Most Nomination Contests Have a Bernie Sanders, but They Don’t Win

It’s no secret Bernie Sanders is doing well. He’s giving speeches, over-filling venues, and raising money all across the country. More importantly, he’s gaining rather strikingly in the polls among Democrats in New Hampshire and Iowa. Yes, he’s still behind Hillary Clinton, but he’s narrowed that gap significantly in the last few months. Is this the time for those who called Clinton’s nomination inevitable to rethink their claims and start eating some crow?

No. No it isn’t. Here’s why.

Claims that Sanders is doing well are based almost entirely on his polling position, and we know from a great deal of research that early polling does a poor job predicting who will win a party’s presidential nomination. (In the spring of 2011, the poll leaders for the Republican contest were Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich, in that order.) What does a much better job predicting nomination winners is endorsements. Basically, the more endorsements a candidate has from officeholders and other key party insiders, the more likely he is to get the nomination, even if he stumbles in a few primaries and caucuses.

This Wikipedia entry may not be complete, but it gives one a sense of the endorsement derby thus far. Hillary Clinton has the backing of dozens of former and current U.S. Senators and Representatives, as well as a few governors, from all across the country. Bernie Sanders is backed by a number of state legislators, almost all of whom are from his home state of Vermont. Beyond that, a few radio personalities and celebrities (David Crosby! Mia Farrow!) have fallen in for Sanders, as have Ben & Jerry, but that’s kind of it.

This is actually what quite a few Democratic presidential nomination contests have looked like since the mid-20th century. Often, they come down to an idealist who is well loved among white liberals, campus intellectuals, and the media (think Adlai Stephenson in 1960, Gary Hart in 1984, Jerry Brown in 1992, Howard Dean in 2004, etc.) versus a pragmatist who party insiders think is more electable and who is at least tolerable to a broader array of interest groups (think Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, etc.). These contests usually end with the idealist winning a few contests but ultimately conceding to — and campaigning for — the pragmatist. This race is shaping up no differently.

This is one of the ways that 2008 was such a novelty. Yes, Barack Obama was playing the role of the idealist, but he also had substantial insider backing. It wasn’t just fawning college liberals backing him in 2006 and 2007 — he had the support of people like Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid. Ultimately, insiders were split between Obama and Clinton. This is not remotely the case for the Sanders-Clinton contest.

This doesn’t mean that Sanders can’t actually make a difference in this contest. He may well win a few important primaries and caucuses, and he may play an important role in the nominating convention next summer. But everything we know about the way presidential nominations work says that Hillary Clinton has a bigger advantage than anyone ever has who wasn’t an incumbent president.

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.