Bernie Sanders Just Might Win This Thing

His campaign continues to defy the odds, and now there's a path forward.

Photo: Flickr | Phil Roeder

We are seven weeks from the first votes being cast in the Democratic primary, and Sen. Bernie Sanders has a better shot of becoming president than ever before.

The Democratic nominee has the most dedicated supporters, a historic number of individual donations for any candidate of any party, the most coveted endorsements amongst progressives, the most money on hand and he’s competitive in pretty much every state in the country. Not only that, but about half of the Democratic electorate hasn’t even made their minds up yet, except for Sanders supporters — who say they’re riding with him until the end.

Just six weeks ago, this may have been incomprehensible. Sanders’ campaign was being written off. He’d had a heart attack, Warren seemed prepared to rise, and the progressive lane to the nomination was allegedly impeded.

Fast forward to today, and all that conventional wisdom has been turned on its head. Instead of falling the polls, Sanders steadily rose while Warren’s numbers seemed to slip. The individual donations have kept pouring in. And the first time the public got a look at Sanders after his health scare, he turned in perhaps his strongest debate performance yet.

So where are we now?

The chatter about Bernie — and his position in Iowa and New Hampshire — is as positive as its ever been. Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama aide and now the co-host of Pod Save America, tweeted earlier this week that “Bernie Sanders' chances of winning the nomination are being underestimated and under-discussed. He might be the candidate with the best chance to sweep IA, NH, NV before we ever get to South Carolina.” In October, Sanders received the endorsements of Ilhan Omar, Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, three of the most well-known minority women in Congress. Peter Daou, a former Clinton aide who once called Sanders’s movement a “hate movement against one woman,” is now forcefully backing Sanders in 2020 and apologizing it took him so long to come around. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an African-American academic, wrote a piece in The New York Times this week saying that the media was stuck in 2016 and still didn’t understand how Sanders was winning this moment. Then yesterday, Sanders won the endorsement of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, one of the most important progressive groups in the country (it has 600,000 members).


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Of course, there are still divisions on the left when it comes to Sanders. He’s been continuously accused of sexism and racism despite putting together one of the most diverse campaign teams of 2020. In a recent Politico article, Ryan Lizza wrote that if Sanders appeared to be running away with the nomination, Obama may step in to stop him. Perhaps nothing illustrated the current climate better than an interaction between Luke Savage, a writer at the socialist magazine Jacobin, and Mendoza Ferrer, a frequent critic of Sanders on the left:

Some people may object to the plausibility of Sanders. When you look at the polls alone, Biden is still the favorite. He remains stubbornly ahead of the pack, gaffes and predictions of his downfall be damned, and voters still seem to think he’s the most likely to beat Trump. He’s also still got the majority of black support amongst Democratic voters, which is key to the nomination.

And yet, as Nate Silver said on Tuesday, “Bernie’s chances can be improving even if he isn’t moving up in the polls much. It’s more that there’s nothing standing in way of his winning given where the other candidates are now.”

And that’s the key here. Sanders’ path to the nomination doesn’t require a stranglehold on the polls, it’s alive and healthy enough that a few breaks his way could turn the whole race on its head. First up will be Iowa, which — if Bernie won — would really throw gas on everything. Ahead of Iowa last year, Bernie was trailing Clinton by about three points in the polls and ended up tying her. Yesterday, Emerson released a poll showing Biden and Sanders neck-and-neck in Iowa (23% and 22%, respectively). But, again, the poll alone doesn’t tell the full story: Sanders rose 9 points since an October poll that had him at 13% while Biden essentially remained the same. Those are two very different trends, and if Sanders passes Biden — or simply stays close before February 2nd — I’ve got no reason to think he doesn’t come out on top. The enthusiasm of his supporters will do the rest.

If Sanders wins Iowa, the whole race opens up. He’s within striking distance in New Hampshire, only trailing Buttigieg by three points in the latest RealClearPolitics average. If he wins in Iowa and gets even half of the seven-point average bump that sometimes comes with that win, he could end up with a clean sweep of the first two states on the ballot. Which moves everything to Nevada, a state with a huge non-white Latino voting bloc that will push Biden’s apparent advantage to its absolute edge.

Assuming Biden’s lead in South Carolina is rock solid, which it appears to be, all of this sets up a best-case scenario for Sanders that he leaves the first four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina) with three clear victories. In a more likely scenario, he picks up one of Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire, while splitting delegates elsewhere. And then what happens? What happens when the biggest and most enthusiastic base of any candidate springs into action with the power of belief behind them, and with good evidence to show the rest of the country that Sanders is legit? Plus, they don’t even have to make the electability argument: they can point to the countless polls consistently showing Sanders mopping the floor with Trump in a general election.

I was struck by this passage from the aforementioned New York Times piece about Sanders’ support:

Mr. Sanders is the top recipient for donations by teachers, farmers, servers, social workers, retail workers, construction workers, truckers, nurses and drivers as of September. He claims that his donors’ most common employers are Starbucks, Amazon and Walmart, and the most common profession is teaching. Mr. Sanders is also the leading recipient of donations from Latinos as well as the most popular Democrat among registered Latinos who plan to vote in the Nevada and California primaries. According to Essence magazine, Mr. Sanders is the favorite candidate among black women aged 18 to 34. Only 49 percent of his supporters are white, compared with 71 percent of Warren supporters. Perhaps most surprising, more women under 45 support him than men under 45.

And that says nothing of the fact he has more support with under 35 voters than every other candidate combined.

Enter Super Tuesday, the election day of the primary with the most delegates up for grabs of any single day in the race. How would you rate Sanders’ odds in California, where he’s leading in some polls and has the largest ground game of any candidate? What about Texas? Biden seems to have a healthy lead there but, again, the polls (which have been infrequent) don’t tell the full story. The state has a sizeable Latino voting population and could turn on a dime with a pro-Sanders endorsement from someone like Beto O’Rourke, who has traded staff with Sanders in both directions over the last few years.

Then there’s the Warren factor. Conventional wisdom suggests she and Sanders share a lot of supporters and are competing for the same lane in the primary. Polls often don’t reflect this, showing the second choice of many Warren voters is actually someone other than Sanders. But imagine for a moment that after Super Tuesday, or before, Warren’s path to a nomination no longer looks viable. The odds of Warren endorsing Sanders, or even joining his campaign as Vice President, seem astronomically higher than anything else. Then where do her supporters go?


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Of course, there’s a lot of conjecture here. We’re months out from Super Tuesday and states worth the hundreds of delegates necessary to win the nomination haven’t even been polled yet. As FiveThirtyEight writers have noted, there is a giant “black hole” of what we know after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

But timing is everything, and seven weeks out from the first ballots being cast, Sanders is trending in the right direction while Warren is slipping in the polls. The biggest thing standing in his way is Joe Biden, a moderate, establishment Democrat that seems out of step for a moment being seized by populism and the progressive base of the party. That simple reality, along with the facts of Sanders’ grassroots campaign, the way the polls are trending and the money he has to spend, make him as viable a winner as anyone right now. If I were a gambling man, I certainly wouldn’t bet against him. In fact, I might start betting on him.