Sen. Bernie Sanders won 46 percent of delegates, 13.2 million votes, and 23 contests in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries. Yes, you’d think this would be common knowledge, but evidently it was not commonly understood by pundits assessing Bernie’s prospects for the 2020 primary race. Over the long and tedious year preceding the first primary contest, Bernie was systematically downplayed in the various “power rankings” these self-confident pundits smugly proffered, in favor of flash-in-the-pan candidates who stood no chance.
Nate Silver, the grand poobah of the chattering data-obsessed punditocracy, proclaimed Kamala Harris the “front-runner” in January 2019—around the same time his fellow self-styled experts were touting the likes of Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker. Clare Malone, one of Nate Silver’s podcast crew compatriots, even selected Kirsten Gillibrand as a more formidable candidate for the Democratic nomination than Sanders.
At least in the early stages, Sanders’s second campaign for president was widely regarded by elite journalists as boring and annoying. They don’t find it at all interesting to hear him rail against income inequality for the ten-millionth time. So they closed their eyes and hoped he would go away.
As usual, this petty arrogance led to sustained analytical failure. As I wrote here at The Federalist more than a year ago, Sanders was always the most formidable candidate in the Democratic field. You don’t even need to have any affinity with his political program to understand why.
First: he never stopped running for president since 2016. The nationwide organizational infrastructure his campaign built up four years ago was lying in wait, ready to be activated at a moment’s notice. Especially in the early caucus states, which place a premium on organizational prowess—particularly Nevada, where he just won an overwhelming double-digit victory—this is a crucial advantage that no other candidate could match, not even a former vice president with universal name recognition. Plus candidates who were runners-up in an earlier cycle’s primary consistently have a huge advantage when they run again, because they have established a network of support across the country without having to start from scratch.
So those were the “fundamentals” for Bernie heading into this race. But pundits just did not want to acknowledge it, because the story did not excite them.
The fluctuations in polling over the past year, which saw (for instance) Sen. Elizabeth Warren rise dramatically then plummet, were never applicable to Bernie because his core support base was always hardened and intractable, and therefore not subject to such transient fluctuations. The only moment of real danger was when he suffered a heart attack in October. Incredibly, however, that episode appears to have only solidified his core base, and reinvigorated the enthusiasm of those who’d been backing him for nearly five years.
True, the post-heart-attack reaction was not universally distributed among the Democratic voting population. It may have focused the minds of younger Bernie supporters, but I spoke to many older people in New Hampshire ahead of the primary who broadly liked Bernie and even voted for him in 2016, but did not feel he was physically equipped for the presidency as a result of the heart attack combined with his advanced age. This perhaps helps explain why his 2020 margin of victory in the state was much lower than in 2016.
There is a long essay to be written on the differences in how younger Democratic voters view Bernie’s historically old age (generally with affection and reverence) versus how older Democratic voters view it (generally with anxiety and trepidation.) Still, having recovered from such a serious health episode and gone on to win the popular vote in the first three nominating contests—leaving aside the technicalities of the botched Iowa caucus—certainly represents one of the great triumphs in recent political history.
The liberal pundit mythologies that have been used to undermine Bernie have been progressively obliterated by actual election results. His landslide win in Nevada was fueled by huge support from Latinos, which directly refutes the nonsensical “Bernie Bro” narrative that Bernie is only supported by raging white male leftists online.
The “sexism” charge—always a fabrication of elite liberal media, who resent Bernie for a variety of bizarre, neurotic reasons—is directly refuted by his double-digit victory in Nevada among women. (Warren accusing him of sexism in a last-ditch bid for relevance does not appear to have worked so well for her.)
And strength among moderate voters confirms his appeal is not limited to so-called “very liberal” voters, as if that ideological designation has any real meaning anyway. Bernie’s rise in 2016 was also bolstered by widespread support among moderate, conservative, and rural voters, but that also got ignored in the oblivious pundit chatter.
Despite his current delegate lead, Bernie is still not a shoe-in for the nomination. Mike Bloomberg, an almost comically apt oligarchic nemesis for Bernie, has made clear that he will spare no expense to take Bernie down. With Bloomberg’s net worth of $62 billion, it would be foolish to take that threat lightly.
Fresh reports indicate that Bloomberg will unleash a barrage of negative ads, focusing on Bernie’s past “moderate” position on gun control issues. This is ironic, because the rural-minded approach that Bernie took to gun control earlier in his career would probably be quite helpful in a general election context. This in contrast to his current position, which generally aligns with the mainstream “progressive” outlook. (Bernie once even belonged to a radical left-wing splinter party in Vermont that advocated the abolition of all restrictions on the Second Amendment!)
Many conservative pundits have also made clear that they have no idea how to effectively run against Bernie. They think sharing scary memes about the dangers of “socialism” will be sufficient to blunt his ascendance.
What they miss, however, is that Bernie’s political project for the past few years has been in part to demystify the concept of socialism, and introduce it into the mainstream. Largely, this project has been successful. Yes, it’s yet to be tested in a general election scenario. But the Republican Party has never been forced to run against an avowed socialist before (as opposed to mainline Democrats they fallaciously accused of being socialists). The playbook will be different.
Conservatives knew how to run against Hillary Clinton, with her voluminous track record of personal corruption and policy failure. My conversations with Trump supporters about Bernie do not reveal anything close to the level of personal animosity expressed toward Hillary in 2016. If anything, their attitude toward him is generally policy disagreement coupled with begrudging respect for his authenticity and willingness to take on his own party’s establishment, whereas Clinton was the embodiment of the establishment.
If Republicans think they can take down Bernie by trotting out the same old talking points that would apply to virtually any other Democratic nominee except him, they might be in for a rude awakening.