The latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg survey of the Democratic presidential terrain in Iowa contains some bad news for former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- and some really bad news.
The bad news is that her once commanding lead over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Hawkeye State has shriveled, from seven percentage points last month to just two points now –which is less than the highly-regarded survey’s 4 point margin of error. Clinton leads Sanders heading into the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, 42 percent to 40 percent, with former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley bringing up the rear with 4 percent.
The really bad news is that Clinton’s decline in a state she lost to Barack Obama in 2008 has less to do with Sanders surging than many early Clinton supporters having second thoughts about whether to stand by her or shift allegiance to Sanders, the self-styled democratic socialist who has captivated liberal audiences with his relentless attacks on Wall Street and the “billionaire class.”
The big shift has been in the number of likely Democratic caucus-goers who say they are undecided or intend to stand up for “uncommitted,” according to the poll. A month ago, 8 percent of Democrats said they were uncommitted, but now it’s 14 percent. It is part of a remarkable nationwide slide in Clinton’s popularity from her heyday early last year, with Sanders now running virtually neck and neck with her in Iowa, slightly ahead of her in New Hampshire, and just 7 points behind her in the latest national polling.
David P. Redlawsk, a Rutgers University political science professor who is closely monitoring the campaign on the ground in Iowa, said in an interview that it’s not that surprising that many Democrats automatically supported Clinton when she was the unquestioned front-runner, but now are having second thoughts in the face of Sanders’ surging campaign.
“A number of Democrats who defaulted to Clinton now are saying that ‘I need to take a closer look,’” Redlawsk said. “I read this as partly a natural progression for a front-runner like Clinton. But that doesn’t mean she should be complacent at all. Folks may come back to her – but they may not.”
Clinton’s campaign organization in Iowa is much larger and more sophisticated than what it was when she made her first bid for the Democratic nomination in 2008, and she has spent far more time there conducting “listening tours” and issue-oriented campaign events. Moreover, her supporters tend to be older Democrats who are more likely to show up at the caucuses than some of the younger voters who are enthralled by Sanders.
In a bid to woo her party’s more liberal base, she has sought to match Sanders’ proposals for helping the middle class, reining in runaway prescription drug costs, easing families’ burden of college tuition costs and loans, and targeting wealthy Americans for higher taxes – while for the most part offering more moderate plans.
Clinton and Sanders are both viewed favorably by nearly 90 percent of Iowa Democrats, according to the new poll, and 57 percent say they are more concerned about the candidate’s stands on the issue than their leadership skills – which may work slightly more to Sanders’ advantage than Clinton’s.
Yet Clinton’s campaign for more than a year has been dogged by controversies, including her handling of email while serving as secretary of state, the terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, and more recently Republican Donald Trump’s attack on her as an “enabler” to her husband Bill’s sexual misdeeds while he was president.
The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll suggests that Democrats are most concerned about the “values” of the candidates and confidence in their ability to change the way the government works for the better. Iowa Democrats view the economy, civil rights and closing the huge income gap between the rich and poor as the most important issues.
An earlier survey of Iowa Democrats this month by Quinnipiac University that showed Sanders overtaking Clinton in Iowa, 49 percent to 44 percent, indicated that Sanders overwhelmingly leads Clinton on most character traits, including honesty and trustworthiness, and caring about voters’ needs and problems.
At the same time, most think that Clinton has the right experience to be president and has a better chance of beating Donald Trump or whoever else wins the Republican nomination in the general election.
“The reality is we have always anticipated this would be a close race,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former Democratic Iowa governor and a supporter of Clinton’s, told MSNBC on Thursday. “Hillary is doing all the right things, and at the end of the day it comes down to organization” and getting out the vote.
Still, there are many intangibles that could impact the outcome of the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, including the reaction of rank and file Democrats to the tone maintained by Clinton and Sanders in the final crucial weeks.
For much of the campaign, Clinton and Sanders rarely directly criticized one another. More recently, Clinton has used TV interviews, campaign events and the most recent debate to go after Sanders on a range of issues, including guns and health care, as the Vermont senator continues to surge in the polls. She has repeatedly questioned his commitment to sensible gun control laws and standing up to the gun lobby, citing his 2005 vote in the House to grant immunity to gun manufacturers.
And she has criticized Sanders for putting forward a raft of unrealistic or highly costly proposals, including a single-payer government healthcare plan that would assure all Americans of Medicare-style coverage and free tuition for all students attending publicly supported colleges and universities.
Even Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, went after Sanders during her first campaign appearance for her mother, charging that Sanders wants to “dismantle” the Affordable Care Act, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicare and private insurance, according to The Washington Post.
In stepping up her attacks, Hillary Clinton runs the risk of appearing shrill or desperate – something that would work to the advantage of Sanders. Others argue that Clinton may have waited too long to step up her attacks in order to draw sharper distinctions between Sanders and herself.
Vilsack said today that many Iowans are “skeptical” of many of Sanders’ grand proposals and want to know more about how he will pay for them. Redlawsk, the Rutgers professor, agreed that Clinton may end up getting some mileage out of her attacks on Sanders.
“I’m one who thinks that negativity is valuable in making important distinctions,” he said.