Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. (CJ Gunther/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Data analyst and political columnist

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.

But so far, that hasn’t happened. Sanders isn’t winning, and it’s not even that close. The RealClearPolitics average has put his national support somewhere in the high teens to the low to mid-20s for most of the campaign, with Joe Biden consistently leading him by a solid margin. Sanders is ahead of the rest of the field, but recent polls from Quinnipiac and Monmouth show Elizabeth Warren within just a few points of Sanders, and Sanders is trailing Biden in Iowa and New Hampshire.

In retrospect, Sanders’s problems may not be so surprising. Polling and election results have shown that older, socialist men might face an uphill climb in the Democratic Party of 2019, and that his base was never as big as his 2016 result suggested. Sanders still has a solid shot at winning — a better shot than most, in fact. But he may never have had the right profile, base or approach to follow the pattern set by previous heirs apparent to their parties’ nominations.

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.

And many of the Democrats who supported him in 2016 may not have been true, die-hard Sanders fanatics in the first place. Sanders won 43 percent of the overall Democratic primary vote in 2016. But, as FiveThirtyEight reported, 10 percent of Democratic primary voters went for Sanders in the primaries and someone other than Clinton in the general election. Some of these voters may have been Sanders fans who really would have voted for him but not Clinton in the general, but many of them were probably registering a protest vote against Clinton rather than an affirmative vote for Sanders. Sanders can’t count on those voters to all back him this time.

The younger and progressive voters who supported Sanders in 2016 still make up a substantial chunk of the party, but Sanders has more competition for these Democrats now than ever before. According to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, only about a quarter of Democratic primary voters were born after 1980 (i.e., millennials and Generation Z), and the survey data shows that liberals (not all of whom are true progressives) have only recently become a majority in the Democratic Party.

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.

Bernie Sanders talks a lot about a political revolution — a grass-roots uprising in which everyday Americans turn out at unprecedented rates and elect politicians who will radically change policy on everything from climate to campaign finance. Longtime Sanders fans might despair for that revolution as Biden, the most conventional Democrat imaginable, continues to lead in the polls and Sanders (at least temporarily) flounders. But it’s worth noting that Harris, Warren and Sanders together have 33.6 percent of the vote — similar to Biden’s 34.8 percent. Sanders’s revolution may arrive in 2020; it’s just that the people inspired by it may want someone other than Bernie Sanders to lead them.