Wisconsin straw poll surprise: A narrow Clinton win
Bernie Sanders shocks with 41 percent of the vote.
Hillary Clinton is crushing the rest of the Democratic presidential field in national polls, but over the weekend, in a Wisconsin straw poll, there was reason to give the Clinton camp pause and the Bernie Sanders camp hope — Sanders scored a strong second-place finish with 41 percent of the vote, to Clinton’s 49 percent.
The Vermont senator, a self-described democratic socialist and a long shot for the White House, received 208 of 511 delegate votes at the Wisconsin Democratic Party convention in Milwaukee on Saturday, while Clinton won votes from 252 of the delegates, leaving her just short of a majority.
Vice President Joe Biden and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who announced his candidacy late last month, each received 3 percent of the vote. Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who is considering a bid, won 2 percent, while former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who announced his long-shot candidacy last week, received 1 percent.
The result is another encouraging sign for Sanders, an Independent who is drawing large crowds in early nominating states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. In the two weeks since he announced his candidacy, he has seen an uptick in the polls against Clinton — who remains the heavy favorite — and is showing signs he is picking up some supporters of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the progressive icon who has said repeatedly that she is not running for president in 2016.
Robert Hansen, the Wisconsin Progressive Democrats of America coordinator, said the state party is receptive to Sanders’ left-leaning message, in part because of Democrats’ anger over Gov. Scott Walker’s aggressively conservative tenure. “The Democratic Party of Wisconsin has a very progressive agenda that aligns very much with Bernie,” Hansen said. “The majority of people behind the scenes are far more progressive or liberal than what you’d see in some other states.”
Hansen added that since Walker’s push against unions, organized labor has “re-engaged” with the state party more than in the past and progressive activists have gotten more involved in the Democratic infrastructure.
Kelly Westlund, chairwoman of the Chequamegon Democrats and a 2014 congressional candidate, said that around 1,300 delegates attended the convention, the highest number in about 20 years, due to the closely contested party chair race. Westlund, who arranged a bus for organizers traveling from northern Wisconsin about seven or eight hours away, said the increased attendance was mostly from grass-roots activists.
“I don’t know that this convention was necessarily representative of the establishment,” she said, adding that Sanders’ message is resonating in rural areas of the state.
Both she and Hansen noted that the pro-Clinton booth was located right outside the straw-poll voting location.
“Just imagine if we had really worked it,” said Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs.
Clinton won last year’s straw poll, with Warren coming in second.
Clinton spokesman Jesse Ferguson said in an email Monday, “She looks forward to talking to Wisconsin voters in the months to come and competing in the Wisconsin primary.”
Clinton in recent weeks has been rolling out a more progressive agenda to seize upon the energy in the left wing of the party that has mostly been directed toward Warren, despite her insistence she is not running.
The Democratic front-runner has spoken more aggressively about workers’ rights, immigration reform and an overhaul of the criminal justice system, and has refused to take a firm stance on President Barack’s Obama’s trade negotiations, which have been heavily criticized by progressives.
Still, the left lean could be a hard sell to some hard-core liberals, and Clinton is also battling stubbornly high untrustworthiness ratings, which are starting to take their toll on her favorability numbers.
“If you’re Secretary Clinton, you can’t write anything off,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist and former Bill Clinton adviser, adding that the stress level in the Clinton camp is likely “high” after the straw poll.
“He is on her left, and no matter what you throw at him, he seems to be reasonably unstoppable at the moment,” Sheinkopf added.
But it’s another data point to support what Sanders advisers often call the “restive progressive base” — a growing coalition of liberal voters who are disenchanted with the past six years of Obama and are looking for more fundamental change. That the result came at a state party convention is particularly notable; Sanders, after all, is the longest-serving independent in congressional history and isn’t a member of the Democratic Party. And it’s another indication Sanders can be competitive, particularly in liberal states, such as Washington, where a poll late last month showed him at 24 percent.
“The Wisconsin straw poll and huge turnouts at town meetings in New Hampshire and Iowa are sending a message that people care about real issues like income inequality and the collapse of the American middle class,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said in a statement Monday.
Annie Karni contributed to this report.