Two weeks before Iowans meet to caucus, Hillary Clinton’s once-indomitable presidential campaign is experiencing a gut-wrenching sense of déjà vu as an insurgent representing a more liberal wing of her party vaults higher in the polls. The differences between the two Clinton foils then and now could hardly be starker: Eight years ago, it was a young black senator promising hope and change. This time, it’s an old white guy from Vermont, who represents more of a throwback to ’70s radicalism.
But the reason Barack Obama did so well, and Bernie Sanders is doing so well, against the vaunted front-runner is the same: Voters, even those most engaged in the process, despise politicians. And there is no better example of a politician than Hillary Clinton.
Consider the way Democratic voters think about Clinton and Sanders. Democrats tend to say Clinton has experience and electability on her side, while Sanders scores higher on values and honesty.
Would you say ___ would have a good chance of defeating the Republican nominee?
Clinton 85% 11%
Sanders 64 24
Would you say ___ has the right kind of experience to be president?
Clinton 89% 10%
Sanders 74 17
Would you say ___ is honest and trustworthy?
Sanders 93% 3%
Clinton 66 29
Would you say ___ cares about the needs and problems of people like you?
Sanders 96% 1%
Clinton 76 21
Source: Quinnipiac poll of 492 likely Iowa Democratic caucusgoers, Jan. 5-10.
That suggests the Democratic contest is becoming a head vs. heart race: Clinton, the logical and safe choice, vs. Sanders, the passionate ideologue who scratches the right itches.
Both campaigns have embraced that construct in recent weeks. Sanders has offered ever more ambitious policy prescriptions, especially on health care, while Clinton warns against going too far. Clinton is treating Sanders like a real rival — belatedly, many on her team believe — and working to paint him as a typical flip-flopping politician.
Voters, too, appear to be breaking down along head vs. heart lines. That is to say, the older and more experienced voters are lining up behind Clinton, while younger voters back Sanders. The Quinnipiac poll, which found Sanders leading by a 49 percent to 44 percent margin, shows Clinton leading by 11 points among voters who have attended previous caucuses, while Sanders leads by 40 (!) among those who would attend their first caucuses this year.
A Des Moines Register Iowa poll shows Sanders leading by the widest margins in Black Hawk, Johnson and Story counties — home of the state’s three largest universities. Clinton leads elsewhere, in counties where college students don’t make up as much of the electorate.
The liberal embrace of Sanders is hardly unique in today’s politics. Look no farther than the Republican race, where ultimate outsiders Donald Trump and Ted Cruz dominate the field. Voters on both sides begin with the same presumption — that politics is broken, that someone outside the system can fix it — and are coming to vastly different conclusions.
(Sanders also has a bigger lead over Trump and the rest of the Republican field than Clinton does, more evidence that voters want something other than a typical politician.)
Clinton’s predicament is not nearly as bad as it was in 2008, when Obama’s campaign ran circles around her team in the long game. It’s also not as bad as the situation establishment Republicans face, given how many of them are still in the race, carving up the business-lane electorate in ever-smaller chunks.
But her team needs Democratic voters to think with their heads. In an era when both parties are evolving toward their extremes, that’s a difficult task to pull off.