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One Reason Hillary Clinton Might Underperform In The Early States

I wrote an article on Monday suggesting that because he’s polling so well nationally, Donald Trump could do worse in Iowa and New Hampshire than current polls of those states show. The same may be true, to a lesser extent, of Hillary Clinton. If national polls are a negative indicator, Clinton also has reason to worry; like Trump, she is in a better polling position nationally than in the two states with the first primary contests.

Clinton averaged a 25-percentage-point lead over Bernie Sanders in national polls over the past month. She’s up by 16 percentage points in Iowa over the past month and trails Sanders by 4 percentage points in New Hampshire. Knowing nothing but the national and state polling, my analysis suggests that Clinton would be expected to win Iowa by 11 percentage points and lose New Hampshire by 11 points.

It wouldn’t be that surprising if Sanders outperformed his current polling in Iowa or New Hampshire. The predictive margin of error for Iowa and New Hampshire polls at this point is high enough for Sanders to win. These states have a lot of white liberal voters who are more likely to support Sanders than minority voters are. Also, he continues to sport high favorable ratings in both Iowa and New Hampshire, which means that to win, he doesn’t need to convince people to like him, just to vote for him.

But there’s a reason I focused on the Republicans in Monday’s analysis. There is a key difference between Clinton’s position and Trump’s position: establishment support. My colleague Nate Silver and I continuously talk about how endorsements are predictive of primary results.1 Trump, of course, has no support from party officials, which historically has precluded candidates from winning the nomination. This lack of endorsements could exacerbate Trump’s relative polling weakness in the early states and hurt his chances of winning.

Clinton, on the other hand, has oodles of support from party officials, while Sanders has basically none. So while we have some reason to think Clinton will underperform her polling in Iowa and New Hampshire, we also have reason to think she’ll beat it.

The 2016 Democratic race looks similar to the 2000 primary, when Al Gore had a lot of endorsements, a national polling lead near 20 percentage points and a similar Iowa advantage and trailed liberal challenger Bill Bradley by a few percentage points in New Hampshire. Gore ended up pulling away in Iowa and winning New Hampshire and every primary afterward. The weight of the party was too much for Bradley to bear, as it may be for Sanders.

Or maybe the past will not be predictive. Sanders, like Trump, may end up proving that support from party officials doesn’t mean what it used to, especially in the early contests. We’ll just have to wait and see.

We’re piloting our election podcast. The proper show will launch before the Iowa caucuses, but you can find our pilots in the feed for What’s The Point.


  1. This’ll become clearer when FiveThirtyEight debuts its primary forecasts, which look at endorsements in addition to the polls.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.