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Let's Put Bernie Sanders's "Momentum" in Perspective

Win McNamee/Getty Images

It’s in the nature of campaign trail reporting to become tedious and devoid of news for long stretches of time, which in turn creates incentives for news outlets to sex up dispatches from campaign events with gauzy claims, like “Challenging Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders Gains Momentum in Iowa.”

The evidence for this assertion comes not from survey data, but from snapshots of campaign rallies in small towns, where Sanders—an insurgent candidate with a dedicated fan base—has been able to draw larger-than-normal crowds; and from anecdotes like this one about a local party chair jockeying for influence.

Kurt Meyer, the county party chairman who organized the event, sent a text message to Troy Price, the Iowa political director for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mr. Price called back immediately.

“Objects in your rearview mirror are closer than they appear,” Mr. Meyer said he had told Mr. Price about Mr. Sanders. “Mrs. Clinton had better get out here.”

These are colorful details, but they tell us very little about the state of the race in Iowa. That's probably because the story of Sanders' surge...

Adam Peck complicated by one crucial caveat.

Adam Peck

This data is taken from Huffington Post’s polling aggregator, but other major aggregators tell a similar story. Sanders’s support among Iowa Democrats has increased substantially since he began campaigning, but not in a way that’s particularly meaningful if another candidate enjoys steady support from significantly more than half of that electorate. To be a threat to Hillary Clinton, Sanders needs to do more than outperform other dark horse candidates and potential dark horse candidates like Martin O’Malley and Vice President Joe Biden. As long as she’s the favored candidate of 60 percent of Iowa Democrats, then even a surging underdog will hit a brick wall at 40 percent. To win in Iowa, Sanders can't just build support, he needs Clinton's numbers to come down. That would take something big because Clinton's supporters aren't loosely committed. TPM’s Daniel Strauss puts the Sanders surge in perspective.

The poll found that 47 percent of those surveyed of Iowa Democrats view [Sanders] favorably while 12 percent view him unfavorably. In January 37 percent said they had a favorable view of Sanders while 12 percent said they had an unfavorable view of him.

Sanders is hoping that to be a liberal alternative to Clinton in the Democratic field in the way supporters of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) hoped she would if she decided to run for president…. Sixty-two percent said they had a favorable view of Warren while 9 percent said they had an unfavorable view. That's still not as good as Clinton though, where 86 percent of Iowa Democrats said they had a favorable view of her while 12 percent said they had an unfavorable view, slightly up from January.

The Democratic primary would be genuinely more exciting if Clinton didn’t have such an enormous lead, among voters who really like her. But the truth bedeviling campaign reporters is that she is the most popular politician in America and as famous as any current or former president, and these two facts combined create daunting problems, both for anyone who wants to be the Democratic nominee who isn’t named Hillary Clinton, and for reporters covering the Democratic primary.