A Democratic Primary That's 2008 All Over Again?

Bernie Sanders is contesting the Democratic primary to the end, just as Hillary Clinton did eight years ago—but that parallel has its limits.

Hillary Clinton with Barack Obama at a campaign rally in Unity, New Hampshire in 2008.  (Jim Young / Reuters)

In May of 2008, two Democrats were somehow still fighting over the nomination. The stronger of the two had a comfortable lead in delegates and made calls to unify the party. But the weaker contender, buoyed by a loyal base, refused to give up. It got awkward.

The difference in 2016, of course, is Hillary Clinton’s position in the drama. She played the spoiler eight years ago, refusing to concede to Barack Obama in a primary that dragged into June, to the consternation of party elders. (They were nervously eyeing John McCain, who had pluckily sewn up his nomination by late February). But this year, she is the candidate ascendant, impatient to wrap up this whole Bernie Sanders business and take on Donald Trump.

This historical parallelism places Clinton in an awkward position,  fending off charges of hypocrisy as she pressures Sanders to scale back his campaign. But the 2016-is-2008 metaphor doesn’t quite hold up—Obama was the outsider candidate that Sanders is today, and the Vermont senator’s popularity among small donors hasn’t yet translated into as much electoral success. Many Sanders supporters, however, have drawn comparisons to 2008 to buttress the point that their candidate should absolutely stay in the race. After all, didn’t Clinton?

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.

Obama’s surge against McCain, though, came exactly when he needed it. After 2008’s Super Tuesday split decision—both candidates declared victory—Obama needed to distinguish himself, and quickly. Obama finally gained an upper hand in theoretical contests against the presumed Republican nominee, helping him leapfrog ahead a week or two before surpassing Clinton in popularity. Clinton, on the other hand, didn’t prevail in polling against McCain until more than a month later, when it was arguably too late.

Neither candidate has to worry about that right now, as most polls show Trump losing to whichever candidate walks out of the convention in Philadelphia come August. But the temptation to compare this campaign to its eight-year-old predecessor, while good politics for some, is probably not good prognostication. Sanders is not a hardscrabble Hillary, just as Clinton is not a born-anew Barack. And whatever similarities that can be found within the Democratic primaries will soon run up against the historical singularity that is Trump, with all the distortionary effects the Republicans have already weathered. It’s a safe bet the general election won’t look like 2008 at all.