It was supposed to be a certainty. It was supposed to be inevitable that Hillary Clinton would win the Democratic nomination for the 2016 presidential elections. But then again, that was what was predicted in 2008 – and that didn’t end as expected.
In anticipation of President Barack Obama leaving office next year, many political observers and commentators consider it an inevitability that Hillary Clinton will receive the Democratic Party nomination. As a former Secretary of State under President Obama, Clinton is certainly well-respected. In national polls she leads against all her opponents by over 22 points. But, as with Obama in 2008, there has been an unexpected surprise. That surprise comes in the form of Bernie Sanders. Sanders, a veteran senator and self-described democratic socialist, has been steadily gaining on Clinton in recent months. That, combined with a number of controversial issues, has dogged Clinton’s campaign.
To be clear, Clinton still leads significantly in national polling. Her policies focus on raising workers’ wages and reducing the wage gap between men and women, as well as reform to college funding, involving changes to debt payments and more investment from state governments. A supporter of LGBT rights, she also proposes a more liberal policy on immigration, with a simple path to citizenship. As a former Secretary of State, Hillary has excellent knowledge of foreign affairs, and had a particularly close relationship with the UK during her tenure. So, we can assume “special relationship” would be safe under her leadership. Clinton also has an advantage in terms of party machinery, which she has been organising since her departure from government in 2013. Having established funding in the form of various Political Action Committees, and “Super PACs (these are explained in more detail here), Hillary is certainly the best funded candidate in the Democratic race.
Despite all this Clinton’s campaign has been hampered by controversy. The most prominent issue is the email scandal. It emerged recently that Clinton had used a private email account to exchange potentially sensitive information, which has been described by some as a national security concern. Perhaps as a result of this controversy, a survey of potential voters by CNN found that 57% considered her “untrustworthy”. Clinton has also been attacked, particularly by Republicans, for her alleged involvement in security lapses at a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. In 2012, an attack on said compound by Islamist militants led to the death of the US Ambassador to Libya, John Christopher Stevens. Clinton has since apologised for the email controversy, but her initially mixed responses led to her being portrayed as arrogant by many US news outlets.
This controversy comes along with an unexpected disturbance in the Democratic camp: the emergence of Bernie Sanders. Sanders is the longest serving independent Senator in US history, and the fact that he describes himself as a democratic socialist (a term usually considered a slur in the US) makes his recent success all the more astonishing. Sanders has been challenging Clinton in certain key states; in particular, he has been leading polls in New Hampshire. This is key since New Hampshire is traditionally the first state to hold their election in the Primary season, and can be considered a test of the candidate’s popularity. Sanders has been attracting increasingly large crowds at rallies in various states. In Los Angeles on 11 August, approximately 27,500 people attended one of his meetings. These crowds are double the size of those greeting Hillary Clinton. Sanders has also refused to make use of Super PACs, instead focusing on creating a grassroots network of supporters and donors. The effectiveness of this approach was demonstrated on 30 September when Sanders’ campaign crossed the threshold of one million individual contributions to his campaign. This is the fastest that a Presidential hopeful has reached this benchmark in US political history.
Sanders’ campaign focuses on the middle class. Major issues include reducing wealth inequality with measures to increase the minimum wage, increasing corporation tax and investing more in infrastructure projects. He is also a strong proponent of racial justice (being present at the March on Washington all the way back in 1963), women’s rights and environmental protection. But it’s not simply policy that has seen support for Sanders skyrocket. Bernie Sanders, in a manner perhaps similar to Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, is seen to represent a foil to the mainstream. The North America editor for the BBC, Jon Sopel, describes him as the “no filter candidate”. In a presidential race which many assumed would be dominated by the political dynasties (the Bushes and Clintons) Bernie Sanders may well represent the alternative that many Democrats yearn for.
His record isn’t perfect of course. His voting history on gun control is rather spotty, and he still has a major challenge in widening his appeal to other demographics in the party. But in terms of polling numbers, Bernie Sanders is catching up on Hillary Clinton every day. With his established grassroots network and massive crowds, it seems Sanders may just have a chance of beating Clinton in the Primary Elections. Will he be the tortoise to her hare? We’ll have to wait and see.
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