For fans of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the 2016 presidential cycle was a long and bitter one. The rumors of the Democratic National Committee’s quiet and continued cooperation with the campaign of Hillary Clinton created an environment of mistrust and claims of the Senator being railroaded away from the 2016 Democratic nomination.
The situation in 2020, for some Bernie supporters, is starting to resemble a similar scenario that some of them have seen before. First, Sanders starts the race getting a lot of enthusiasm and polling support. He’s the clear front runner, up and until an established big-name candidate gets involved in the race. At that point, polling numbers fall and Bernie starts to lose media coverage and fade into the pack.
Some Bernie backers are livid, and they claim there is some type of sabotage afoot:
For hardcore Sanders supporters, Mr. Biden’s early domination of the race smacks of 2016, when the Democratic National Committee attempted to sabotage Mr. Sanders and clear the way to the nomination for Mrs. Clinton.
“The mainstream media and the DNC are colluding against the American people. That’s what it feels like. It’s the same thing all over again,” said Massachusetts neuroscientist Laurie Cestnick, a Sanders supporter who founded Occupy DNC to protest the nomination of Mrs. Clinton at the party’s 2016 convention in Philadelphia.
If they feel jilted again, Ms. Cestnick and fellow activists say they are not afraid to stage another revolt at the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, even if doing so damages the party’s nominee ahead of the general election contest against President Trump.
Sanders backers already mistrust polls that show Mr. Biden with a commanding lead and the news organizations that have put a spotlight on the former VP since he joined the race April 25.
“People are becoming more upset and becoming more firm behind Bernie due to mainstream media not covering a lot of his events and the strong push for Biden,” Ms. Cestnick said. “Is 2016 going to happen all over again? It is sure feeling like it. But I tell you, they are going to see a fight like they have never seen before.”
The allegation goes beyond the scenario in 2016 where the DNC specifically pushed off holding debates until well into the Fall of 2015, much further into the primary which gave Hillary Clinton an advantage of having to spend less time defending her candidacy.
Bernie backers now allege that the media itself is colluding with the DNC to drown voters in a message of Joe Biden as the front runner while the rest of the field simply fades away.
Can someone like Bernie really win the nomination?
Let’s examine this from more angles. Let’s say that Bernie was receiving equal coverage to that of Joe Biden, would that be making a difference in his poll numbers? Many of his democratic-socialist policies are fairly popular on paper, especially among Democratic primary voters, so would he be pulling in as much support as Biden if all things were equal?
There have been conflicting reports that Bernie, unlike Biden, struggles heavily with minority voters, and black voters in particular. Take this story from The Hill, for example:
Biden, who on Sunday appeared at a Baptist church in South Carolina, represents a similar threat to Sanders given the eight years he served as vice president to former President Obama — the nation’s first black president.
While Sanders is doing well in polls of white voters and progressives, the African American base of the party has not rallied to his campaign — at least not yet.
A Morning Consult poll released last week showed that 47 percent of black women said Biden was their top choice to be the Democratic nominee, while 18 percent said they preferred Sanders.
It’s possible those numbers to some extent reflect voters’ familiarity with Biden, but they are worrisome nonetheless to the Vermont Independent’s allies.
That’s one analysis of one poll, but then look at this other story from FiveThirtyEight which finds that black voters don’t have anything against Bernie, but they may be more inclined to simply prefer other candidates:
But while some black political activists may dislike the Vermont senator, there is little evidence that black voters do. Polls suggest black voters liked Sanders in 2016 and like him now. Rather, if 2016 is any guide, the barrier to Sanders winning black voters will be whether another candidate comes along who black voters like even more.
If the same thinking holds true for Democratic primary voters in general, it could explain Bernie’s sudden and precipitous drop in polling support once Biden entered the race in late April.
Still, Bernie supporters remain very skeptical of the DNC and are hoping and praying that this time, unlike their view of 2016, they will be able to keep their voice in the process:
South Carolina state Rep. Terry Alexander, who was a Sanders delegate in 2016 and is backing him again for 2020, said the party establishment is still leery of Mr. Sanders.
“You hear it here and there, you know, some of those folks who say Sanders has got to go home or Sanders is not our man,” he said. “But I think it will be a different campaign this time because it is not going to be left up to the DNC. The party favorite is going to be picked by the people.”
Otherwise, he said, Mr. Trump will win a second term.
“I really hope the DNC is better than that. I hope the DNC will let this thing play out for the people. What happened in 2016, they wanted to dominate, they wanted to be in charge, they wanted to dictate and we got slammed, the Democratic Party got slammed,” Mr. Alexander said.
Bernie’s lane has always been one of being anti-establishment, and his supporters usually feel the same way about the powers of Washington making decisions which can cultivate or quell grassroots activism.
Is Bernie the natural heir in 2020?
Very often in politics, it’s the runner-up who tends to get the nomination the next time around. This has held true, to various extents, in recent years, and it could be natural to assume that Bernie Sanders should have a natural advantage having pulled in a huge chunk of Democratic primary support in 2016.
Author David Byler, writing in the Washington Post, wonders aloud why Bernie isn’t rising to the top in 2020, and also finds some trends in polling data which, he claims, clearly show that Bernie’s campaign was being built on shaky ground:
It feels as though Bernie Sanders should be winning the 2020 Democratic primary. In 2016, he surprised most observers by getting 43 percent of the primary vote and posting a strong second-place finish to eventual nominee Hillary Clinton. His fundraising numbers were genuinely impressive, and his solid vote total suggested that he had, like Donald Trump, tapped into a big, underserved and misunderstood constituency. It would be natural to assume that Sanders — like fellow second-place finishers John McCain, Mitt Romney, Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton — would become a next-in-line-style front-runner for the Democratic nomination this year.
So what gives? Byler finds some answers:
Some of Sanders’s problems should have been visible early in the campaign.
Pollsters have repeatedly found that voters are wary of voting for senior citizens or candidates labeled as “socialists.” Recently, a Gallup poll found that only 65 percent of Democrats said they would vote for a qualified Democratic presidential candidate “over the age of 70,” though so far that doesn’t seem to be a problem for Biden, who is 76. Seventy-four percent said they would vote for a socialist, an improvement from 2015 and a gap that might be closed by anti-Trump sentiments. But only 47 percent of all voters said they would vote for a well-qualified socialist, suggesting major hurdles for Sanders in a general election — and for Democratic voters obsessed with electability.
And as the primary progresses, voters might think harder about these qualities. Remember that in the 2018 House Democratic primaries, candidates backed by Our Revolution (a Sanders-adjacent group), Justice Democrats (another progressive group) and Sanders himself often failed to win primaries. And a recent Gallup poll showed that a majority of Democrats wanted the party to become “more moderate” — a vague term, to be sure, but one that probably doesn’t refer to what Sanders is trying to do — rather than “more liberal” in the future.
Byler concludes that the Democratic Party, at least the mainstream of it and likely majority or at least plurality, simply want to win in 2020 above anything else. The fear, among voters who may even have a positive view of Bernie, is that he simply wouldn’t be able to win in the general election against Donald Trump.
Fair or not, Bernie takes a slap in polling, even from Democrats, as being an “old socialist,” which itself carries many negative connotations.
As it stands, Bernie has now been pushed into the middle of the pack, fighting with other candidates infringing into the progressive lane:
Sanders could end up carving a large base out of young and very liberal voters, as he did in 2016. But for now he’s competing with Kamala D. Harris, Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand and others for his natural constituencies and is only at 16.4 percent in the RealClearPolitics national average. That’s more than enough to keep him in the game, but he needs to build on that figure to win.
Can Bernie still win? Of course! It’s only May. The first Democratic debate doesn’t happen until the end of June which will be an adrenalin shot for all the campaigns. Perhaps Bernie can stand out and deliver his message in a way to garner more support and put voters at ease that a President Sanders might be an attainable goal.
Bernie has a pool of ardent supporters so he has the resources to go the distance. Perhaps as other candidates drop, Bernie can consolidate support and begin to build up his base and begin to more evenly challenge Biden for the long haul.