Why Martin O’Malley is attacking Bernie Sanders — and not Hillary Clinton

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. –(AP Photo/Cheryl Senter

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is trailing Hillary Clinton by an average of 50 points in the polls for the Democratic presidential nomination. So last Thursday, his super PAC released an attack ad against…

Bernie Sanders?

Paid for by O’Malley’s super PAC, Generation Forward, the ad said the Vermont senator “was no progressive when it comes to guns.’’

The Sanders campaign poked back on Twitter with a couple of sub-tweets:

O’Malley is focusing on Sanders because, for the time being, the Vermont senator has edged him out as the leftier alternative to Clinton.

A June 25 WMUR/CNN poll showed Sanders down just 8 percentage points to Clinton in New Hampshire, while a June 16 Suffolk University poll showed him at 31 percent to Clinton’s 41 percent in the state.

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As of Monday, Sanders trailed Clinton nationally by an average of 15.5 percent, according to Real Clear Politics, compared to the 50-point hole he was in just one month ago.

O’Malley, meanwhile, hasn’t cracked the 3 percent mark in those polls.

Of course it’s still very, very early.

“Sanders’s popularity has grown so far, so fast that O’Malley is an afterthought right now,’’ Dante Scala, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, told Boston.com. “O’Malley is just not part of the storyline right now.’’

Sanders, meanwhile, has been regularly attracting the largest crowds of any presidential candidate, including an estimated 5,000 people in Denver and 3,000 in Minneapolis.

David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University’s Political Research Center, pointed out that Sanders actually beat Clinton among men and tied among self-identified liberals in the June 16 poll, factors that could sustain the Vermont democratic socialist in other states.

According to Paleologos, roughly 15 percent of voters are still undecided in early state polling.

“As a general rule, if you’re a known commodity, the undecided vote tends to break against you,’’ he told Boston.com.

Having emerged as the major alternative to Clinton, Sanders should take a big slice of those still uncommitted, Paleologos said. And if O’Malley wants to benefit from the undecided windfall, he needs to usurp Sanders as that major alternative.

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“Right now, O’Malley does not even pass the ‘who’s that?’ test,’’ Scala said.

Both Sanders and O’Malley hope to lure supporters of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has said she won’t run for president.

Scala, who teaches a course on New Hampshire’s presidential primary, thinks the ad by O’Malley’s super PAC is designed to raise doubts about Sanders on an issue that matters to those liberals: guns.

Particularly in light of the recent shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, Sanders’s mixed record on guns could be a weakness in a Democratic primary — and a target for O’Malley.

“Perhaps plant some seeds of doubt now, in the hopes that O’Malley can win over some of the Sanders/Warren/anti-Hillary vote down the road,’’ Scala said.

Politico described Sanders’s record on guns as “awkward,’’ due in part to the rural nature of his constituency in Vermont.

“I think that urban America has got to respect what rural America is about, where 99 percent of the people in my state who hunt are law abiding people,’’ Sanders told NPR on Thursday.

Sanders voted for universal background checks and bans on assault weapons, but he also voted to allow guns on Amtrak trains and opposed the Brady Bill (which proposed background checks and five-day waiting periods for purchasing firearms). The NRA even campaigned against Sanders’s 1990 opponent for Vermont’s House seat.

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