Bernie Sanders Hitting A Rough Patch
Bernie Sanders is finding that the 2020 campaign is very different from 2016.
While much of the focus in the analysis of the polling that has taken place since the debates at the end of June has been focused on Senator Kamala Harris and former Vice-President Joe Biden, it’s actually Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who is getting a wake-up call, and a warning of difficult times ahead:
Bernie Sanders keeps getting bad news.
After Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren seized the spotlight in the first primary debate, the Vermont senator dropped to fourth place in two polls in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa. In some national surveys, Sanders fared just as poorly. And though he raised an impressive $18 million over the last three months, former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg posted bigger hauls in the same period.
Inside the campaign, though, Sanders’ aides are defiant: They believe that Washington journalists are getting the presidential election wrong all over again, underestimating Sanders’ large volunteer base and mistaking temporary changes in surveys as permanent shifts in the race. They see the up-and-down polling — some of which has shown him gaining ground after the debates — as proof the primary is wide open. And they think that if Biden continues to lose support, as he did after Harris landed a blow on him in the first debate, Sanders is best positioned to win over his voters.
“When he announced in 2016, a lot of people in the elite class said that he stood no chance and couldn’t win. Over the course of his campaign, he proved a lot of people wrong,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager. “Fast forward to 2019, and you have some of the same skeptics saying it’s dead, it’s all over. I think they will be similarly proven wrong.”
Still, even though the Sanders team would never call it a “reset,” his aides are sharpening a new line of attack against his rivals and experimenting with different ways to connect with hard-to-reach voters as the race heats up. They’re also continuing to shift from big rallies to more intimate events in the nation’s early states, such as ice cream socials and selfie lines — an acknowledgment that Sanders needs to adopt a more personal approach and participate in additional retail politicking to win.
There is a sense in the Sanders camp that the race is extremely turbulent. While Sanders placed fourth in Quinnipiac and YouGov Blue-Data for Progress surveys after the debates, he was in second — and not far behind Biden — in Reuters-Ipsosand Washington Post-ABC News polls.
“It’s a very volatile field,” said Jeff Weaver, a top adviser to Sanders. “There will be huge swings in polling based on a moment. But if all it took to be president was a memorable debate performance, then a lot of people would be president. This is about a long-term campaign that is heavily dependent on organization and ground game in the states.”
Sanders performed strongly in caucus states in 2016, benefiting from his strong organization. And over the long haul, Sanders’ team is convinced that he has the most to gain if Biden falters. Since the beginning of the race, Morning Consult polls have repeatedly shown that Sanders is the second choice of a plurality of Biden voters.
As Warren and other rivals have built a beachhead in Iowa, the Sanders campaign says it is ramping up its field operation there. Last week, the campaign hired 11 aides in Iowa, bringing the number of staffers and interns in the state to 55. Sanders also opened eight offices in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada in the past month.
Sanders’ team believes the primary will ultimately be won by the candidate who persuades voters he or she can defeat President Donald Trump and be trusted to fight the hardest for change. In order to do that, Sanders has repeatedly noted on the trail that he bests Trump in surveys of the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. But voters continue to rate him as far less “electable” than Biden, and in at least one poll, Warren and Harris.
The Sanders campaign also thinks he will be able to convince voters that he will push for change the hardest because he has been advocating for the same policies for decades, and has successfully prodded the Democratic Party leftward in recent years: During last week’s debate, they noted that the discussion often centered on Sanders’ ideas, such as Medicare for All.
In their view, many voters are dubious about other candidates’ promises and will come to appreciate Sanders as the original reformer.
“It’s important for people to be reminded — because they do know it — that if this debate was taking place in 2016, almost none of these candidates would be talking about these issues,” Weaver said, adding that voters are “always looking for authenticity in their leaders, and it’s sorely missing … they see one thing during elections, and they see another once people get elected.”
Sanders’ aides are also planning to continue to highlight the fact that his campaign is largely funded by small, online donors, while many of his opponents are holding high-dollar fundraisers. They have recently begun to note that their rivals’ money events are closed to the press. In 2016, one of Sanders’ more successful lines of attack against Hillary Clinton was that she declined to release her speeches to Wall Street firms.
CNN’s Harry Enten, meanwhile, isn’t mincing words, saying that Sanders is “in big trouble”:
History has not been kind to primary runner-ups of previous primaries polling this low of a position. I went back and looked at where 13 previous runner-ups since 1972 have been polling at this point in the primary. All six who went on to win the nomination were polling above Sanders’ 15%.
Indeed, we can widen it out and see how perilous Sanders’ position is.
Among all well-known candidates, only 9% polling at between 10% and 20% at this point went onto win the nomination.
The early state polling is not much kinder to Sanders. A new Suffolk University poll has him at 9% among likely Iowa Democratic caucusgoers. This first-in-the-nation contest for Democrats is probably a must win for Sanders. He barely lost it in 2016. Yet, he’s behind Biden (24%), Harris (16%) and Warren (13%).
It doesn’t seem like there is a reservoir of support available for Sanders either. A mere 6% of likely caucusgoers say he is their second choice. All told, only 14% list him as a first or second choice.
Worse for Sanders is that he seems to be slipping in Iowa. That 9% for first choice is the worst he’s done in any Iowa poll since at least December.
Now, it’s not as if Sanders is disliked. According to our CNN Poll, Sanders still overwhelmingly holds a positive rating from Democrats nationwide.
The problem for Sanders is that there are a slew of alternatives. Warren has co-opted much of Sanders’ message. Additionally, Harris seems to hold her own among liberals as well. Neither Harris nor Warren have to deal with the stench of the nasty 2016 primary.
In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any sign from Sanders that he has healed the wounds of the 2016 primary. You can best see this in the endorsement primary. Pretty much all successful previous runner-ups do a good job of capturing endorsements from members of Congress and governors.
Sanders has the endorsement of just one member of Congress outside of Vermont.
The efforts of the Sanders campaign to try to recreate the “magic” of the 2016 campaign is entirely off-target. In 2016, Sanders was essentially the only serious challenger to Hillary Clinton and he stood alone in representing the nascent “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party. That is no longer the case, and there’s very little that Sanders can do about that.
Additionally, although he clearly relishes playing the role of the underdog, Sanders clearly doesn’t fit that role in the 2020 race. Instead of being the upstart outsider, Sanders has spent the majority of the 2020 race as one of the two frontrunners in a much larger field. Even though he likes to maintain that he’s an outsider, something that he emphasizes by still refusing to officially join the Democratic Party even though he’s running for that party’s nomination and has caucused with the Senate Democrats since being elected to the Senate, he’s clearly no longer an outsider or a maverick.
Furthermore, unlike the 2016 race, Sanders is but one candidate in a field of 24 candidates, at least five of whom can be considered serious contenders for the nomination based on the available poll numbers. This means that voters who are attracted to the policy ideas and proposals that Sanders originated in 2016 can choose from a wider variety of potential nominees than they were able to in 2016.
Finally, while the Sanders campaign can try to appeal to voters based on the idea that he is the one who originated the progressive ideas that many of these candidates, especially Senators Warren, Harris, and Booker, are running on, that seems to me to be a weak argument upon which to rest a campaign. All of these candidates and others have progressive bona fides that are as credible as Sanders’, including records of advancing those ideas that they can run on. The idea that only Sanders should get the credit for the fact that those ideas have become more mainstream in the Democratic Party doesn’t seem like one that will go over well among anyone other than the most loyal of Sanders supporters.
None of this means that Bernie Sanders is done for just yet. As with the poll numbers that have shown former Vice-President Biden slipping down from the high’s he experienced after entering the race in April, it’s entirely possible that Sanders can turn things around. Additionally, his strong fundraising numbers mean that he can afford to stay in the race for quite some period of time into the future, and most likely well past the point at which voting begins in February with the Iowa Caucuses. At some point, though, Sanders is going to need to prove that he isn’t being eclipsed by younger candidates like Warren, Harris, Booker, and others and if he fails to do that then this campaign could be much shorter for him than 2016 was.