by Anthony AlaimoMonmouth University Poll Institute graduate assistant
The loudest applause during last week’s Democratic debate occurred when Senator Bernie Sanders actually came to Hillary Clinton’s defense when she was asked about her handling of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. Sanders, instead of attacking Clinton on an issue that Republicans and the media have turned into a point of contention in her campaign, warned the Las Vegas audience that he was about to say something that may not be great politics.
Shockingly, at least at first glance, Sanders said he agreed with Secretary Clinton and complained that the American people were sick and tired of hearing about her damn emails. What could Sanders have been thinking? Why wouldn’t he attack his main rival on an issue that has been covered so intensely by the media? Was this a lapse in judgment or was it premeditated?
Millions of viewers, many of whom have only been casual followers of this prolonged 2016 race, as well as some die-hard political junkies, probably had similar questions after Sanders seemingly missed an opportunity to distinguish himself from his rival.
The obvious explanation is Sanders was trying to make himself look above the fray as a candidate that cares more about the issues than about piling on. But we can find a political answer in the polls.
While the Republican Congress and numerous 2016 presidential candidates continue to attack Clinton about her alleged improper use of a private email server, Democratic voters have been largely consistent when pollsters have asked them about her emails. They are just not all that concerned about it.
A recent CBS News poll, taken October 4-8, examined Democratic voter opinion regarding Clinton’s email server and reflected similar polling trends over the past few months. When asked if it was appropriate for Secretary Clinton to exclusively use a personal email address and server for work, 48% of Democrats viewed her actions as inappropriate, while 41% viewed them as appropriate. But this is nowhere near as negative as when the same question was asked of Republican voters – 93% said her actions were not appropriate, while only 7% said they were appropriate.
When delving deeper into the issue, though, 62% of Democratic voters said they are satisfied with Clinton’s explanation of why she used a private email server, while only 28% were dissatisfied. On the question of whether the email controversy would be important to their 2016 vote, only 14% of Democratic voters said the email server issue would be very important and just another 15% said it is somewhat important. A combined 70% said the email issue would not be important when they cast their votes.
Finally, a post-debate poll from Monmouth University found that 69% of Americans – including 79% of Democrats – agree with Sanders. They are tired of hearing about the emails. Only 14% of Democrats would like the media to continue to cover this issue.
Looking into the poll numbers, it seems clear that Sanders’ phone-a-friend moment wasn’t so much a gaffe as it was a calculated, pre-planned line that he was probably eagerly waiting to deliver. And, it worked. Sanders looked chivalrous, while knowing it would not be politically smart to launch a useless attack on an issue that has failed to gain traction among the Democratic base. In fact, the Sanders campaign sent out a fundraising email based on his “damn emails” statement as they immediately looked to capitalize on the publicity from the best line of the night.
However, looking even deeper into the numbers and ahead to November 2016, the Clinton campaign cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that independents do not share Democrats’ view. In that same CBS News poll, 72% of independent voters said Clinton’s use of a private email server was not appropriate and 62% said they were mostly dissatisfied with Clinton’s explanation. Unfortunately for Secretary Clinton, there will be no Sanders lifeline next year.