Though many months remain before the first Democratic primaries, some pundits — and perhaps President Trump — are already prepared to declare Bernie Sanders’ campaign effectively over.
During a recent speech ostensibly related to infrastructure, Trump assured the crowd that they didn’t like Sanders’s kind of energy (though he stipulated Sanders might have a bit more in general than Biden). Perhaps following Trump’s lead, Fox has been especially fond of the ‘Bernie fades’ narrative. Meanwhile, a recent Atlantic piece wondered if Sanders might be losing the insurgent magic of his 2016 campaign, and the Post’s own David Byler has questioned why Sanders isn’t out in front, considering the advantage he had coming out of 2016. Does all of this add up to a flagging campaign?
I don’t think so. As Byler rightly points out, Sanders’s main impediment to a lead is Joe Biden — and there’s no arguing that, at least for the moment, the former vice president is ahead of the pack. And that’s no surprise. Polling has shown that Democrats are, by and large, pleased with the job President Obama did in office, and many (given the opportunity) even choose to identify themselves as ‘Obama Democrats.’ Biden was a very public part of that administration, so he’s naturally going to pull voters with fond feelings about the years that preceded Trump. And, since Sanders has been somewhat critical of Obama’s leadership, that bloc is unlikely to suddenly and entirely flip in his favor, especially at this extremely early stage in the race.
But Biden’s lead doesn’t mean Sanders is out. Byler observed in his piece that the senator from Vermont has held a steady high-teens to low-20s polling average against Biden; that hasn’t changed, even as others, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have gained. A couple of recent polls reinforce this steady run. A May 28th Morning Consult poll showed Sanders up from 19 percent to 20 percent, in second place behind Biden; meanwhile, a May 18 Economist/YouGov poll found that 41 percentof probable Democratic primary/caucus voters are considering Sanders, only a few percentage points behind Biden. A late-May Change Research poll also found Sanders tailing Biden with only a seven-percentage-point gap among likely Democratic primary voters in California — a state with numerous delegates in play. And Sanders still has plenty of funds, especially compared to the rest of the field.
Nor do Sanders’s crowds seem to be shrinking on the road, as Trump’s commentary on his energy might suggest. Bernie’s campaign swings routinely bring out crowds numbering in the thousands; even a recent stop at a Nevada middle school drew some 900. Campaigns with less in the way of enthusiastic turnout — such as Biden’s — certainly wouldn’t complain about Sanders’s crowd numbers, though they’re rarely accused of running out of steam for failing to match them.
Lastly, Sanders’s flagship commitments — the policies he championed and brought to the national stage, like Medicare for All — show no signs of flickering out among Dems. At a recent California campaign event, one of his primary rivals, John Delaney, was roundly booed for criticizing Medicare for All; John Hickenlooper was met with similar crowd disapproval for taking pot shots at the Vermont senator’s economics. Sanders’s critics in the party may not appreciate his left-running campaign pillars, but it seems they’ll either find themselves adopting some version of them — as several rival Democratic candidates have — or fighting an uphill battle against a base energized in part by his big ideas.
One of the many lessons of 2016 is that there’s plenty of art involved in the science of predicting the outcomes of volatile national races. Without having even seen 2020’s Democratic candidates engage in their first debates, it’s not especially responsible to begin talking about likely winners and likely dropouts, at least among the top competitors. But it seems fair to say that, on a number of measures, Sanders is hanging in there, rallying his base, and even building momentum in key areas — far from flagging or fading out of the race. Until the primaries themselves arrive and more concrete numbers come in — don’t write Sanders off.