Who's really winning presidential race?

Story highlights

  • Sally Kohn: Polls that show Trump closing gap with Clinton alarm some on left, encourage Sanders and supporters
  • Not so fast, she says. Polls at this stage called it wrong about Obama, McCain, Clinton in earlier races
  • Kohn: It's early in horse race; Sanders has right to stay in race 'til California, possibly convention, but should change tone

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator, and a supporter of Bernie Sanders. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)In October 2007, the Gallup polling organization wrote that, "Gallup's 2007 national presidential polling strongly points to [Hillary] Clinton winning the 2008 Democratic nomination. Barring something unusual or otherwise unexpected, she is well positioned for the 2008 Democratic primaries." Gallup was wrong.

In June 2008, it wrote, "After winning one of the most competitive nomination battles in U.S. history, Barack Obama faces what looks to be an equally tough general election for the presidency." Gallup's polling had Obama and John McCain neck and neck, with McCain leading by a marginal point.
    In November 2008, Barack Obama was elected president, winning 52.9% of the popular vote to McCain's 45.7%.
    Polls are a lot of things. They're gauges by which campaigns can adjust their media and organizing strategies. They're invaluable fodder for the 24/7 news media to discuss during yearlong presidential campaigns. They're a way for math geeks to seem sexy every four years.
    But one thing polls are often not — especially months out from an election — is correct.
    Sanders rejects notion he is damaging Clinton against Trump
    Sanders rejects notion he is damaging Clinton against Trump

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    Sanders rejects notion he is damaging Clinton against Trump 01:33
    Decent human beings who love their country and humanity and fear for the disastrous consequences of a Donald Trump presidency are shaken up by a series of new polls that show Trump and Clinton neck and neck in a national matchup. A Washington Post-ABC poll shows Trump leading Clinton 46% to 44%. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has Clinton leading Trump 46% to 43%. Both gaps are within the statistical margin of error, but still, the numbers are understandably disconcerting. That is, if you believe them.
    Some Clinton supporters are using the polling to suggest that the presumptive nominee is being hurt by the prolonged primary battle with Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, Sanders supporters point to national matchups that suggest Sanders is in a stronger position going head-to-head against Trump. Both points are valid, but again, only if you put too much weight on the polling.
    In March 2008, 28% of Clinton supporters said they would vote for McCain if Obama were the nominee. And look how that turned out.
    This is horse race season, so let's use that analogy. Polls give a snapshot of the odds a given candidate faces at any moment, but they're just odds. They're not guarantees. And if you've ever watched a horse race, you've seen one horse look strong out of the gate only to fade by the end. Certainly the Republican primary this year bears out that analogy in the political realm.
    So now, imagine there are just two horses left — one who opposes everything you and your ancestors have stood for in building this great nation, and one who maybe doesn't share all your ideas and idealism but who you know would make an excellent leader on most of the issues you believe in. Once your horse is out of the race, duh! You're going to cheer on that second horse. We all will. If that's what happens.
    Bernie Sanders ramps up feud with establishment
    Bernie Sanders ramps up feud with establishment

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    Bernie Sanders ramps up feud with establishment 01:47
    In the meantime, let Bernie run. Clinton supporters should be as understanding and magnanimous as Obama supporters were in 2008. Clinton wasn't quick to quit even when the numbers looked stacked against her back then. And looking like you're going to win isn't the same as actually winning. Clinton owes it to her party and to Sanders supporters to let the campaign play out.
    Sanders supporters already feel aggrieved (if not downright cheated) that they haven't gotten a fair contest; Clinton and her supporters should be careful not to fan that anger by prematurely wrapping things up. And meanwhile, the Sanders campaign should run its own race rather than risk turning off supporters by antagonizing anyone who has legitimate questions about their strategy.
    Sanders has every reason to stay in through California. If Sanders beats Clinton in California, it will elevate him significantly and raise serious questions about Clinton's viability this late in the game. If Clinton beats Sanders, it will cement her position as the likely nominee.
    If that happens, perhaps Sanders would bow out of the race, but honestly, I can see a case to be made for him staying in through the convention. This way he could continue to elevate the concerns his campaign represents and push Clinton further to the left. But at that point Sanders should truly only stay in if he can walk and chew gum at the same time — that is, challenge the Democratic establishment at a more existential level while setting the stage to draw votes for the eventual Democratic nominee.
    In any case, the defensive and even nasty tone we've seen in recent days from some Sanders supporters, and at times the candidate himself, has undermined the spirit of nonviolent progressive revolution they started with.
    Ultimately when this ends, it must end gracefully. Nobody likes a sore loser. Or a sore winner. And in the meantime, let's keep the Democratic primary substantive and civil. Not only because it reflects the party's core values but because it offers the strongest contrast with the vacuous immaturity of the other side.