Two polls show Sen. Bernie Sanders surging in New Hampshire, moving within 10 or 12 percentage points of Hillary Clinton.
Nonetheless, Sanders simply is not a threat to Clinton in the Democratic nomination race.
But his spike can tell a lot about the Republican contest. It’s a reminder that any candidate can benefit from a public opinion surge. It’s hard to think of a less likely “it” candidate than Sanders, or at least it would have been a year ago. But now the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont is suddenly hip with at least one group of Democrats.
We’re going to see similar rallies on the Republican side. They’ve already occurred, to some extent: Ben Carson, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio have all surged to about the 10 percent level in polling nationally. Ted Cruz had a smaller bump when he officially announced his candidacy.
There’s no way of knowing who will be next. It could be one of the major players moving into a solid lead. Or it could be one of the current also-rans, Bobby Jindal or Rick Perry, suddenly becoming hot and moving up. After all, it would only take about 1 in 10 Republicans saying they support a candidate to move him or her up to a tie for the top in current polling.
Mostly, these surges are short-term phenomena with no real effects. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain enjoyed brief moments of popularity in 2012? So what?
This time, it could be a little different. The Republican race is still so unstructured that otherwise-ephemeral polling bumps could have real effects. There’s been concern that a seemingly viable candidate who is doing poorly in polls (John Kasich comes to mind) could lose an invitation to participate in the early debates to a non-viable rival, and would lose a small but real chance of moving into contention.
Another possibility? Right now, Republican party actors seem in no hurry to reach a decision. That could change in a hurry if a candidate they don’t want – say, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson, or even Donald Trump – suddenly comes out on top in early polling. Then, the pressure to rally around someone safe might become overwhelming and that could help whichever front-tier candidate happens to be in strongest shape at the time.
There’s a third scenario, too: one of the on-paper viable candidates who hasn’t caught fire yet could benefit from a surge and receive a second look from party actors. Suppose Jindal (or Perry, or even Rick Santorum) had some highly visible event and suddenly moved to 12 percent in the national polls. That would make him a plausible alternative to Walker or Rubio.
So how could Jindal move up so sharply in the polls? Well, ask Bernie Sanders. Short term, almost anything can happen in public opinion about the presidential candidates.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.