It’s been a rough 72 hours for the Bernie Sanders campaign. In South Carolina Saturday, the Vermont senator put up a respectable showing, but Joe Biden mounted a spectacular one. The former vice-president won the Palmetto State by nearly 30 points. That margin — which was almost twice as large as polls had predicted — was sufficient to give Uncle Joe a lead in the Democratic primary’s popular vote heading into Super Tuesday, despite his dismal showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden proceeded to successfully read a well-written speech off a teleprompter while flubbing no more than 10 percent of its lines — and the Democratic Party’s Sanders-skeptical faction finally accepted that this conspicuously senescent old man was, in fact, their only hope.
Sanders had been on the cusp of amassing an insurmountable delegate lead on Tuesday. If things broke just right in California, the Vermont senator could have been the only candidate to finish above the 15 percent threshold for delegates in the Golden State and thereby put the primary to rest. But Biden’s triumph in South Carolina brought Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar out of the race and into his corner, and a wide array of Democratic pooh-bahs soon joined. A historically large and rapid polling shift ensued. Five days ago, the (left-aligned) pollster Data For Progress had Sanders leading the field by nine points in Texas, and two in North Carolina; in a survey taken over the past 24 hours, it found Biden up by nine in the Tarheel State and two in Texas.
Bernie’s abrupt fall from overwhelming favorite to narrow underdog has many of his supporters understandably disheartened. But they shouldn’t feel defeated. Viewed in the context of the past two weeks, Sanders’s present position is disappointing for the left; viewed against any broader backdrop, it’s exhilarating.
If you had told the Sanders campaign one year ago that the senator would (1) emerge from the first four primary contests with a delegate lead, (2) enter Super Tuesday with an even shot of preserving his front-runner status, (3) and have, as his chief rival, a version of Joe Biden so compromised by the ravages of time as to have difficulty completing the sentence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created _______,” the campaign would have surely taken that outcome in a heartbeat.
Of course, the race’s trend line is inauspicious. But Sanders has a good chance of turning back that tide. Judging by the initial polling impact, had moderates coalesced around Biden weeks ago, the Sanders campaign would likely be on death’s door. But they didn’t. As a result, Sanders was (almost certainly) able to translate his polling dominance over the past two weeks into a significant ballot lead in many states with early voting, while drastically outspending Biden on both the airwaves and on the ground. Those factors, combined with Michael Bloomberg’s resilient vote-splitting presence, could blunt the force of Biden’s surge enough to reset the campaign’s narrative Tuesday night. As Michigan State political scientist Matt Grossman notes, much of Sanders’s polling gains after Iowa and New Hampshire came from former Biden voters who had interpreted Bernie’s victories as a sign of his superior electability. If Sanders manages to eke out a delegate lead from Super Tuesday on the strength of early votes and a (soon to disappear) financial advantage, that might be enough to reverse the trend line.
Next week’s debate could further reset the campaign. To this point, Biden’s struggles with extemporaneous speaking have been mitigated by the size of the Democratic field. The demands of a six- or seven-candidate debate are less exacting than those of two- or three-person one. If Sanders can pile a dominant debate on top of a delegate lead, he could reclaim the mantle of “electability candidate” in the eyes of a decisive fraction of ordinary Democratic voters.
This is not a case for complacency. Sanders remains in a remarkably strong position for a democratic socialist in an American presidential campaign. But after the historic polling shift of the past two days, Biden appears to have the upper hand. The Sanders campaign would be wise to reflect on how this happened — and to avoid attributing the development entirely to forces beyond its control. It’s possible that there was nothing the Vermont senator could do to prevent this coalescence around Biden, or to mitigate its polling impact. But to presume that would be to embrace defeatism.
After his commanding victory in Nevada, Sanders declined to adopt the posture of a magnanimous frontrunner. He continued to campaign as an insurgent, and to paint his Democratic rivals — almost all of whom are quite popular among Democratic primary voters — as unscrupulous shills for corporate power. This approach was obviously conditioned by the belligerence of his opponents and broader Establishment forces. But if Sanders’s posture was understandable, I’m not convinced it was strategic. The socialist’s intraparty adversaries wanted to portray him as uniquely incapable of uniting the party. They made this a cornerstone of their negative messaging. And Sanders’s counterattacks on the Establishment affirmed their attacks. If the senator had proved capable of dramatically remaking the Democratic electorate in the first few contests, this unabashedly confrontational stance would make sense. But he didn’t. And virtually all the polling we have on reliable Democratic primary voters suggests a large majority of them care much more about beating Donald Trump than winning an internecine fight for the soul of the Democratic Party in the name of socialism. And that polling also suggested that such Democrats were quite open to the idea that Sanders was their best bet for unifying the party and beating Trump. Upon becoming the race’s commanding front-runner, Sanders could have focused squarely on fortifying that impression.
Instead, his campaign has been telling Democratic voters that all of their faves are worse than problematic — that Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Joe Biden, and Amy Klobuchar don’t just subscribe to a misguided and outdated conception of electability, but, rather, are malevolent enemies of the working class whose main aim in politics is to “protect and enrich the wealthy and well connected.” Whatever the merits of that populist framing, it’s not clear to me what basis the campaign has for believing that this is an optimal message for winning new Democratic voters (including suddenly available former Buttigieg and Klobuchar supporters) to its cause.
Encouragingly, at a rally in Minnesota Monday night, Sanders struck a more generous tone, leavening his harsh criticism of Biden’s record with the stipulation that “Joe is a decent guy,” and appealing directly to former Buttigieg and Klobuchar supporters. Meanwhile, Sanders has taken a wisely soft approach to coaxing Elizabeth Warren out of the race and into its camp, with campaign manager Faiz Shakir telling the New York Times on Monday, “We respect the fact that she’s going to make whatever decision she makes, and she should be allowed to do that” and “be given the time and space” to determine her way forward.
Perhaps, Tuesday’s results will validate Sanders’s insurgent strategy, as a wave of disaffected, first-time voters drown out Biden’s recent gains. But if that does not happen, then the Sanders campaign will need to accept the parameters of this contest for what they are. Maybe the socialist senator can’t remake the electorate in a single cycle. But he still has time to beat the Establishment at its own game — so long as he plays to win.