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Sanders, Clinton make the same pitch on electability

Both of the top two Democrats say they're the most electable general-election candidate. Only one of them is correct.
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley at the first official Democratic candidates debate of the 2016 presidential campaign in Las Vegas, Oct. 13, 2015. (Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley at the first official Democratic candidates debate of the 2016 presidential campaign in Las Vegas, Oct. 13, 2015. 
With everything that's on the line in 2016, many voters are understandably interested in general-election "electability." In a competitive primary, why vote for a candidate who's all but certain to lose?
Among Democrats, the conventional wisdom says Hillary Clinton is her party's strongest general-election candidate -- a point she emphasizes regularly on the stump -- though as the Washington Post reported the other day, Bernie Sanders is, oddly enough, making the exact same pitch.

The new ad from Hillary Clinton warns Iowa's Democrats that only she can win a general election. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) begs to differ -- and so does his math. "My opponent says this is an important issue; she is the person who can win the general election," Sanders said at an American Legion hall [in Iowa], at an event that largely focused on the city's fast-growing Latino population. "I respectfully disagree. Look at which candidate is doing better against Donald Trump. Look at the last national poll and you find that Bernie Sanders is beating Donald Trump by 13 points, Hillary Clinton by seven points."

Sanders isn't just making these numbers up; there's real data to back up the thesis. Indeed, for months, the senator and his supporters have been able to point, accurately, to state and national polling that shows Sanders faring as well against Republican candidates -- and in many instances, better -- than Clinton.
In the latest NBC poll, Sanders did significantly better against the top GOP contenders in Iowa and New Hampshire.
For the Vermont Independent, who has traditionally downplayed the importance of polls, the data is important and compelling. The argument couldn't be any more straightforward: if you're concerned about winning in November, support the candidate in the primaries with the biggest general-election advantage.
There's just one problem: the pitch doesn't tell the whole story.
NBC News' First Read published a timely reminder yesterday about putting the polls in context.

"There was fresh evidence on Sunday that confirms Bernie Sanders would be the most electable Democratic Party nominee for president because he performs much better than Hillary Clinton," the [Sanders] campaign blasted out to reporters yesterday. But here is a legitimate question to ask: Outside of maybe New Hampshire (where Sanders enjoys a geographic advantage), are Sanders' general-election numbers fool's gold? When is the last time you've seen national Republicans issue even a press release on Sanders? [...] Bottom line: It's always instructive to take general-election polling with a grain of salt, especially 300 days before the general election. And that's particularly true for a candidate who hasn't actually gone through the same wringer the other candidates have.

It's not that the polls are wrong, so much as they're incomplete. Hillary Clinton has been a high-profile national figure for many years, and her public reputation has been shaped in part by attacks from Republicans who've hated her, on a professional level, for the better part of a quarter-century.
Sanders, in contrast, has never sought national office and never been subjected to the full weight of the GOP Attack Machine. Indeed, much of the public, which is not yet engaged in the presidential campaign, probably has very little idea who the senator is and what he believes.
And so the question for Democrats is not just which candidate has a poll advantage now, but also which candidate seems likely to withstand the onslaught of attacks that would inevitably come in the fall.
Sanders, who's been largely ignored by the right, obviously wants voters to believe he's that candidate. It's a speculative question; no one can say with certainty whether or not he's correct. As long as we're talking about polls, though, Gallup published a report over the summer that asked Americans, without mentioning any candidates' names, whether voters would be comfortable with different kinds of presidential candidates. For example, 93% of Americans said they're fine with voting for a Roman Catholic, and 92% of voters are on board with supporting a woman.
Further down the list, just 60% said they could vote for a Muslim, and atheists did a little worse, at 58%
Socialists, however, finished dead last at 47% -- the only group that finished below 50%.
If you're a Sanders backer, you might make the case that the senator's message is so compelling, he could change voters' minds about the dreaded "s" word. That may be true. But if there's a discussion underway about the general-election viability of national candidates, horse-race snapshots from early January only show us part of a bigger picture.