The results of the latest USA Today/Suffolk University poll were released yesterday, and the data “underscores the serious challenges” the likely presidential nominees face “to heal divisions within their own parties.” While these divisions are already widely recognized in Republican politics, it was the Democratic numbers that stood out.
Among Democrats, USA Today reported, “four in 10 supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders say they aren’t sure they would vote for Clinton.” David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, added:
Don’t laugh – 13% of Sanders voters say they will vote for Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton. If Trump were to lose the nomination, 19% of Sanders voters would choose Cruz over Clinton; and if John Kasich were the nominee, 23% of Sanders voters would vote for the Ohio governor over the former secretary of State.
At first blush, this seems extremely hard to believe. Why would supporters of an apologetic liberal want to reward a radicalized Republican Party with control of the White House – on purpose? One in five Sanders supporters are comfortable with the idea of electing President Ted Cruz? Is this some sort of typo?
I don’t think the poll is necessarily wrong, at least insofar as it reflects public attitudes of the moment, but the political world should probably take a deep breath before looking at these results as necessarily predictive.
Let’s take a brief stroll down memory lane.
In the 2008 race for the Democratic nomination – which, to my mind, was uglier, nastier, and more contentious than the Clinton-vs.-Sanders match-up – animosity ran deep between Barack Obama’s supporters and Hillary Clinton’s. I mean, deep.
One of the most memorable exit polls I’ve ever seen came out eight years ago next week, when half – half! – of Clinton’s supporters in Indiana said they wouldn’t vote for Obama in a general election. A stunning one-third of Clinton-backing Hoosiers said at the time that if given a choice between Obama and John McCain, they’d back the far-right Arizonan.
And yet, six months later, these vows were little more than a distant memory. Obama actually carried Indiana that year – he was the only Democratic presidential candidate to win Indiana in more than four decades – and while we can’t say with certainty how many former Clinton supporters ended up backing McCain, it’s safe to say given the results that the total was tiny.
This is but one example of many. In late March 2008, Gallup released a report that said, “The data suggest that the continuing and sometimes fractious Democratic nomination fight could have a negative impact for the Democratic Party in next November’s election. A not insignificant percentage of both Obama and Clinton supporters currently say they would vote for McCain if he ends up running against the candidate they do not support.”
This was especially true of Clinton backers, 28% of whom said at the time they’d rather elect McCain than Obama.
That animosity, which was no doubt sincere at the time, faded. It always does. It’s likely to again.
I recently argued, in reference to the Republican presidential race, that the question itself is coming at the least informative time. Asking partisans, loyal to their preferred candidate, about their willingness to support a rival right now is like asking siblings to talk about their love for one another in the middle of a heated family argument – it may be true, but it’s not foremost on their minds at the moment.
I’ve seen some suggestions that 2016 might be a little different, since Sanders’ ties to Democratic politics are more tenuous, but the independent senator has nevertheless made clear – more than once – in recent days that he intends to do everything within his power to prevent a right-wing takeover of the White House, and there’s no reason to question his commitment.
This isn’t to say a sizable number of Sanders’ supporters are lying to pollsters. Rather, the point is those voters, unlikely to betray their own principles and priorities, are probably going to feel differently seven months now.
The polls aren’t irrelevant, but they need to be taken with a grain of salt.