Unless you have been living under a rock for the past month the formerly sleepy Democratic Primary has begun to heat up. Clinton’s commanding lead in Iowa has evaporated according to several polls and Sander’s advantage in New Hampshire has begun to diminish. Yet, I find myself skeptical of both claims. Hear me out.
For months Clinton has been able to maintain a large edge in Iowa. Her lead has been built on massive margins among moderates and a slight lead among liberals. The new NBC/WSJ poll finding out of Iowa shows her only with a 47-44 percent edge over the Vermont Senator. Even when all caucus goers are included her lead is only six points.
One could point out that Sanders has seen a surge of support if individual donations and fundraising are any indication. But, even when Clinton was being dogged by allegations of mishandling classified information (and she still is), her lead in Iowa remained formidable. Only now her lead is shrinking? That is hard to believe.
It is also hard to believe that Sanders edge in New Hampshire has shrunk to a mere 4 points and six points when the pool of likely voters is expanded. New Hampshire has a more active liberal base than Iowa and is home to many voters familiar with the next-door Senator.
The NBC/WSJ survey is not the only poll to find these results. A poll by American Research Group (ARG) found Sanders ahead by 3 percent, 47-44, in Iowa. In addition, it found Sanders with an identical, small lead in New Hampshire. More ominously for the Clinton camp, a national survey conducted by IBD found Clinton with a small 43-39 lead nationally. Things sure are tightening nationally aren’t they?
I would argue not so fast. First, the polls usually tighten as voting nears. This occurs because candidates tend to consolidate their bases. Unlike the GOP contest, the Democratic primary really only has two candidates (functioning much like a general election contest). Clinton’s lead in Iowa could never remain at the commanding 20 percent level she previously held but for her to lose it this suddenly in essentially a two-way race would be even more surprising than 2008.
Secondly, this casts doubts on polls, but polls have shown a remark tendency to cluster around each other. This is not to say they purposely obscure their numbers but their results tend to mirror each other. This phenomena was on full display in the 2014 midterms. In numerous contests ranging from Wisconsin to Iowa to big leads for incumbents the polls tended to mirror each other. Short of local polls in Wisconsin and Iowa they were also badly off.
Further complicating polling accuracy this go-around is the fact that on the GOP side Trump’s lead is built on attracting non-Caucus goers in Iowa and primary voters in New Hampshire. Sander’s numbers in Iowa are built on the same except he has a stronger following among Independents. General elections get higher turnout meaning likely voter screens are more accurate than in intra-party contests.
Lastly, polling in the last week is not a good long-term snapshot of where the race stands. It was inevitable the polls would tighten but by so much is questionable. In the end I still expect a single digit victory for Clinton in Iowa and a similar victory for Sanders in New Hampshire. After that the map just does not favor Sanders. Short of a Clinton indictment or the bottom dropping out of her campaign she is likely to be the flawed, Democratic nominee for President.