Bernie Sanders’s polling bump has finally arrived.
Before this week, it was already clear that the Vermont senator’s primary season was off to a smashing start. Sanders emerged from his popular-vote win in Iowa and undisputed victory in New Hampshire as the Democratic front-runner. But for a while there, the democratic socialist’s skeptics had some cause for appending an asterisk to his early success: Yes, Sanders had dramatically increased his prospects of winning the nomination — but this had less to do with the strength of his own performance than the weakness of his rivals’.
After all, Sanders had actually failed to beat expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire. What made those contests into triumphs for his candidacy were Joe Biden’s catastrophic showings and Elizabeth Warren’s lackluster ones. The former weakened (perhaps fatally) the one moderate candidate with broad, deeply rooted support among older African-American voters, while simultaneously ensuring that progressive-skeptical donors would not consolidate behind a single candidate before 14 states hold their nomination contests on March 3 (a.k.a. Super Tuesday). Warren’s decline, meanwhile, accelerated the drift of ideologically liberal activists and voters away from her camp and into Bernie’s. These developments, combined with the similarly fortuitous emergence of “Klomentum,” allowed Sanders to immediately open up a comfortable lead in national polls. And yet, that lead had less to do with any surge in the senator’s own support (in the wake of New Hampshire, his national backing ticked up by only a couple points) than the collapse of Biden, and fragmentation of the veep’s former supporters between Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. This fact allowed cable news pundits to assure each other that Sanders had a “ceiling,” and it was only a matter of time before the Democrats’ silent, anti-socialist majority coalesced behind a standard-bearer.
This theory never had much basis. Although Sanders is a divisive figure among Democratic political professionals, some polls have shown him boasting the highest favorability rating of any 2020 candidate, and beating each of his rivals in a hypothetical one-on-one contest.
And sure enough, over the past 48 hours, Sanders has belatedly collected the surge in polling support that traditionally comes to the top performer in Iowa and New Hampshire. On the day the Granite State cast its ballots, Sanders enjoyed the backing 23 percent of Democratic voters in RealClearPolitics’ polling average; today, that figure is up to 28.6 percent.
Two of the most recent surveys put the senator even higher. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday has Sanders at 32 percent, some 16 points ahead of his closest competitor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg; an NPR/Marist/PBS Newshour survey released yesterday found the senator with a similarly commanding 31 to 19 percent advantage over a second-place Bloomberg.
The good news for the Sanders campaign isn’t limited to national numbers, either. A new Data for Progress poll of the Democrats’ next nominating contest, Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, puts Sanders 19 points ahead of Joe Biden in the Silver State.
DFP is a progressive think tank with some ties to the Sanders campaign. But it’s also a polling outfit that’s eager to prove its text-message-based methodology is uniquely reliable in an era of declining landline use, and it has made significant progress toward that objective in recent months.
What’s more, the Sanders campaign has made turning out the early vote a top priority in Nevada, and early reports suggest that their efforts are paying dividends.
Had Sanders’s New Hampshire victory actually failed to raise the supposed “ceiling” on his national support, then his rivals would have less to fear from his ostensibly strong position in Nevada. Now that his narrow win in the Granite State has translated into a 5- to 7-point national bump, however, it seems possible that a pro-Bernie landslide in Nevada could enable the senator to enter Super Tuesday with an even larger lead than his current one.
As is, Sanders is already on pace to amass a pledged delegate advantage on March 3 that may well be insurmountable.
To be sure, the news isn’t all sunshine and roses for Team Bernie. While the latest batch of national polls have shown Sanders gaining and Bloomberg stalling, many of the most recent surveys of Super Tuesday states show the billionaire surging. This week, polls of Oklahoma, Virginia, and North Carolina all put Bloomberg in the lead (in the case of OK) or tied with Sanders for the lead (in VA and NC). In delegate-rich California, meanwhile, the two most recent surveys depict drastically different races. The Public Policy Institute of California has Sanders 18 points ahead of a second-place Biden, with no non-Bernie candidate clearing the 15 percent threshold necessary for securing delegates. KGTV-TV/SurveyUSA, on the other hand, finds Sanders leading Bloomberg by a mere 25 to 21 percent margin.
This said, even when one looks exclusively at state-level polling, it’s hard to see how anyone wins more delegates on Super Tuesday than Sanders does. True, in the southern states where Bloomberg and Sanders are neck-in-neck, Biden lays claim to a hefty chunk of the electorate. So if Bloomberg could somehow shoulder Uncle Joe out of the race — and if Biden’s support is transferable to the New York mayor — it’s conceivable that a dominant “moderate” coalition could emerge. But at present, both those hypotheticals look dubious. Even if Biden is bruised once again in Nevada, he’s still more likely than any other Democrat to prevail in South Carolina’s primary, the final contest before March 3. Meanwhile, Uncle Joe is currently giving approximately zero signs that he intends to bow out early and shepherd his followers into Bloomberg’s corner.
Furthermore, since voters are not as ideological as pundits imagine, a hefty chunk of Biden voters name Sanders as their second choice. It’s possible that this could change, given how much money both Bloomberg and anti-Sanders super-PACs are likely to spend on assassinating Bernie’s character between now and Super Tuesday.
But, at least for now, the Sanders campaign’s electoral forecast looks sunny with a chance of revolution.