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Has Bernie lost his luster?

If, in early 2015, someone had told me that a rumpled, 75-year-old socialist senator from a small, rural state would garner 45% of the Presidential primary vote against a former first lady, senator from New York, and secretary of state, I’d have checked them into a psych ward. Now, four years later, a reality TV host is President, Alabama has a liberal Democrat as Senator, the most popular member of Congress is a 29-year-old Latina socialist and, frankly, anything is possible.

These recent events have shattered long-held preconceived notions about the barriers of entry–both regarding identity and ideology–for political office. Long past are the days when conventional wisdom dictated that only old white men and inoffensive centrists could possibly win competitive elections. This is evidenced presently by the massive Democratic presidential primary field already taking shape early in the 2020 cycle.

At present, nearly a dozen major candidates have already launched campaigns, with as many as a dozen more poised to join the fray. For reference, by this point in the 2016 Republican primary–a massive 16-way free for all–not a single major candidate had yet announced, nor would they for another month.

Among the declared candidates are an unprecedented number of women and minorities. These include Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old, openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana (population: 102,000), Tulsi Gabbard a 37-year-old Hindu and Samoan-American Congresswoman from Hawaii and, most prominently, Kamala Harris, the 54-year-old Black and Indian-American Senator from California. Adding to the diversity are Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Julian Castro, who, together, make this field the one of the youngest, and by far the most racially and sexually diverse Presidential primary field in American history.

And then there’s Bernie Sanders.

In 2016, with a message of economic equality and anti-establishmentarianism, Sanders led a massive McGovernesque coalition of millennials, leftists, and white working-class voters to a shockingly formidable challenge against his powerful opponent, Hillary Clinton. While he failed to thwart her path to the nomination, he succeeded in massively transforming both the Democratic party and the country in his image.

In 2016, Sanders shocked the nation with his energized, insurgent bid that nearly toppled a titan
Source: Bernie Sanders

There can be no doubt that Bernie Sanders has shifted America’s Overton window substantially to the left, most notably on healthcare. In 2013, Sanders introduced a bill that would’ve instituted a “Medicare-for-All” single-payer healthcare system in the US, overhauling private healthcare with a socialized system. At the time, the proposal–seen as a fringe left-wing position, especially coming just a few years after President Obama received a lot of flack from Republicans just for creating public exchanges for private insurance–garnered little support from his congressional colleagues. 6 years later, after he championed it on the Presidential campaign trail and in Congress after the 2016 election, Democrats have changed their tune considerably.

Now, nearly every Democratic candidate for President has their own proposal for single-payer, a public option or something else resembling Sanders’s once-shunned idea. It doesn’t stop with healthcare. Bernie is known for decrying the disproportionate political and economic power of banks, corporations and the top 1 percent of wage earners. Much of the Democratic party has followed suit.

Several Presidential candidates have proposed working towards economic equality through wealth taxes, putting workers on corporate boards and making it far more difficult for corporations to buy elections. Just this week, Democratic lawmakers in New York thwarted a plan for the state to give corporate behemoth Amazon $3 billion in tax breaks in exchange for them building a second headquarters in Queens.

Besides policy, Bernie’s run has also served as the catalyst for a massive shift in public perception of socialism. In a 2012 Gallup poll, 53% of Democrats viewed socialism favorably, compared to 55% percent who held a favorable view of capitalism. That same Gallup poll in 2018 showed socialism shooting up to 57% while capitalism dropped a considerable eight points to 47%. Among all Americans, the favorability gap between Capitalism and socialism has narrowed from 15 in 2016 to just 9 in 2018. Additionally, Bernie has now been joined in Congress by fellow democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who has achieved political stardom as the left’s answer to Donald Trump. It’s doubtful her ascent could’ve occurred without Sanders’ influence.

The favorability gap between capitalism and socialism has narrowed since Bernie’s 2016 run
Source: Gallup

Now more than ever, this is Bernie Sanders’ Democratic party. He is reportedly gearing up for a second run for the White House, having just recorded his announcement video. On paper, he should be a shoe-in for the nomination. After all, he showed considerable electoral strength against long odds in 2016 and basically introduced the platform that more than half the field is championing. And yet, as things stand, he’s nowhere close to being the favorite.

Far from being an overwhelming frontrunner, Bernie has not led in a single national Democratic primary poll. Instead, he consistently comes second to former Vice President Joe Biden, typically garnering between 10 and 20 points. One recent Iowa poll even showed Sanders’ usual second place standing co-opted by Harris, who had a particularly strong campaign rollout in late January. While Sanders could see a polling boost following his official campaign launch, the current numbers show troubling signs for his 2020 prospects.

Part of the reason Biden is consistently polling in first, typically with anywhere from 25 to 45 points, is because he is virtually unchallenged as the standard bearer for the moderate establishment wing of the party. Few can hold a candle to his experience and the longevity of his tenure in Washington, and most candidates aren’t clambering to occupy the same ideological space as Biden–that is, a rust belt centrist who can, theoretically, appeal to blue-collar white voters in the general election. Sanders, on the other hand, has seen his 2016 appeal replicated by the vast majority of the announced candidates.

Sanders has not led the field in a single 2020 primary poll so far
Source: RealClearPolitics

Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, and Kamala Harris, for instance, have all adopted platforms that are markedly similar, if not even further left, than Sanders’ 2016 platform. Tulsi Gabbard, one of the few members of Congress who endorsed Sanders in 2016, espouses similarly dovish stance on foreign intervention to Sanders, who campaigned hard in 2016 on his “no” vote for the Iraq War. Buttigieg is making a strong anti-establishment pitch as arguably the biggest outsider in the race, co-opting Sanders who, since the 2016 election, has taken on an active role in Senate Democratic leadership. By the time Sanders enters the race, he may be left with just the scraps of his former coalition, now dispersed between the many younger and more diverse progressives in the race.

To be sure, Sanders still elicits strong devotion and gratitude from his diehard supporters. The question is, how many of those were there really in the first place? While he packed stadiums in New York and California, Clinton won both those states overwhelmingly, suggesting that some of his movement may have been more smoke-and-mirrors than true strength in numbers.
His big wins came in states like West Virginia and Kentucky, which have also elevated statewide officials like Joe Manchin and Steve Beshear, some of the most conservative Democrats in recent political history. This suggests that much of Bernie’s coalition may have been more motivated by an anti-Hillary sentiment than a pro-Bernie one

There is no chance that Bernie can replicate the 45% he won in 2016, just considering the sheer number of major progressive opponents he’s facing. While the primaries are a long way away–and many random factors could still come into play beforehand–Bernie’s path to the nomination is increasingly narrow. It seems that the Democratic party that he helped create might just leave him behind come 2020.


Learn more

GQ – The Unfinished Business of Bernie Sanders

Fox News – Bernie Sanders poised to announce 2020 decision by end of February

The Guardian – Bernie Sanders may run again, but has his outsider’s edge worn off?

Andrew Solender ’20 is the Editor-in-Chief of the VPR and a political science major and history correlate. He has worked as a political reporter for Chronogram Magazine, Inside Sources, and City & State NY. 

Follow this author on twitter: @AndrewSolender

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