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Who’s Spoiling Now? The Sanders Polling Anomaly

The good news for Bernie Sanders is to be found in what the pollsters actually demonstrate to be true about his electability.

Last week, the highly trusted Quinnipiac University National Poll (“Q-Poll”) delivered good news and bad news for Bernie Sanders.

The unpromising lead is: Sanders polls 30% behind Clinton.

This news might be best explained by the Democrats’ even more lopsided answer to the big “electability” question. Unfortunately for Sanders, the Q-Poll shows that 38% more Democrats think Clinton “would have a good chance of defeating the Republican nominee” than would Sanders (87% to 49%).

Whose Electability?

The good news for Sanders is to be found in what the pollsters actually demonstrate to be true about his electability. The conventional opinion of Democrats is proven to be wrong by evidence from the direct match-ups of each of the two Democrats against each of the four Republican contenders who have more than single digit support. The Q-Poll findings: “Sanders does just as well [as Clinton against Rubio], or even better, against [the other] top Republicans [Trump, Carson,and Cruz].” Against each of the latter three, Sanders’ winning margin exceeds Clinton’s by 2%, 3% and 5% respectively.

It thus appears that Democratic voters are not just misinformed, but grossly misinformed, about whether Clinton or Sanders would do better against Republicans. Comparing the margin of support among Democrats for Clinton over Sanders (30%) with the even larger 38% margin of polled Democrats who erroneously rank Clinton as a more electable candidate than Sanders suggests the possibility that their grossly erroneous belief may well account for much of their lopsided preference for Clinton.

Maybe not all Clinton supporters are using electability as their main criterion for preferring her in opinion polls. After all, someone may have genuine enthusiasm for her. But it would be useful for these grossly misled Democrats when casting their primary votes over the next several months to consider the reason why Sanders’ outperforms Clinton against Republicans. They should remember that it is independent voters, not party loyalists, who generally determine the outcome of typically close general elections. Some current polling shows Clinton finishing only within the margin of error in Republican matchups. If Democrats really want to risk losing the 2016 election to a Republican they should by all means choose a candidate that Independents reject. The Q-Poll shows Clinton is just the right candidate for that job.

Other good polling news for Sanders of late is one showing him solidly ahead of Clinton in his neighboring state of New Hampshire, along with historic high favorability ratings there. This could communicate to other Americans that Sanders’ neighbors, who know him best, like Bernie exceptionally well. But this good news is balanced by a recent poll showing Sanders as far behind in Iowa as he is in the rest of the country. Winning Iowa, not New Hampshire, is key to shifting Sanders’ momentum before super Tuesday. The good flip side of that bad news is explained by the NYT pollmeister Nate Cohn, that these numbers do not fairly account for Bernie’s large lead among Independents.

The purpose of this article is not to attempt a meta-analysis of all available polls, some with smaller samples which may be inconsistent or not directly comparable with the independent academic-based Q-poll. The purpose is rather to extract useful meaning about electability and the key role Independents from the detailed data of a single broad-ranging and historically reliable poll which is based on a statistically large sample, and is clearly no outlier.

Whose Centrist?

Theoretically, in a democratic two party system the more centrist Democrat should normally appeal most to independents. But many Clinton supporters may have missed the memo from the Democrats’ only living former president they can trust, Jimmy Carter. “America has no functioning democracy at this moment.” The US has become a full-fledged plutocracy due to the line of usually 5-4 “money is speech” decisions culminating most notoriously in the Roberts Court travesties, Citizens United (2010) and McCutcheon (2014). Therefore the conventional wisdom about how democracies normally operate does not hold true for the open election of 2016.

For those Democrats concerned about electability to still hew to the more centrist candidate is misguided for two reasons.

First, a centrist position in a plutocracy is centrist not because it is supported by a majority of voters distributed around the bulge of the bell curve but rather because it falls within the overlapping domain of those policy concerns for which politicians are paid to give bipartisan service to plutocrats. This “plutocratic center” to which Clinton sticks like a magnet defines the safe position that will not be undermined by unanswerable quantities of paid bipartisan propaganda, and either attacks or deliberate neglect by a plutocratic mass media.

Unlike Clinton, Sanders’ policy positions are not centrist in the plutocratic sense. But they are virtually all majoritarian positions with voters, scaling the top of that bell curve far above Clinton’s which are mired in debt to her special interest investors. Sanders is challenging the systemically corrupt politics where majority opinion does not matter because there is usually no alternative to plutocracy on offer. Many of Sanders’ proposals, like financial, tax and campaign reform, are supported by large bipartisan majorities. Clinton has created a dubitable montage of Sanders’ positions modified so as to be unthreatening to plutocrats.

Independent voters who decide elections are bell curve centrists, not plutocratic centrists, provided Sanders can continue to get his issue-driven message out to them.

Second, Sanders’ principal campaign message is about political inequality and the economic inequality that it causes. He is promising to fight the very special interests who are Clinton’s campaign contributors the only way possible, with an electoral revolution. Large majorities regularly report their desire to change the corrupt system in which the Clinton family has prospered. The 84% of all Americans who complained recently to pollsters that “money has too much influence” in campaigns included the same portion of Independents holding that view. Independents are at least as critical as partisans about political corruption, with 59% possessing the basic practical understanding about US plutocracy that, most of the time, politicians “promote policies that directly help the people and groups who donated money to their campaigns.” Fewer partisan Democrats, only 53%, share this view of a government for sale where both parties are essentially corrupt on most issues.

One reason increasing numbers of voters identify as Independent is their disgust with the systemic political corruption managed by the two parties. Sanders is the only person offering them a credible alternative.

Independents’ Day

For these two reasons it is no surprise that the Quinnipiac poll shows that more Independents think Sanders shares their values compared to Clinton by 47-33%; more Independents think Sanders authentic, compared to Clinton, and really “cares about the needs and problems of people like” them by 59-40%; and vastly (38%) more Independents, 64% compared to 26% for Clinton – and even a further corroborating margin of Republicans, 39% to 7% – think Sanders “is honest and trustworthy,” compared to Clinton.

The only important issue in the 2016 campaign is which candidate can honestly be trusted to act effectively to start rescuing our former democracy from the deadening grip of the corruption on all levels of government that, in myriad ways, is driving economic inequality to record levels. No important policy opposed by plutocrats, like any measure that might slow the current upward redistribution of wealth to them, can be accomplished until that happens. Nor can any of the increasingly dysfunctional policies they support be stopped until private money is eliminated from politics by systemic reform.

Independents by a large margin apparently believe Sanders has the integrity to keep his campaign promise to fight plutocracy, and will level with them while doing so.

These comparative ratings of Sanders and Clinton help explain why only 38% of Independents have an overall favorable opinion of Clinton while 56% have an unfavorable opinion of her. (Only 5% have no opinion, leaving virtually no room for improvement in her negative numbers without an unlikely change of fairly hardened perceptions of her.) It is almost impossible for a Democrat to win an election with an 18% net unfavorability rating among Independents. Independents are now the plurality “party” at 43% of the electorate, compared to Democrats at 30%.

By stark contrast, Sanders exactly reverses Clinton’s Independent deficit by scoring an 18% positive favorability margin among Independents (47%-29%). Since 24% of Independents still “haven’t … heard enough about him” to form an opinion, Sanders would, in a general election, almost certainly enlarge significantly upon his already-sufficient margin. That increase would likely take off about the time that he gains national attention by winning the New Hampshire primary, provided he first does well in Iowa. These Independents could be the key factor in achieving the mandate-conferring landslide that Sanders and the country need to accomplish his electoral “revolution” against plutocracy.

Sanders is the Independents’ favorite candidate irrespective of party affiliation. You could say that Sanders, a lifelong Independent, is the leader of the Independents’ “party” whose day has come. Clinton, as an icon of the Democratic Party, is the Independents’ least favorite candidate, aside from Trump and Bush who narrowly pass her in that race to the bottom for different reasons. In head-to-head polling of Independents Sanders, far more comfortably than Clinton, beats every Republican candidate, with statistically significant margins from 16% over Trump to 7% over Carson, who is the second favorite candidate of Independents. Using the terminology leveled by revanchist Democrats against the Green Party after the 2000 election, one could say that in 2016 it is the Democrats themselves who threaten to be the “spoilers.” Democrats have an opportunity for an epochal victory by making a strategic alliance with the larger plurality “party” of Independents. Or they can risk defeat by insisting on their own “donor-driven” candidate, who effectively represents a plutocratic demographic little different in size from Green voters.

This 36% favorability advantage with Independents that Sanders has over Clinton defines the actual margin by which Sanders is more likely to win a general election than Clinton. Both candidates can be assumed to attract roughly the same number of Democrats in the general election, according to Q-poll. Therefore the 36% spread provides a more reliable number than partisan pre-primary preferences. And it is clearly more reliable than the Democrat’s current totally mistaken guesstimate about who they think is their more electable candidate.

It is a number that many Democrats need to study and learn at risk of helping to elect a Republican in 2016, if they should insist on nominating Clinton.

Experienced Leader vs. Honest Authenticity

The Quinnipiac poll also identifies other questionable beliefs of Democrats who support Clinton which also affect electability calculations.

The most startling difference between Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters is that, by 81%-6%, more Clinton supporters think the “right experience” and, by 70%-24%, that being a “strong leader,” is an important attribute for a presidential candidate in this election. Lower ratios of Clinton supporters compared to Sanders voters think attributes like values, authentic caring, and honesty are important.

It seems to be irrelevant to her supporters that Clinton’s attributed advantage on experience and leadership neglects the reality that Sanders has far more actual experience in more government offices than Clinton; that he has won countless elections compared to Clinton’s two practically uncontested dynastic coronations as Senator from the safe Democratic seat of New York; and that he was a successful mayor compared to Clinton’s total lack of elected executive experience. By all accounts, which could be a factor in the general election, Clinton was an unsuccessful Secretary of State – her only “leadership” job to date where she led primarily in frequent flying, aside from leading the healthcare reform effort to hopeless defeat during the “feculent decade” of the corrupt Clinton presidency.

Fact-checking these perceived differences is important for assessing the comparative risk of unanticipated weaknesses of the candidates in the general election that could arise after the nomination. As a highly seasoned campaigner, Sanders is unlikely to make major mistakes. Given the number and frequency of his numerous election contests it is unlikely that Sanders has any skeletons left in a closet somewhere to surprise the Party after it is too late to change horses. Clinton has major corruption scandals percolating just beneath the current agenda of the mass media. And unlike Clinton, Sanders certainly has no unpredictable spousal issues likely to erupt all over his campaign without warning. As a Sanders supporter put it, “Bernie lacks the baggage that Clinton has been dragging around with her.”

The only real outstanding campaign issues facing Sanders is whether he will be able to persuade the still uncommitted Elizabeth Warren to join his ticket, and whether the media will begin to tell the truth about his being significantly more electable than Clinton due to his appeal to Independents. Well, there is that other emerging question about Sanders’ lack of a precise credible strategy for getting money out politics, or as one prominent writer put it that he has “no idea what really needs to be done” about plutocracy. But that is a question for another day. (See forthcoming The Amendment Diversion: How Clinton, the Democrats, and Even Sanders Distract Attention from Effective Strategies for Too Much Money in Politics by Promoting Futile Remedies).

The Obama Factor

There is a traditional theory that presidential voters are always correcting for the perceived faults of the current incumbent. In Clinton’s case this might be compounded by a dash of buyer’s remorse as Obama’s promise went unredeemed. Under this theory, the emphasis of Clinton supporters on experience and leadership suggests that Clinton’s supporters are precisely those who not only misjudge Sanders’ strength but also wrongly attribute Obama’s “poor” performance to weakness and inexperience. If they had a different view of Obama, they might have a different view of the importance of weak leadership and inexperience compared to honesty, values, and authenticity.

There is no conceivable reason to believe that Clinton will fulfill any campaign promises about reforming the corrupt plutocracy any more than Obama did when he violated his campaign promises in order to instead, in 2014, cleverly lead Democrats to vastly multiply the scope for political corruption to historic levels in Washington while at the same time refuse to make simple executive branch reforms. The reason politicians are particularly reviled as dishonest in this era is the widening difference between what they must promise to appeal to voters and what they must do to appeal to money. Clinton occupies the very same position on this spectrum as Obama did. Better leadership or experience will not lead to a different result. But Democrats take a different view.

The leading progressive public intellectual of our times, who is both a recovered Obama supporter and a current Sanders endorser, Professor Cornel West, disagrees with the conventional Democratic analysis of Obama. West describes Obama as a “counterfeit.” who “posed as if he was a kind of Lincoln.” Far from being weak and inexperienced, Obama turned out to be like the consummate political operator, Bill Clinton. “Another neoliberal opportunist,” or more colorfully a “mascot of the Wall Street oligarchs” and a “puppet of corporate plutocrats” whose greatest rewards, like Bill Clinton’s, lie ahead of him.

Pursuing this theory of Obama’s importance a step further, it is possible that the Democratic nomination could be determined, at least in part, by whether the informed historical judgment of Professor West, and others, about Obama prevails during the primary season over the Democratic apologists’ cover story about a supposedly “well-intentioned but hapless” president.

This question is still under serious discussion.

For example, an organization tied to Larry Lessig, which has therefore helped him waste millions of donated dollars on a series of “unhelpful” and downright “absurd” strategies, has surprisingly issued an incomplete but still useful report revealing Obama as a highly effective fraud, not an ineffective idealist. For one narrow subset of piecemeal money in politics reforms, mainly focused on “dark money,” this report catalogs many of Obama’s litany of broken promises, reversals, buck passing, empty rhetoric, and appointments to agencies of functionaries for whom use of existing executive authority for anti-corruption purposes was “not a priority” that his campaign promises said that it would be. The report refrains from use of the word “lie,” but clearly demonstrates that Obama’s pretense of blaming Republicans for his own failures is a deliberate and effective evasion of his own direct responsibility for the worsening of the problem of money in politics on Obama’s watch.

This pattern is not just limited to the issue of money in politics. Another example of recent interest, an example which was also wrongly mentioned by the head of a Lessig organization to flatteringly contrast this supposed single “dark money” betrayal described in the report with Obama’s otherwise “principled” and “bold executive action” on other issues, is Keystone XL. Obama very publicly vetoed an element of Keystone XL with great fanfare, heralded as an epoch victory by the various professional activists who have been working and raising money in that non-profit silo.

What did not get the fanfare was that the tar sands Pipeline was already largely built under Obama’s unpublicized executive orders, and was already operative when he announced his veto of an inessential component of the pipeline. An expert on the issue reports that “gamblers in this casino we call the oil and gas industry have already largely won this fight, even as activists have declared what Obama nixed to be a major victory.” While this is just one more example of Obama deception that confirms West’s verdict of Obama, and what Glen Ford has called “the more effective evil,” it is also an example of another feature of contemporary politics: how professional activists peddle misinformation for money by pretending they won some soundbite campaign when they actually lost. What the pipeline expert refers to as “the folklore version” of Obama’s actions, has “bad news being PR-pitched as good news.” The folklore version tends to serve Obama’s interests in appearing again to have the right intentions at the very moment that the mass media is focused on the issue of climate change. Obama’s actual conduct will only be shown to be ineffective when the folklorists are forced to either admit that tar sands oil is reaching the Gulf Coast right now at record levels through existing pipelines, or move on to their next fundraising project with a collective “never mind.”

The essentially dishonest hyping of Obama’s symbolic pipeline action helps provide political cover for “a president who has allowed more domestic drilling and more pipelines to be laid and permitted across the United States than perhaps any other in U.S. history and certainly in modern U.S. history.” Obama knows that essentially corrupt professional activists will help him tout this as a significant “victory” for climate change so that they can provide more juice for their fundraising pitches. Concludes the expert, “it’s cynicism at its finest.”

It would be wrong to blame this cynicism on some hidden rare character flaw in Obama. Actually, he excels at the quality of Machiavellian genius that is required to succeed, especially on the Democratic side of this systemically corrupt plutocracy that he manages so well, as did Bill Clinton before him. Appealing to voters who are demanding a set of policies which are the opposite of what plutocrats have paid him to do requires genius for deception.

Obama’s genius actually seems to present the most extreme case of outright campaign fraud since Woodrow Wilson, who like Obama covered bad deeds with a veneer of progressive intentions. What one historian writes of Wilson, who was also elevated quickly, with even less political experience, in an equally plutocratic era, exactly describes Obama: “Wilson was very adroit in conveying the sense of empathy for ideals while holding off from adopting the methods that would be required to implement the objectives.” If, as a result of our experience with Obama, honesty and authenticity is seen as the main issue in 2016, as it should be, then Sanders wins. As a decisive number of Independents apparently believe and West tells us, “only Bernie has authenticity and integrity.”

Let’s hope that West and others can persuade enough primary voters of both Sanders’ qualities, and perhaps more importantly of Obama’s lack of the same. Otherwise “spoiler Democrats” may throw the general election to Republicans by nominating – in a year characterized by populist demand for authenticity – another “donor-driven” centrist who, like Obama, “posed as a progressive and turned out to be a counterfeit.” As another writer agrees “Nominating an establishment candidate during this profoundly populist moment could prove to be a very risky “safe” bet.”

Clinton lacks even a credible covering legend to absolve Democrats who are about to be fooled again. She is a Clinton, not an obscure former community organizer who could fool even Cornel West.

The Q-poll shows that Sanders presents these Democratic voters with the existential choice of attempting to at least start digging out of the corrupt plutocracy, or instead burrowing in even deeper with another Clinton. Playing it “safe” is not a defense this time for Democrats who would nominate another Republican-light who could well lose to a Republican-heavy if the decision will be whether Trump or Clinton is likely be the least corrupt.

Note: This article has been revised and expanded since the version that previously appeared on Counterpunch and NOC.

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