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Despite polls, doubt remains about Bernie Sanders' electability

US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders meets reporters outside the Perugino gate at the Vatican, Friday, April 15, 2016. Sanders spoke at a conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of "Centesimus Annus," a high-level teaching document by Pope John Paul II on the economy and social justice at the end of the Cold War. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Bernie Sanders is having a good month. He has beaten Democratic primary opponent Hillary Clinton in seven of the last eight contests, he continues to outpace her in fundraising, he has narrowed Clinton's lead in national polling to an average of 1.2 percentage points, and he spoke at a conference in Vatican City Friday.

But the Vermont senator remains far behind in the delegate count, the popular vote, and superdelegate support. Clinton is up by at least 10 points in every poll in her home state of New York, where primary voters will cast their ballots Tuesday with 291 delegates at stake.

The two candidates met for a tense debate in Brooklyn Thursday night, where the growing rift between them was on display.

Pointing to polls that show him performing better head-to-head with Republican candidates and to his support from young voters and independents, Sanders has sought to portray himself as the stronger general election candidate. There are still many reasons to doubt that, though.

Just a year ago, Sanders trailed Clinton by more than 50 points in national polls. Now, the polling average suggests the race is nearly a tie. This should be unnerving for Clinton, but it is not evidence of an impending disaster.

Jacob Neiheisel, assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, said Sanders has picked up momentum, but Clinton's concern is winning specific states and securing delegates. While the national race has tightened, Sanders has seen very little bounce in state polls in New York, California, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

"If we were going to see an effect, I think it would have translated to poll numbers by now," he said.

If Sanders pulls off an upset in New York, that would upend the race and give superdelegates who have endorsed Clinton reason to reconsider. If Clinton holds onto her lead, she will put even more space between her and Sanders in the delegate count.

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman observed, the seven states where Sanders has racked up his most recent victories have a combined population about equivalent to Florida, a single state where Clinton won by a wide margin.

Sanders has succeeded in building a coalition behind him that could serve the party well in the general election. Some mainstream Democrats and minority voters have been reluctant to feel the Bern, though.

"In some ways, Bernie's positions, to many in the Democratic electorate, seem pretty extreme," said Tom Whalen, associate professor of social sciences at Boston University. For Democrats who recall the disaster of nominating George McGovern in 1972, Sanders raises fears of a repeat.

National polls consistently give Sanders an edge against the three Republican candidates, but experts caution against putting too much stock in those numbers. It is still early and Sanders remains undefined for many Americans, while opinions about Clinton hardened years ago.

In a relatively tame Democratic primary fight where both candidates are appealing to a liberal base, Sanders has not been subject to the vicious attacks from the right that are inevitable in the general election campaign. Clinton has often been critical of him, but she has also been hesitant to alienate his supporters.

"Bernie Sanders is a true believer, which is why he's acing the authenticity test," said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga, "and I don't know how many more A-pluses he could possibly get for being true to himself, or telling it as he sees it."

"He's also suffered the fewest attacks of any of the candidates left standing," he added, "which is why his polling numbers are higher nationwide than they would be in November if he somehow defeated every current conventional wisdom and won the nomination."

Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, a progressive PAC that has endorsed Sanders, argued that the senator has faced tough attacks from Clinton allies.

"He's capable of firing back just as easily," Sroka said.

One criticism Sanders hurled at Clinton Thursday night is that many of her victories have come in southern states that will not vote Democratic in the general election. She defeated him in key swing states like Florida and Ohio, though.

The voting so far has demonstrated some undeniable trends, and one is that blue collar voters in both parties are warming to the anti-trade message coming from both Sanders and Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

Sroka predicted Sanders could do better than Clinton in states that have "seen firsthand the impact of these job-killing trade deals" like Michigan and Wisconsin. He also expects many who voted for Clinton in swing state primaries would get behind Sanders in the general election if he is nominated.

A map of Facebook "likes" for each candidate compiled by FiveThirtyEight.com shows Sanders topping Clinton resoundingly across the country in social media interest. His support appears strongest around his home state of Vermont and along the West Coast, with pockets of buzz also forming around college towns and in parts of southwestern states.

These numbers obviously do not translate directly into votes, but they do provide some insight into areas of geographical strength. They also demonstrate how much more effective Sanders has been at spreading his message on social media and mobilizing younger and internet-savvy voters.

Still, many of the liabilities that led political experts to dismiss Sanders as potentially unelectable long ago persist. He is a self-declared democratic socialist who wants to raise taxes to pay for government programs that analysts say are unrealistic and prohibitively expensive.

"If Bernie somehow won the nomination, the entire Republican attack machine would first do a happy dance and then go into overdrive," Varoga said.

While Sanders supporters argue that the "socialist" label no longer carries the stigma it did during the Cold War, others are unconvinced that the term has been defused politically.

Whalen noted how heavily Republicans have attacked President Obama as a socialist over policies that are in reality pretty moderate. A 2015 Gallup poll also showed high resistance to the prospect of a socialist presidential candidate.

"No one can convince me right now that the American electorate is going to elect a socialist," he said.

Sroka countered that "it's not like it's any secret that Bernie Sanders identifies himself as a democratic socialist," but he built a coalition of support anyway because people agree with the policies he is proposing like expanding social security and tuition-free college.

"You can label Sen. Sanders whatever you want," he said, "but the ideas that he's calling for are actually popular with wide swaths of voters across the ideological spectrum."

Sanders has won over Democrats and independents with those ideas, and he will continue fighting for them, according to Sroka.

"At the end of the day, Bernie Sanders is who he is."

Clinton has already faced some of the toughest attacks Republicans have to offer on the national stage over the last three decades, and her poll numbers reflect that. If Sanders became the nominee, Republicans would unleash a barrage of negative ads to tear him down.

"Their paid communications would be brutal, unfair and demagogic beyond belief and probably unprecedented in American electoral history," Varoga said, "but it would very quickly change his poll numbers in a way that the Clinton campaign has never once tried to do, and never will."

"What does a Republican media machine do to Sanders as a candidate?" Neiheisel said. "That's something that's yet to be seen."

Another potential weakness for Sanders is that he has often been accused of not having enough foreign policy expertise and of being unable to explain his positions in detail. The problem bubbled up recently in his awkward interview with the New York Daily News editorial board and in Thursday's debate.

"That narrative is going to have staying power," Neiheisel said. Even if Sanders posts more detailed proposals on his website now, the criticism could prove difficult to overcome.

For the most part, the Democratic race has been relatively civil, and Sanders has struggled to land punches on Clinton when he has attacked. He has grown much more aggressive in recent weeks, but there is uncertainty that he could survive the brutal, negative campaign that the general election race will likely become.

"I think he's capable of weathering it," Neiheisel said. "Whether he can credibly wage it is another question."

Whalen observed that the dynamic of a race against a Republican would be different. In challenging Clinton, Sanders has attempted to make an affirmative case that he is the better candidate and the better representative of the Democratic base. He is ultimately a politician, though, and if the general election fight called for him to get down in the dirt, he probably could.

Before that theory can be tested out, Sanders would need to defeat Clinton, and his window to make a credible run at that is quickly closing. He may have a loud and energized base, but many obstacles still stand between him and the Oval Office.

"He's a candidate of passion but improbability at the same time," Whalen said.

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