The most recent polls out of Iowa show that Hillary Clinton has a small lead over Bernie Sanders just days before Monday’s caucuses, averaging 2.5 percentage points in recent polls. But because of the way the Democratic caucuses work, the Vermont senator may be closer to an upset than the polls show.
Under the system in place in Iowa, caucus-goers declare a preference, but that’s only the first step. Once voters’ initial preferences are stated, any candidate that fails to win at least 15 percent of the vote is declared non-viable, and his supporters are asked to reallocate themselves to their second choice.
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is polling at between 4 and 5 percent in the state recently, which suggests that in many if not most caucuses his candidacy will be declared non-viable.
A poll released by Public Policy Polling on Friday afternoon suggests that the reallocation process would result in Sanders gaining substantially more new votes than Clinton. In the survey, 57 percent of O’Malley supporters said they would favor Sanders, over only 27 percent who said they want Clinton. The numbers have been moving in Sanders’ direction, too. The last time PPP asked that question, Sanders’ net advantage was 23 percent as opposed to today’s 30 percent.
Sanders trails Clinton badly among registered Democrats, 53-36, but he holds a huge 62-23 advantage over her among independents. It’s long been known that Sanders will have to attract a large number of independents to the polls on Monday; an added wrinkle is that they will have to change their voter registration to Democratic on the spot to support him.
“We’ve found Hillary Clinton leading in Iowa by 6-8 points on our last two polls,” said Dean Debnam, President of Public Policy Polling in a press release. “Bernie Sanders will likely make up some ground from Martin O’Malley voters moving toward him. To pull [off] the upset he will need large numbers of voters who aren’t currently registered Democrats to show up on his behalf Monday night.”
The poll found that Clinton supporters are the most committed of the Democratic electorate, with 88 percent firmly committed to her and reporting that they are unlikely to change their minds. Among Sanders supporters, 74 percent said the same.