If recent polls are any indication, Bernie Sanders may be peaking at just the right time. But why is the Vermont senator doing so much better than he was a few weeks ago? Or is that more a narrative than a reality? To get some answers (and puns), I spoke with national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti.
Ben: A couple months after being all but counted out by many following his heart attack and some fairly anemic polls, Bernie Sanders seems to be riding high. He topped a recent national CNN survey, is either on top or within close striking distance in Iowa depending on which organization you trust, and was well ahead in a WBUR’s latest New Hampshire poll. Oddsmakers, seeing a plausible path for him, now have Sanders neck and neck with Joe Biden to win the nomination. What do you think explains this late-in-the-game change in fortunes?
Gabriel: Ah, the Bernie “surge!” Can we talk about the parameters of all this first? A few things are obviously true: He’s had some good national polls, where his average has risen, and there have been recent NH and IA surveys with him in the lead. He’s raised more money than others. Elites have come around to the idea that he could definitely win, as I outlined in the magazine this week. But if we take a step back from (I’ll just say it) Twitter, the story isn’t quite so obviously surge-y. By the RealClearPolitics averages, he’s gained nearly four points in the last month nationally, meaning he’s cut his deficit (behind Biden) by three points. That’s clearly significant, and has had an obvious bearing on how his rivals are thinking about him. But in Iowa, he’s lost nearly three points in the last month. In New Hampshire, the only early state where he’s leading everyone else, he’s gained just one point. In Nevada, where he’s confident, he’s dropped very slightly, and remains behind Biden. Now, you could easily make the case that if you had to choose one candidate right now, Sanders’s position is among, or IS, the best. But let’s keep this context in mind.
Ben: Does this mean you’d attribute his rise — or seeming rise — more to other candidates falling than him actually getting more popular?
Gabriel: I think I’d attribute it at least in part to the elite media and political talkers waking up to his obvious strength. Something similar happened a few months back when the political world seemed to realize that, oh, yeah, Joe Biden is winning and always has been winning. Now, again, it’s obviously true that Sanders has gained ground in a few important ways. And that has coincided with the field narrowing. But it’s not like he’s had a clearly distinct rise that corresponds to any sharp drop in support for Buttigieg or Warren.
Ben: So I’m just a media groupthink sap?
Gabriel: Sap is a strong word.
Let me put it another way. There’s no doubt that folks on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire believe Sanders has been having a bit of a moment, and could definitely win both states, and the nomination. But I don’t think there’s any one thing that led to that realization, and I think the recent national reckoning on this (or, like, Twitter flurry and cable-news wake up) lags the states pretty significantly.
But I want to be really clear about this, because I’m definitely not saying, “Nothing to see here!” There is no doubt at all that other candidates spent a lot of the summer and fall, and even early winter, assuming Sanders wouldn’t ultimately be a huge threat to them. And that has changed.
Ben: Not to be repetitive, but if he is having this “moment,” why now?
Gabriel: Oh, you want me to actually answer your question instead of just being a scold? I get it.
Gabriel: Many factors, but most importantly:
(1) His staying power, and especially the demonstration in recent months that nothing will shake his base.
(2) Warren’s early winter slip in the polls, which clearly helped him slightly in some places.
(3) His fourth-quarter fundraising success woke a lot of people up.
(4) The slow-rolling realization that we’re about to enter the caucuses with at least five candidates potentially hitting double digits, plus at least two more competing for viability in some places, which means earning even 20 percent carries you a lot farther than a lot of folks assumed it would a few months ago.
Someone in Iowa recently made the case to me that there are only two candidates who have obvious, clear, unshakable bases: Bernie and Biden. And that’s a very powerful thing in a race like this.
Ben: Looking at the polls and the on-the-ground situation, to what extent do you think Sanders could bounce back from a disappointing finish in Iowa — say, third or fourth? And how much does it matter who finishes ahead of him in this scenario?
Gabriel: This kind of thing is very, very hard to game out, but especially for someone like Sanders. We’ve seen races where the Iowa result has a huge, unexpected impact on what happens in NH — see 2008 — and some where it’s not totally obvious what the effect is at all. In 2016, Sanders was going to win NH big before IA, and then he won NH big. All that said, I think a lot of people would be surprised and reconsider their thinking on this race if Warren finishes clearly ahead of Sanders in Iowa. But she’ll also face immense downward pressure from commentators and endorsers if he finishes clearly ahead of her. So, again, I don’t want to go too far down Conjecture Lane, but I also think we can safely establish that if Sanders disappoints in Iowa, his most committed supporters won’t go anywhere, and won’t take kindly to suggestions that his time has passed. And that’s a fairly significant reason to be optimistic, if you’re him.
Ben: I’m afraid Conjecture Lane is where we built this house.
Gabriel: We built this city on caucus polls. Wow, I’m so sorry.
Ben: I love it.
Ben: In your recent piece on the race to win there, you quoted someone who doubted the Sanders campaign’s organizational strength in the state. Does that track from what you’ve seen on the ground?
Gabriel: It’s more like, a huge part of Sanders’s bet, not just in Iowa but everywhere, is that he can expand the electorate, and that by bringing new people into the fold he can win. There are a lot of political types who believe two things about this theory: First, that if he can pull it off — and if it’s true, he is in fact poised to do it — he could win. Maybe by a lot. And second, that they have no evidence to believe it’s about to happen, based on what they’re seeing on the ground in these states. In other words, many of them agree there’s likely to be high turnout, but they don’t see reasons to think that it’ll be composed of previously disaffected voters activated by Sanders, beyond his base. The beauty of this is we’ll see which side of this debate is right very soon.
Ben: How excited are you to finally get some answers after the last year?
Gabriel: Ask me after the ninth round of voting at the contested convention in Milwaukee.*
*I don’t think this is going to happen.