Democratic candidates for president flew to the Twin Cities last week to make their pitches to members of the Democratic National Committee. They did not come to debate—a missed opportunity highlighted by Martin O’Malley in a fiery speech decrying the DNC’s constricted debate schedule—but to sell themselves to the men and women who devote their waking hours to figuring out how to elect Democrats.
For Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner and a veteran of DNC gatherings going back to the 1970s, the point of the visit was to reinforce traditional understandings of electability.
For Bernie Sanders, a longtime independent who has emerged as Clinton’s most serious challenger for the party’s 2016 nod, the point was to expand the understanding of who is and who might be electable.
Clinton spoke a language that DNC members know well, focusing ably on broad themes that are familiar to Democrats and on the electoral mechanics that are a source of fascination for members of the party’s national committee. She promised “to help Democrats win up and down the ticket—not just the presidential campaign.” She declared, correctly, that “It’s time to rebuild our party from the ground up.” And she tipped her hat to the popular notion that the party needs to get back to the 50-state strategy of former DNC chair Howard Dean. “We have to compete everywhere,” announced Clinton, to loud applause, which continued as she declared, “We’re building something that will last long after next November.”
Sanders spoke a language that DNC members are learning in a turbulent campaign season that has already produced a fair share of surprises; offering a mixture of progressive-populist agenda and political tough love. The senator from Vermont held nothing back when he spoke to the committee members—and to a crowd of Minnesota grassroots activists that had packed into the ballroom to cheer him on. “My friends, the Republican Party did not win the midterm election in November: We lost that election,” Sanders declared. “We lost because voter turnout was abysmally, embarrassingly low, and millions of working people, young people and people of color gave up on politics as usual and they stayed home. That’s a fact.”
“In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate or the US House, will not be successful in dozens of governor races across the country, unless we generate excitement and momentum and produce a huge voter turnout,” said Sanders, who added, “With all due respect—and I do not mean to insult anyone here—that turnout, that enthusiasm, will not happen with politics as usual. The people of our country understand that given the collapse of the American middle class, and given the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality we are experiencing, we do not need more establishment politics or establishment economics.”
No one expected the DNC members, many of whom have already endorsed Clinton, to immediately embrace that message as it was delivered Friday. But it is reasonable to expect that Sanders got a good many of them thinking—and that fresh poll numbers will have them thinking even more. Not the poll numbers that show Sanders beating Clinton in the first-primary state of New Hampshire and catching up with her in the first-caucus state of Iowa that have created so much buzz. But, rather, the poll numbers that suggest Sanders could beat front-running Republicans.
“I think that it’s fair to say that few took our campaign seriously [when he announced his candidacy in the spring]. But a lot has changed in these last few months,” argued Sanders, who noted the crowds at his campaign rallies, the fact that his campaign has attracted more than 400,000 donations, and the sense that the economic and social justice issues he has focused on will be central to the November 2016 race.
“If there is a large voter turnout, Democrats will do well. If there is a small voter turnout, Republicans do well,” explained Sanders. “I think you’re looking at the candidate who can substantially increase voter turnout all across the country.”
That was a direct appeal to the political instincts of party leaders.
DNC members are not without ideology. There are genuine progressives among their number, and there are genuine centrists. There are a few populists, and there are quite a few fundraisers who are disinclined to offend CEOs. But the most strongly held view of members of the both the Democratic and Republican national committees is that electability matters. They get excited about contenders who can win the presidency.
When candidates appear at DNC events, they are of course seeking to make a impression on the committee members. That went double for Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee, all of whom made their way to the Twin Cities for last week’s summer session of the DNC—“our last meeting before the 2016 Democratic National Convention,” explained party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. (Former Virginia senator Jim Webb, an announced candidate, did not make it to the meeting; nor did Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering entering the competition.)
In their DNC speeches, the contenders reworked their standard stump speeches, keeping applause lines and adding in references to past wins and political proficiencies—Chafee noted that the Democratic contenders have a combined 92 years of experience in electoral office—and whatever else might make a committee member see that combination of skill and passion and strategy that says “electable.”
Appeals to gut instincts matter.
But so, too, do references to polls.
When DNC members weigh the issue of electability, the polling data that draw the most attention do not anticipate caucuses and primaries. They anticipate November 2016 matchups with Republicans.
So what do these data say?
Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders can point to surveys that show them running ahead of top Republicans.
Biden beats Republican Donald Trump 48-40 in a new Quinnipiac survey that was released just before the DNC session. He beats Republican Jeb Bush 45-39. And he beats Republican Marco Rubio 44-41.
Clinton beats Trump 45-41. She beats Bush 42-40. And she beats Rubio 44-43.
Sanders beats Trump 44-41. He beats Bush 43-39. And he essentially ties Rubio, with the Florida senator at 41 and the Vermont senator at 40.
Sanders, as an insurgent candidate who proposes “a political revolution,” also beat Trump and Bush in polls conducted earlier in the summer by CNN/Opinion Research and the Public Policy Polling group. But the new polling figures are notable, as they suggest that the senator from Vermont is attracting a comparable level of support with other top Democratic prospects; in fact, in the Quinnipiac survey, he beats Bush by four points, while Clinton beats the former Florida governor by two points.
Polling is rarely definitional. But it is often instructive. The key is to recognize emerging trends and patterns. Sanders did that when—after acknowledging that few gave him much of a chance just a few months ago—he combined his talk of grassroots movements and turnout with references to November, 2016, numbers.
“We are defeating in one-to-one match-ups a number of Republicans, and that’s with a lot of people not knowing who I am,” said Sanders, as he explained the new math of 2016. “If the question is, ‘Can we defeat the Republicans?’ I think the answer is that, yes, we can.”