Bernie Sanders is gaining momentum in the states that will set the early tone for the 2016 presidential election. A new poll shows Vermont’s independent senator with the support of 30 percent of likely Iowa caucus participants, up 25 points since January, while support for Hillary Clinton, the presumptive frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, has dropped by a third since its high point in May. Clinton is now the first choice of 37 percent, according to the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll.
Sanders’ Iowa surge comes on the heels of two consecutive polls in New Hampshire that show him with a seven-point lead over Clinton. The Iowa caucuses kick off the United States’ 2016 election season Feb. 1; New Hampshire holds the nation’s first primary on Feb. 9.
For Clinton, the former Secretary of State, the latest survey marks the first time her support in polls has dropped below 50 percent and has campaign watchers recalling Clinton’s Iowa loss in 2008. Clinton, then a U.S. Senator from New York, entered the primaries as the strong favorite, only to place third in the Iowa caucus and eventually lose the nomination to Barack Obama.
The comparisons don’t end there. Like Obama in 2008, Sanders is attracting more first-time caucus goers — he leads among that group 43 percent to 31 percent — and young voters. Those under 45 favor Sanders by 23 points. He leads among independents by 21 points.
The August survey also shows a surge of attention for Vice President Joe Biden. Though he is not a declared candidate,14 percent of Iowans would choose Biden. If he chooses not to enter the race, the poll shows his supporters splitting roughly evenly between Clinton and Sanders. Even with Biden not in the running, Clinton fails to garner an absolute majority, according to the research.
The other high-profile declared candidates in the race — Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chaffee — all poll in the low single digits. Those numbers put them well under a so-called viability threshold, usually set at 15 percent. If attendees at individual Democratic caucus sites initially side with a candidate who falls below the viability threshold, those backers are required to regroup with a candidate still in the hunt or remain uncommitted.
The survey results also offer some insights into the reasons for Sanders’ appeal; those polled said they are actively drawn to Sanders and are not simply part of a backlash against Clinton. When asked why they back the Vermont senator, 96 percent said their support was mostly founded in an affinity with the candidate and his ideas. Only 2 percent said their choice of Sanders was primarily based on a dislike for Clinton.
Sanders also enjoys more intense support than his main rival, the poll showed. It found that 39 percent of likely caucus goers felt very favorably about Sanders; for Clinton, only 27 percent held a very favorable opinion.
The proportion of people who viewed Clinton negatively, 19 percent, was more than double that of Sanders, but researchers noted that Clinton’s negatives are far better than they were in the fall of 2007, when 30 percent of likely caucus participants held a poor impression of her.
In some ways, the trend among Democrats mirrors results seen in surveys of GOP voters. Likely Republican caucus goers still heavily favor Donald Trump, with Ben Carson, a doctor who has also never held political office, showing the biggest gains in recent weeks. While Sanders has been in public service for better than three decades, his campaign against government-as-usual echoes the dissatisfaction expressed by many Trump and Carson supporters.
When Iowa Democrats were asked about Trump, however, 85 percent said they held and unfavorable view, including 63 percent who gauged their impression as very unfavorable.
The Iowa Poll was conducted by phone with 404 registered Democrats from Aug. 23 to 26 for The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines. Totals have a maximum margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points at 95 percent confidence level.