The overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination is no longer the overwhelming favorite in New Hampshire polls.
A new Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald survey has Bernie Sanders leading Hillary Clinton in the Granite State, 44 percent to 37 percent. Joe Biden, who is still teasing another White House run, comes in third place with 9 percent. Meanwhile, no one in the rest of the declared Democratic field—Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee—garnered more than 1 percent support.
Sanders’ lead is his first in a New Hampshire poll this year, though his 7-point advantage is narrowly within the poll’s margin of error—the third major survey in a row that found no statistically significant difference in support between the self-styled democratic socialist and the Democratic establishment favorite. These polls, then, tell us little about who’s currently up in New Hampshire—but plenty about how tight of a race it has become there. Three months ago Clinton led Sanders by an average of nearly 50 points in the state. After the latest poll, Hillary’s lead now stands at 3.2 points, according to RealClearPolitics’ rolling state average.
As a popular senator from neighboring Vermont, Sanders has the advantage of playing on quasi–home field in New Hampshire. If he was ever going to mount a strong early challenge to Hillary, the Granite State was always going to the place. Still, Bernie-mania isn’t confined to New England. Sanders is proving to be the biggest draw on the campaign trail this summer by far. According to the Washington Post’s unofficial tally, he’s drawn estimated crowds of 11,000 in Phoenix, 15,000 in Seattle, and more than 27,000 in both Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles in recent weeks. Those Portland and L.A. crowds are roughly five times the number that have shown up for any single Clinton event this year. (Sanders is choosing larger venues than Clinton, but in many cases he’s filling them to capacity and beyond.) Bernie’s remarkable drawing power has yet to translate into a major bump in national polls, but it should result in a significant boost to his small-donation–centric fundraising.
This enthusiasm gap can also be seen in the new New Hampshire poll. Only 35 percent of respondents said they were excited about Clinton, as opposed to 44 percent who said the same thing about Sanders. A big reason for that 10-point difference appears to be what voters are hearing from the candidates on the stump: Nearly 7 in 10 Bernie supporters said their chief reason for backing him was because they agreed with him on the issues; fewer than 3 in 10 said the same thing about Hillary.
Still, Clinton’s camp can take solace in the fact that New Hampshire Democrats might not love her, but she’s likeable enough. Eighty percent of respondents in the FPU poll said they had a “favorable” view of her. Meanwhile, of the 56 percent of Democrats who said they weren’t excited about her candidacy, more than half said they could still see themselves supporting her anyway. For Clinton, that’s probably enough to continue on the same safe path she’s been on—particularly when you factor in her massive advantages in fundraising, endorsements, and campaign infrastructure.
A surprise Sanders victory six months from now in the nation’s first primary would obviously undercut the narrative that Hillary’s nomination is inevitable and cause plenty of panic in Clinton-land. But while the early nominating contests are important for upstart campaigns that need to stay relevant, they tend to be much less important for establishment favorites. Mitt Romney lost two of the first three 2012 GOP contests, and nine other states, yet his march to the Republican nomination, while unsteady, was never really uncertain.