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Is Bernie Sanders really surging?

The Beltway is freaking out, but polls show a more fluid Democratic presidential race

January 21, 2016 2:00AM ET

The Democratic caucuses in Iowa are less than two weeks away. Time for the Washington media to panic.

Last week saw three major polls — by The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics, The Wall Street Journal/NBC News and The New York Times/CBS News — that showed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders closing the gap with former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In all three the former long shot Sanders, who describes himself as a socialist, came within the margin of error of Clinton’s numbers. The inconceivable was conceivable. Cue the freakout.

The Washington Post: “Clinton’s lead is evaporating, and anxious Democrats see 2008 all over again.” Vox: “Bernie Sanders is on the rise in Iowa — and it looks like he could win there.” The Atlantic: “What if Bernie Sanders is the Democrats’ best bet?” Washington Free Beacon: “MSNBC: ‘Panic time’ for Hillary Clinton and Democratic establishment.” And my favorite, from the Huffington Post: “Bernie Sanders is now the ‘inevitable’ Democratic nominee and presidential winner.”

What’s happening, and why?

A few points of caution are in order. First, while it’s true that Sanders is closing in on Clinton, that doesn’t mean her lead has suddenly evaporated. Clinton’s lead has been flat for some time because she is the Democratic front-runner. This is what happens to front-runners. Eventually, they stall.

Second, these polls can be shocking only to someone who never thought Sanders had the power to energize a populist Democratic base — in other words, someone who hasn’t been outside Washington much.

Third, these are individual polls. A better indicator is the average of all the polls. Journalist Nate Silver, who accurately predicted how all 50 states would vote in the 2012 presidential election, using polling averages, says there’s a 66 percent chance that Clinton will win the Iowa caucuses. That figure goes to 82 percent when he includes his signature forecast.

Another quality aggregator is RealClearPolitics. On Jan. 12, its averages showed Sanders and Clinton dead even, at 45.5 percent each. As of this writing, they are at 47 and 43, with Sanders sharply falling and Clinton sharply rising. The front-runner’s numbers naturally tend to stagnate, but her supporters will rally if it becomes clear that the underdog poses a real threat. And he does.

When Sanders proved capable of firing up an already populist Democratic base, he gave pundits a convenient narrative of an underdog coming out of nowhere to win.

Last week’s polls were good news for Sanders, but they may have jolted the Clinton campaign from its stupor. Given that her campaign has gone negative — preposterously accusing him of wanting to take away Americans’ health care — it’s clear she is not taking anything for granted.

Poll averages help clarify political reality. So does taking the statistical long view. Gallup has been measuring the net favorability of Sanders and Clinton among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents since August. The line for Sander starts low (28 percentage points) and ends higher (48 points). That’s what you’d expect from the underdog. The line for Clinton is very different. It starts high (56 points), goes higher (61), sags a bit in September and October (51), peaks in December (62) and ends about where she started (57). Again, that’s a pattern that you’d expect from the front-runner. Significantly, Clinton’s score has never dipped below 51 points. Sanders, on the other hand, has yet to top her low.

Pointing all this out is not the same thing as saying Clinton will win the Democratic nomination — or, for that matter, that Sanders will. It’s possible Clinton may fizzle. It’s possible that Sanders will catch on even more. So far, everything is going as one might expect.

But if nothing is out of the ordinary for the front-runner and the underdog, why did the Beltway media last week give the impression that everything had suddenly changed?

That’s easy. The media cannot tolerate a foregone conclusion. The narrative must change. Given Clinton’s titanic advantages — money, ground game, name recognition — the Democratic primary race once seemed entirely foregone. When Sanders proved capable of firing up an already populist Democratic base, he gave pundits a convenient narrative of an underdog coming out of nowhere to win.

As if serving as a corrective, a poll released Sunday by The Wall Street Journal/NBC News showed Clinton with a commanding lead nationally, 25 points ahead of Sanders.

Last week’s freakout had more to do with the media than politics. Expect more of the same in the coming months.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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