There’s been no more consistent performer in the field of Democratic presidential candidates than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). From the day he first announced his candidacy in the spring of 2015 straight on through to today, as he makes his second run for the White House, his message has remained constant, his style has varied not at all. Bernie is Bernie.
The policy ideas he put forward in the 2016 race, during his surprisingly strong challenge to Hillary Clinton, have become more broadly accepted within the Democratic Party. He has defined and expanded the party’s progressive wing and given voice to liberals who found Barack Obama’s presidency disappointing for its timidity in areas of policy. He has made the words “democratic socialism” part of the political lexicon.
Sanders has redefined presidential fundraising, demonstrating in 2016 that the traditional approach of relying on wealthy individuals to write checks for the maximum allowed under the law and building a big team of bundlers who would raise hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars through their personal networks wasn’t the only way. Sanders showed that small but regular contributions from hundreds of thousands of people can fuel and sustain an underdog candidacy without.
The senator from Vermont’s first-quarter performance — financially, politically and rhetorically — helped establish him as a power in the contest for the nomination. As the Democratic field took shape in those earlier months, he became the biggest name and impressed some of the skeptics who discounted him.
But Sanders is no longer the biggest name in the field. That title now goes to former vice president Joe Biden, who became a candidate just two weeks ago. His entry into the 2020 fray and the initial impact of his candidacy have pointed to questions about the trajectory of Sanders’s candidacy and what it may portend for next year when the primaries and caucuses begin.
Polling provides a partial and fleeting look at where things will be by the end of this year, as well as modest indicators of the moment. By that measure, what’s happened since Biden announced his candidacy has been good for the former vice president and not so good for Sanders.
Biden has gotten a surprising bump in the polls — beyond what many Democratic strategists had predicted. Those who said Biden’s best day as a candidate would be the day before he announced have been proven wrong. Biden’s support nationally, and in some states, has risen. Maybe the doubters will have the last laugh, as Biden still has much to prove, but as short-term prognosticators, those who predicted a quick unraveling of his candidacy have been found wanting.
Earlier this year, as Biden waited to announce his decision, advisers were insistent that his standing in the polls among Democratic voters reflected something other than just name identification. They argued that his support — he was usually atop the field or in a statistical tie with Sanders — was based on knowledge of Biden’s record over 40-plus years in public office and on perceptions of his character. They said the support also was more durable than many believed.
Biden must prove them right over months and months of campaigning, something he’s not done in his previous two runs for the White House. Early indicators on this are mixed. But for Democrats looking for something to challenge President Trump, Biden has made a good first impression — and the attention he’s drawn from the president is one measure.
Trump, who has long enjoyed taking shots at Sanders, has redirected his aim toward Biden repeatedly since he announced his candidacy. On Friday, Trump tried to play political handicapper, a foreshadowing perhaps of how he intends to serve as a running commentator of the Democratic race: In a tweet, he noted that it now looked like a two-person race for the nomination. “Everyone else is fading fast,” Trump wrote.
The Democratic race is far from a two-person contest, as the other candidates will attest. At this point, however, Biden and Sanders stand above the pack. But what’s happened since Biden announced is a widening of the gap between him and the senator from Vermont. On the day Biden announced his candidacy, the RealClearPolitics average of national polls showed him at 29 percent and Sanders at 23 percent. As of Thursday, Biden’s average was 41 percent and Sanders’s average was at 15 percent, based on a sample of five polls.
One issue for Sanders is the erosion in the support he received in 2016. He won New Hampshire with nearly 60 percent of the vote. He lost Iowa but ended up in a near-tie with Clinton. Today, his support in both those states lags significantly from those performances. In a field of 20-plus candidates, Sanders doesn’t need nearly the level of support he got in 2016 to win or be a significant factor, but his current poll average in New Hampshire of 15 percent is not a healthy sign.
Sanders has a loyal base. The question is just how big or small that core support is. He is being squeezed from several directions.
Biden is obviously having some impact on Sanders right now, particularly with self-identified Democrats, some of whom question Sanders’s party allegiance. He also could have a bigger challenge in persuading a broad swath of Democratic primary voters that he would be the party’s strongest challenger against Trump.
Sanders is being challenged in another way by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). In 2016, Sanders was the unquestioned leader in the offering of big, progressive ideas. Now, that’s far less the case: Others in the field have embraced some of his 2016 ideas, such as Medicare-for-all. Warren has gone further, offering specific policies on child care and student-debt relief, along with a wealth tax that she says would provide the revenue to pay for her initiatives. Sanders no longer has a premium on big ideas.
From the perspective of Biden’s team, the former vice president has used the past few weeks to answer some questions about his candidacy. Those who wondered whether waiting as long as he did to get into the race was a mistake have evidence that it didn’t cost him anything politically to hang back. Those who wondered whether he could raise money have seen him top all other candidates with his first-day haul of $6.3 million. He is raising it the old-fashioned way, with high-dollar events.
Using images of the white-nationalist march in Charlottesville as the focus of his introductory video, Biden forcefully demonstrated his intention to make opposition to Trump the centerpiece of his campaign. No other candidate has gone that far, and Biden’s message was designed to capture the attention of the majority of Democrats who desperately want to defeat Trump in 2020.
Sanders clearly recognizes the threat Biden poses to his candidacy. He has already drawn attention to their policy differences on trade and the Iraq War, and they will clash more directly in the future. The senator’s strengths have long been demonstrated, and they will carry him forward. Right now, however, Biden’s entry has jolted the Sanders candidacy, offering a reminder that his second campaign will not be quite like the first.