In the swing state of Iowa, according to the latest poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, Bernie Sanders leads Donald Trump by 5 points and trails Jeb Bush by just 2 points. In purple New Hampshire, likewise, Sanders leads Trump by 10 points, and is tied against Bush. By contrast, both Trump and Bush lead Hillary Clinton—the presumptive Democratic nominee—in Iowa, and Bush stands ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire by 7 points.
This comes after a national Quinnipiac survey last month showed Sanders similarly competitive nationally with the most visible Republican presidential candidates: He tied Bush with 44 percent, led Trump by a margin of 47 percent to 42 percent, and barely trailed Carly Fiorina, 44 percent to 43 percent. In each instance, other than against Fiorina, Clinton performed worse. In other words, if Sanders had an electability gap with Hillary, he’s closed it.
Of course, there are caveats. At this point in an election, head-to-head polls gauge sympathy and feeling; they can’t predict an outcome. We don’t know how Sanders would look in a national campaign, against a unified Republican Party. Likewise, when it comes to Clinton’s weakness, we don’t know how she would look if she were the nominee. Given her place in the national Democratic primary—a solid, double-digit lead over Sanders—there’s a chance that her poor numbers reflect ambivalence from potential supporters, not outright opposition. Which is just to say that, to many Americans, the 2016 presidential election is still hypothetical, and when you ask them to choose between candidates, you’re asking for a gut reaction more than a considered choice.
But that’s not to dismiss Sanders. Even if his base—college-educated workers and liberal whites—reflects the extent to which he occupies a traditional left-wing rolethat has appeared in past Democratic presidential primaries, it’s meaningful that a self-described “democratic socialist” on the periphery of American politics is tied in two swing states with a man who has the same last name as two former presidents. Nor should anyone ignore the massive crowds that flock to every major Sanders campaign event; on Saturday, 20,000 people came to the Boston Convention Center to hear the senator speak, one of the largest presidential primary crowds ever assembled in Massachusetts.
The largest? Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who in July '68, pulled an estimated 45,000 to see him in Fenway Park. (At the time, McCarthy was outpolling Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon.)