vision 2020

Could Bernie Win This Thing After All?

He’s like a kid out there. Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images

Joe Biden leads most polls; Elizabeth Warren has sometimes been considered the real frontrunner; Pete Buttigieg is surging in Iowa. Where does that leave Bernie Sanders? I spoke with politics editor Ezekiel Kweku and senior writer Eric Levitz about whether the Vermont senator has been underestimated in recent weeks, and what his path to the nomination might look like.

Ben: Just a few weeks ago, Bernie Sanders suffered a heart attack and told a reporter he’d be cutting back on his vigorous campaign schedule — a remark he quickly took back. Since then, he has shown no sign of physical problems, had probably his strongest debate yet, and done quite well in early-state polls, consistently bunched up near the top in Iowa and New Hampshire. In the lefty lane, Elizabeth Warren has gotten a lot of the attention lately, what with the billionaires arrayed against her. Are (some) people now underrating Bernie’s chances to actually win this thing?

Ezekiel: My feeling is that his relative strength with black and Latino voters compared to Warren makes him a tier-one candidate, which is what I’ve always believed, and putting him below that is underrating him.

Ben: Indeed, there have been multiple pieces recently about his solid Latino support. And in a South Carolina poll released this week, he was second only to Biden among black voters (granted, there was a 34 point drop-off).

Eric: Some surely are underrating him. I think Warren has lost steam due to her front-runner status triggering more skeptical media coverage (her related decision to dig into Medicare for All financing may have also played some role). That, plus Sanders’s surprisingly robust (ostensible) health, plus the firmness of his core support, plus strength of his fundraising, plus new centrist candidates coming out of the woodwork to split the vote have all made his odds look a bit better in recent weeks. The more crowded the field in Iowa, the more plausible it is that Bernie rides the devotion of his core base to a narrow plurality win, which could then boost him to victory in New Hampshire, which would probably force Warren out of the race. So you can construct a path.

Ben: The usual knock on Bernie in terms of his viability is that he has his diehards, but has had trouble expanding beyond that group. Would he necessarily be the first place Warren voters looked if their candidate went down? Numbers show that the Warren and Buttigieg fan base, for example, may have more in common, demographic-wise, than the Warren and Bernie fan bases.

Eric: I think it would partly depend on whether she endorses, and whether her supporters in the progressive media/think tank world see Bernie as viable enough to rally behind. A lot depends on what the rest of the field looks like. If Bernie wins Iowa and New Hampshire, I’m not sure that Pete makes it too far. Could become a Bernie-Biden race fairly quickly.

Ezekiel: I agree that it will depend on who she endorses. I also feel like we tend to overestimate how ideological even primaries are. I haven’t checked since the Buttigieg boom, but polls of “second choices” tended not to conform with ideology. So I think you’re onto something when you say that Warren’s voters may not necessarily flow to Sanders. I think the fact that voters are so focused on electability makes the race more fluid than it would ordinarily be. If a candidate stumbles in a way that makes them seem less plausible in a general election, it could kill their candidacy pretty quickly. I think that’s what happened with Harris, for instance.

Ben: Sanders enjoys tweaking the press for downplaying his odds, and him in general. I often find those criticisms to be overdone. But it is true that Warren has many supporters in the world of opinion-shaping media — to what extent does that play a role in their diverging (and now more converging) paths?

Eric: I think one reason for Warren’s high support (relative to Sanders) among opinion-shaping media is that she is better exemplar of (progressive) professional-class virtue. She comes to politics through policy wonkery, and seems to have really done her homework on all the major issues. Whereas Sanders is a former overeducated, underemployed left-wing activist who is less detail-oriented in his policy advocacy. A second reason is that she is a bit less hostile to the Democratic Party as an institution. I think those two qualities also give her a distinct (and potentially larger) coalition among Democratic primary voters than Bernie’s. I think she derives some independent benefit from her support among opinion journalists. But I think her main media advantage had been that even MSM reportage on her was kind of soft, in part because the Fourth Estate wants a competitive race and admires her emphasis on policy.

Once she became the front-runner though, mainstream coverage turned a bit, and that’s helped Bernie gain ground. I do think if Sanders starts outpolling Warren consistently, you’ll see coverage of him become much more prominent and intensely negative, which might knock him right back down, especially if his rivals successfully stoke the electability fears Ezekiel referenced.

Ezekiel: I confess that I have found the Warren/Bernie debates to be tiresome in an unproductive manner for awhile — but I think Warren is more popular than Bernie with the media because of the way she has consistently framed her positions in terms of old-school American liberalism (which the media likes) instead of “democratic socialism,” which the media does not like. The reasons that the media doesn’t like that framing is part of why Bernie chose it in the first place, so I don’t really understand the complaints that the media doesn’t like Bernie. I think the wonkery is a little less causal. You can easily imagine Warren getting the “egghead professor with ivory tower plans” label if she had framed her candidacy in a way similar to Sanders.

Eric: True. She does still get a little of that, to be fair.

Ben: The biggest vein of negative coverage for Warren has concerned her attachment to Medicare for All, the policy Bernie really popularized. Warren backed off her all-or-nothing approach last week in an effort to appease possibly uncomfortable voters, but it’s hard to imagine Bernie doing something similar. If he gets closer to the nomination, will he encounter the same level of skepticism she did? Or does he sort of get extra credit for having been touting his exact vision of the world for many years? Can he use his authenticity, in other words, as a kind of shield?

Eric: Well, Warren ended up facing more skepticism than Sanders on M4A financing (even though he has not released any detailed plan for how he’d pay for his version of the program) for two reasons: (1) At the last debate, everyone had an incentive to take a swing at the new front-runner, and no one considered the 78-year-old socialist who’d just come back from a heart attack to be a serious threat. (2) Bernie copped to the need to raise middle-class taxes to some degree, while Warren didn’t.

I think if Bernie moved solidly into second place, Biden & Co. would stop saying “at least Bernie has leveled with the American people on this” and start pointing out that the list of pay-fors he released does not add up to the estimated cost of his program.

Ezekiel: I feel like her phase-in approach (like her head tax) is an attempt to avoid getting criticism from the media, and I think it might work. The problem with it is that the more complicated your approach, the harder it is to rebut attacks on it effectively. I don’t think her new approach is going to blunt attacks from other candidates in the primary, and I don’t think it will be easier to defend in a general election. I could be wrong.

Eric: I think Warren subsequently decided that Bernie has a lock on single-issue single-payer voters, and so there’s a bit less upside for her to remain 100 percent ideologically maximalist on the issue than for him. Mostly though, I think her campaign was probably freaked out by Pete’s sudden surge in Iowa. I have no idea how her pivot will play out politically.

Ben: Do you have any thoughts about Bernie’s “electability” versus the other front-runners right now? He has a good case that he’d activate voters disgusted by both parties in a way that no other candidate would?

Eric: I think there are decent electability arguments for and against all the major candidates. I think Bernie’s is stronger than mainstream punditry (which, in my view, tends to mechanically equate policy moderation with electability) suggests. The fact that he has served as an Independent for decades gives him some appeal to anti-Establishment indie voters of various ideological stripes. Or so Nate Cohn’s recent polling suggests. Meanwhile, his rhetorical emphasis on class and “bread-and-butter issues” appears more electorally expedient than Clinton’s 2016 emphasis on Trump’s unfitness for office/a cosmopolitan conception of American identity. And he’d help minimize the threat of a left-wing third-party challenger (albeit potentially increasing the threat of a centrist one).

Ezekiel: I don’t have a good answer to that, I’ll be honest. Right now I feel like loosely attached indie voters might be more attracted to Sanders, but I’m not sure what will happen to that if he were to actually be in a general election with Trump. I can imagine diminished enthusiasm with bundlers and donors being a problem — it kind of depends on how strongly the Establishment would rally to him if he were to win. A lot of unknowns.

Could Bernie Win This Thing After All?