I’ll start with a paragraph explaining what this post is not. It is not a post telling you who to vote for. It is not a post suggesting you not waste your vote on Bernie Sanders. It is not a post that argues Bernie Sanders is a bad nominee for the Democratic Party, or that he is an unelectable candidate. (I don’t think either sentiment is true.) Finally, it is not, as the title might suggest, an overview of his life, an evaluation of his ideology, or an examination of his record.
I started with such a paragraph because supporters of Sanders are unrivaled in their open passion for their candidate, and many times over I’ve witnessed their physiological reaction when someone doubts their candidate. Look, I’m honestly not a Bernie hater. I have never advocated for a candidate on this blog, and there is zero chance Hillary Clinton will break that streak. If anything, I wish he was more competitive so the Democratic half of the 2016 would stay as interesting as its GOP counterpart. Nevertheless, in the weeks since my Clinton Climb post, my focus shifted to the Republican race, and several readers across social media and email have wanted me to address Sanders’s candidacy, so here it is.
Today’s approach will be to look at recent history in order to best predict how Sanders’s campaign will perform. When I ask, “Who is Bernie Sanders?,” I’ll be looking at other candidates, present and past, to see which one he best matches. If I can find that candidate, it could be a predictive discovery. For example:
Bernie Sanders is not Hillary Clinton
Well, obviously, but it’s a good place to start. The Democratic Primary is not a toss up between two candidates polling well. Criticisms against the mainstream media in favor of Sanders have been unfounded in this regard. It’s been my perception that the media, in a ratings-driven effort to promote a horse race, has actually furthered Sanders’s candidacy. Candidates who poll 50 to 60 points are overwhelming favorites, but the fact that Sanders has polled 20 to 35 over the second half of 2015 coupled with no other viable Democratic option has given us the narrative that it’s a two person race, optics that have elevated Sanders from being 20 to 30 points back to being nipping at Clinton’s heels. It’s been galvanizing to his supporters to construct a “Sanders against the world” narrative (the sports equivalent of the utterly manufactured “Nobody Believes In Us” team), but the very fact that many people think this primary is competitive shows that the Sanders campaign has an ally in media coverage.
Unfortunately for Sanders, he is an object in Clinton’s rearview that is much further than he appears. I mostly addressed this factor in the aforementioned “Clinton Climb” post. Once Joe Biden declared he wasn’t running, we entered into the “modern era” of the 2016 primary. The dynamics drastically changed, and the polls reflect that. Before Biden’s announcement, Clinton’s national lead was mostly in the teens and single digits. Since then, it’s been in the 20s and 30s. Her Iowa lead was narrow, and she even trailed in a couple Iowa polls. Now the lead is back in the double digits.
Much is made about Sanders’s tremendous New Hampshire numbers, so let’s take a closer look at the Granite State. Sanders does indeed have a 2-point RCP average lead in New Hampshire. To his credit, the Vermont senator has leveraged New Hampshire as his home away from home into a state he can win. It’s also not lost on this blogger that beating expectations in the New Hampshire primary can redirect the narrative of a primary cycle. We saw this most notably with Clinton in 1992 and McCain in 2000.
But here’s the thing: Bill Clinton didn’t even win the New Hampshire Primary in 1992. Paul Tsongas, from next door Massachusetts, did. Clinton coming in second right after the Gennifer Flowers scandal that threatened to end his political career was a huge boost. Just like Tsongas’s homefield advantage gave him an expected victory that did little to help, would a narrow Sanders victory actually be beating expectations at this point? I say no. We’ve all talked ourselves into New Hampshire being his best shot at an early primary. As a result, expectations have been raised so high for Sanders in New Hampshire that anything short of a big win would be disappointing. Even if that win did happen, the next two states — Nevada, where Clinton was up big even when Biden was in the race, and South Carolina, where she’s showing 50-point dominance — would quickly end any semblance of momentum.
And if Clinton were to win? That’s all she wrote for the 2016 Democratic Primary.
It’s also worth noting that McCain actually did win the New Hampshire primary, which got the media fired up, but due to being outmatched nearly everywhere else, he still got trounced the rest of the way.
Bernie Sanders is not Donald Trump
The comparison here stems from two arguments: both are populist candidates riding a wave of anti-establishment fervor, and both are drawing yuge crowds wherever they go. If the electricity Trump generates on the campaign trail helps make him a favorite for the nomination, then why isn’t the Sanders charge taken more seriously? Further, both are usually polling in the high 20s and low 30s.
One look at the polling and respective fields answers that question. Trump was up 20 points in the latest CNN poll, and he’s up big just about everywhere else, too. Meanwhile, in a field of 14 remaining candidates, his 30 to 35 points looks pretty impressive. In contrast, Sanders’s deficits are wider than Trump’s leads. Moreover, there is no clear establishment choice in the Republican field (seven Republican candidates have earned between six and twenty-nine endorsements from elected officials), while the Democratic Party has lined up behind Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders is not Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz
The case here is that Rubio has become the oddsmakers’ favorite to be the nominee, while Rubio and Cruz are ranked ahead of Trump in the industry-leading Presidential Politics for America‘s Power Rankings, yet they are both in double-digit deficits to Trump, like Sanders is to Clinton. If they are expected to overcome Trump’s big lead, why can’t Sanders?
It’s important to remember that pundits who expect a Trump demise are relying on past indicators of success. The argument for Rubio is that the party is demonstrably resistant to Trump’s candidacy. As a result, we keep expecting one member of the establishment will eventually be chosen to block his nomination, and Rubio seems like the mostly likely choice. The argument for Cruz is that he has a great shot at Iowa, South Carolina, and Super Tuesday’s southern states. He also has the most cash on hand and has a powerful SuperPAC supporting him, which helps him over the long run. Finally, if Trump does indeed collapse, his support will likely go to an anti-establishment candidate like Cruz.
Sanders, on the other hand, can claim none of these advantages. The party has already chosen their nominee, and she’s dominating in the polls with no end in sight. She also is up big across the south and has succumbed to the pressure of having a Super-PAC, rather than admirably eschewing one like Sanders has. (A quick word on that: Sanders refusing a Super-PAC is a nice microcosm of this entire campaign. His supporters adore him for for sticking to his principles and can’t wait until the rest of the party recognizes him for the prince that he is. Meanwhile, Clinton knows how to play dirty and will win because of it.)
Bernie Sanders is not Senator Obama 2008
Understandably, this is by far the most popular comparison out there, which seems like a good place to stop and pick up tomorrow. I’ll address this comparison and a couple more in my quest to predict the fate of Bernie Sanders.