward in the polls, enough to give her a meaningful though not large advantage. As Philip Bump notes here, a whole party is currently running against Hillary Clinton. No one is yet running a campaign against Donald Trump.
Along those lines, there was some not terribly encouraging news overnight. Bernie Sanders endorsed Time Canova, the primary challenger to House member and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Wasserman Schultz has become the embodiment of the Sandersite belief that the Democratic establishment stacked the primary deck against Sanders. In truth, the DNC chair is not much more than a functionary who doesn’t control much. I’ve also made clear that I think the Sanders’ camp’s complaint that the contest was rigged is bogus. But that is clearly an article of faith on the Sanders’ side. And Wasserman Schultz is the embodiment of that.
To say there’s no love lost between these two would be an understatement. When asked, Sanders told Jake Tapper this morning: “Clearly, I favor her opponent. His views are much closer to mine than as to Wasserman Schultz’s. Let me also say this, in all due respect to the current chairperson: If [I am] elected president, she would not be reappointed chairwoman of the DNC.”
The Post’s Chris Cilliza says this is a ‘declaration of war’ against the Democratic establishment. But as critical as I’ve been of Sanders, this strikes me as rather an overstatement. First of all, a presidential nominee or president virtually always installs their own person at the head of the DNC. Second, Canova’s close to Sanders. Sanders appointed him to a panel to advise him Federal Reserve reform back in 2011. Canova has put himself firmly in the Sanders mold during his campaign.
It would be very surprising if Sanders didn’t favor Canova. Still, obviously, formally endorsing him at this moment is certainly a stick in Wasserman Schultz’s eye. No question. War on the establishment? Not really. War on Wasserman Schultz? Absolutely. Still, national Democrats have much MUCH bigger fish to fry than whether Wasserman Schultz is upset. If that ends up guiding her actions, she will be brought into line by others very quickly.
I see this as less a declaration of war on the Democratic establishment than Sanders’ belated recognition that he’s not losing but that he’s lost. There’s nothing to lose in sticking it to Wasserman Schultz as much as he can. If you haven’t already read them, read this post I wrote a few days ago based on TPM Reader emails from exactly eight years ago. Losing candidates go through a lot of tumultuous ups and downs, just as their supporters do, at this phase of a campaign. I think a lot of what Sanders is doing right now is ugly and dishonest. But the same went for Clinton at this point eight years ago.
This still comes down to whether Sanders does what he needs to do to wrap up his campaign (though not the movement he’s come to embody) and unify the party. If he does, I think it’s quite likely Clinton is the next President. People often jump in at this point (Sanders often does too) to say, “Well, Sanders can’t and won’t just snap his fingers and get his backers to fall in line behind Clinton!”
Sure, but that’s a silly straw man.
One of the revealing nuggets of information from the recent NYT/CBS poll was that 72% of Bernie supporters say they plan to vote for Clinton against Trump. That compares to 60% of Hillary supporters who said the same thing about Obama in the same poll eight years ago. As we know, virtually all of Hillary’s supporters went on to vote for Obama. (People are often not the best predictors of their own actions.) We should expect pretty much the same this year. Indeed, this poll says they’re already substantially further along in that direction. But of course the difference between 90% and 95% and 99% of Sanders supporters voting for Clinton makes all the difference in the world. And whether Sanders lines up unambiguously and strongly behind Clinton will be key for that pretty small – but still critical – number who could go either way.
At the moment, as TPM Sahil Kapur reported Friday, Sanders is quietly telling Senate colleagues that he will be behind Clinton and the Democrats in the fall even as he gives plenty of reason in public to doubt whether that’s what he’s going to do. As I noted in that emails post, Hillary seemed similarly contradictory at this point.
I suspect at the end of the day Sanders will do what Clinton did eight years ago – though I confess he’s really putting that prediction through its paces. If he does, Clinton is the very likely next president. If he doesn’t, well … that would be very unfortunate.