Many a schoolchild has been warned against comparing apples and oranges (or, in some countries, pears)—two pieces of fruit that are both round and sweet but nonetheless different. This situation is more like comparing oranges and a grapefruits, which look similar on the outside but are obviously distinct once peeled open. Although comparing 2008 and 2016 is a bit tricky—eight years ago, the Democratic primary started earlier and lasted longer—a look at comparable periods of time shows that the two races have much less in common than Sanders might like.
First, Clinton is in a better position with pledged delegates now than Obama was eight years ago. The total number of delegates changed between the two elections, so comparing raw numbers isn’t illuminating. But in percentage terms, Obama was four points ahead in delegates at this point of the race in 2008. By contrast, Clinton is now seven points ahead, with nearly 20 percent more pledged delegates than Sanders. (This ignores unpledged delegates, fickle creatures who could change their mind at any point, although most support Clinton currently.)
Sanders has certainly given Clinton a run for her money, much as the former senator did with Obama in 2008. But when the Clinton campaign talks about it being “virtually impossible” for Sanders to accrue enough delegates to win, they’re correct to a degree that wasn’t quite as true for Clinton at this point eight years ago. (Though he’s still pushing hard for California, Sanders has turned his attention toward superdelegates, as Clinton did in 2008.) Obama ended up with just 51.4 percent of his party’s pledged delegates; unless Clinton bombs out in California, it appears she will get a larger share.
Second, the former secretary of state has maintained her dominance in polls of Democratic voters, and it’s getting late for Sanders to change that. In 2008, Clinton’s popularity was undercut by a rising Obama. That hasn’t really happened this time around.
Although Sanders’s position has grown stronger as he’s become better known, he has yet to overtake Clinton. The Vermont senator has bested Clinton in only four polls. She’s beaten him in dozens. The last time around this track, it took Obama only about a month after the first primary to consistently out-poll his rival. It doesn’t appear Sanders has that kind of juice.
What he does have, however, is an apparent edge against Donald Trump. When pitted against the New York billionaire in head-to-head polls, Sanders typically does better than Clinton. Back in 2008, Obama and Clinton polled much more similarly against McCain.
That lead certainly lends credibility to the argument that Sanders would be a better pick to beat Trump, the Democrats’ primary concern. But recall that Sanders has been handled relatively gently so far: As the New York Times notes, Clinton hasn’t aired any big ads against him, preserving his do-no-wrong reputation among voters. If he had faced even the normal amount of negative advertising a candidate usually gets, he’d likely fare much worse against Trump.