News & Analysis

How Sanders Lost the Nomination But Won 2020

A triumphant Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Photo: Alex Diaz/Associated Press

In the aftermath of the third Democratic presidential primary debate, it has become clear that the field has narrowed to a three horse race between former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). While Senators Booker and Harris would likely beg to differ, the truth is that their campaigns have failed to translate their soundbites into widespread support on the ground. The few remaining members of the Obama coalition have chosen Biden as their standard-bearer, leaving the newer, more progressive wing of the party split between Sanders and Warren. 

Polling results remain erratic, with a recent Monmouth poll showing the three leading candidates, Biden, Sanders and Warren, neck and neck, while a Hill/Harris X poll gave Biden a 22 point point lead over Warren and a 14 point lead over Sanders. The vast range of differences in polling suggests that each of these three camps realistically can claim it has a direct shot at the nomination, especially as long as a single primary vote is yet to have been cast.  

Nevertheless, a thorough examination of the Sanders strategy leaves the junior Vermont senator’s path to the Democratic nomination highly unlikely. In 2016, a surprise virtual tie in Iowa, a blowout win in Wisconsin, and a tactical victory in Michigan were all derived from widespread white, unionized, working-class support.  As many as 8-9% of these Sanders primary supporters in Michigan and Wisconsin (and 12% nationwide) shifted their support to President Trump in the general election, and were decisive in helping Trump eke out narrow victories in these key states. Sanders’ deathknell in 2016 continues to be his greatest challenge for 2020: his inability to connect with black and other minority voters. Time after time, black voters overwhelmingly chose Hillary Clinton over Sanders, which allowed her to rack up support in the delegate rich South. This pattern of support is again repeating itself with Biden, whose deep support from the black community derives from his work under President Obama, the nation’s first and only black president. Like Clinton before, it is likely that Biden will run up delegates in the South, setting him up for either a one-on-one battle or the nomination itself. 

Sanders’ second major hurdle is that his traditional base of white, working-class voters is split between him and his progressive rival and arguable successor, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren, another Northeastern progressive, is a strong competitor in New Hampshire and looks primed to snag Iowa from Biden as she amasses the largest campaign machine in the state. Even CBS News’  delegate tracker puts Sanders in deep 3rd with 249 delegates, nearly 200 behind Warren and 350 behind Biden. With Warren surging in Iowa and nationwide, it is clear that the progressive base is big enough to put a candidate to the top of the ticket, that base is divided and is likely to fall to Warren in according to a recent ranked choice poll, where, once accounting for second choices, she easily tops the former vice president in a head to head competition. 

Sanders is often compared to Barry Goldwater, but do not be so fast to discount the self-proclaimed Democratic-Socialist as the loser of 2020, for he has already won the war of ideas. After its defeat in 2016, the Democratic Party engaged in serious soul-searching: what does it  stand for, and who are their voters? Four years ago, Sanders’ progressive agenda was seen as outlandish to much of the party, but today’s candidates have joined his chorus in lamenting the wealth of the 1%, supporting universal healthcare, even for illegal immigrants, and advancing racial, socialist solutions to climate change. Sanders’ progressive counterpart Elizabeth Warren has even introduced a proposal for  an annual 2% wealth tax on the “1%,” dubbing it the ultra-millionaire tax, and Andrew Yang has gone so far as to support a universal basic income of $1,000 per month to every american citizen. 

President Obama, one of the most popular Democratic nominees in the history of our country, would not be selected as the 2020 candidate if he ran with his 2008 platform. Biden, now running well to the left of his former boss, is still called a moderate but is pummelled by every other candidate for not being radical enough. Senator Harris has attacked his decades-old vote against forced federal busing, and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro castigated Biden’s healthcare proposal, a progressively modified version of the Affordable Care Act, as leaving nearly “10 million people uninsured.” Indeed, no longer a fringe movement, the ideology of Sanders has become the ideology of the mainstream Democratic Party–win or lose the nomination, Sanders has won 2020. 

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