Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) is gaining momentum as a Democratic presidential rival to Hillary Clinton. But he’s no threat just yet.
On Monday, The New York Times reported that Clinton staffers are becoming increasingly concerned that the Vermont senator is a serious threat to Clinton’s campaign.
They point to his rising poll numbers and his large event turnouts — according to The Washington Post, Sanders drew 7,500 at a Maine event on Monday, a week after drawing a 10,000-person crowd in Wisconsin.
But Sanders’ first problem is that, as political strategists and analysts told Business Insider, his candidacy at this point is more resembling that of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) in 2004 than Barack Obama in 2008.
His momentum is concentrated in the first two early-voting states, Iowa and New Hampshire. The general consensus among many left-leaning strategists and pollsters is that Sanders is best suited to win in those two states, where there are a sizeable portion of white, liberal voters.
“Sanders is certainly doing a lot better in Iowa and New Hampshire where voters are playing close attention than he is anywhere else,” Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, told Business Insider.
“I don’t think that [Clinton campaign strategists] think that Sanders is going to win the nomination, but they probably take it seriously that he could win a state or two early,” added John Hagner, a campaign strategist at Clarity Campaign Labs.
Hagner, a veteran of the former Democratic National Committee chairman Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign team in New Hampshire, pointed to similarities between Sanders and Dean’s momentous starts — and not just the fact that they’re both from Vermont.
Hagner noted that Dean’s team also garnered lots of liberal enthusiasm early on, raising millions in small donations from passionate primary voters. And he said Dean wasn’t the only upstart to mount a challenge in New Hampshire. Former Vice President Al Gore almost lost the state to former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-New Jersey) in 2000.
“The similarities [between Dean and Sanders] is in the fan base and in the intensity. And there really are, particularly in New Hampshire, a lot of very progressive voters who enjoy uncertain candidates,” Hagner said.
Analysts also told Business Insider that Sanders is benefiting from the disproportionate share of white voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Though he’s tried to outflank Clinton to the left on a number of issues like income inequality and taxes, Sanders has been less decidedly liberal on topics like immigration reform and gun control.
In 2007, he voted against an immigration-reform package in the Senate, teaming up with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to add restrictive amendments to the bill. Many Latino lawmakers don’t believe that Sanders has immigration reform at the top of his agenda in the same way that Clinton does.
“It is not his priority,” Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Office, told CNN last month. “I think that is one of the challenges his campaign is going to have to confront.”
Sanders also hasn’t made many inroads with African-American voters. Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, told Business Insider that most recent polls put the former Secretary of State’s support among African-American voters at around 70-80%.
“If Sanders wins Iowa or New Hampshire it will build a lot of momentum for him that will help in the states that follow, but he’s still going to struggle in places like South Carolina with large black populations and Nevada with large Hispanic populations unless he improves his appeal to nonwhite voters,” Jensen said.
Hagner said that if the Clinton campaign becomes legitimately nervous, they may start putting issues in the spotlight that historically resonate with black and Hispanic voters.
“Immigration and gun rights are going to be problems for him. If you start to see stories pop up that have some finger prints, we’ll know they’re taking it seriously,” Hagner said.
For its part, the Clinton campaign could also see the benefit in a strengthened Sanders.
Republicans have repeatedly slammed national Democrats for running a campaign that much more resembles an incumbent’s. Clinton has long sought to avoid looking like she’s taking her party’s nomination for granted.
And campaigns always like to lower expectations in the early-voting states. And every candidate wants to be able to claim momentum, regardless of the reality on the ground.
Said Bill Burton, a former top adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign: “Hillary Clinton tried out inevitability as a message, and it was not successful.”
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