Can Bernie Topple Biden?
It’s a tough contest, but the Vermont senator still has a chance.
Voting season for the Democratic primary is almost upon us. And for those backing Bernie Sanders, his recent performance warrants much optimism.
After suffering a heart attack in October, Sanders has steadily gained ground, rising by a 5-point average in the polls. An impressive comeback to say the least.
Sanders now resides in a comfortable second place, with Elizabeth Warren slipping into third. Former vice-president Joe Biden still leads the field by a significant margin, but for most progressives, the gaffe-prone moderate just doesn’t cut it.
It’s not hard to see why they’re so much more excited for a Sanders nomination. The avuncular socialist has promised broad, universal programs like a government-run healthcare plan and tuition-free public college. He is, by far, the best anti-war candidate on the table. Opposing the Iraq invasion in 2003, pushing to end America’s involvement in the Yemeni civil war and voting against all three of Trump’s military budgets. His Green New Deal represents an ambitious vision of an America run by renewable energy and his wealth tax a shift of power from the ultra-rich to the working class.
But despite his strong resume, there are challenges ahead for Sanders.
As the frontrunner, Joe Biden is in a solid position. His popularity with older voters, a demographic that Sanders struggles with, will make him hard to beat. And his proximity to Barack Obama — a former President who still has many fans — certainly boosts his appeal.
Throughout the entire primary, Biden has never fallen below 25 points and Sanders has never risen above it. That’s not to say this gap can’t close. It just means that Biden is a lot more robust than his waffling anecdotes might suggest.
So could Sanders hypothetically beat him? Absolutely! There are definitely scenarios that would make his victory more likely. But these depend on the forces arrayed in support of Sanders and against him. And both demand a detailed look.
The case for Sanders
Sander’s base of support is one of his greatest strengths. They are young, racially diverse and, most importantly, loyal.
The polls and research are fairly consistent on this point. A recent CBS poll found that Sanders had the highest percentage of voters who have “made up their mind” in Iowa and New Hampshire. A result echoed by a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll of Iowans. And this tracks well with a nationwide survey by Pew Research which saw Sanders receive the largest share of voters who are only enthusiastic about him as the candidate.
This is perhaps one of the reasons why Sanders hasn’t seen as much volatility in the polls as Biden or Warren — who have both experienced drops in the double digits. His base gives him a steady floor unlikely to crumble beneath his feet.
So while other candidates run the risk of losing their votes, Sanders can rest easy. He’s already the candidate that many Biden and Warren supporters will pick as their second choice.
But this loyalty has other advantages too. The Sanders campaign has amassed over 5 million donations — more than any other candidate in the Democratic primary — and an army of volunteers. Both very good signs.
As Meagan Day of the Jacobin notes, these are indicators of committed support. Committed supporters are more likely to boost their candidate on social media, to try and win over the votes of their friends and family. “A committed supporter,” writes Day, “brings far more value to their campaign than a passive one.” Providing word-of-mouth in addition to their vote.
Sanders is also performing well in several, early-contest states which would give him the momentum he needs to throw Biden from his perch. Another point that distinguishes Sanders as a strong contender, discounted by his enemies at their own risk.
So what then, are the obstacles that Sanders must face?
The case against
Elections are typically decided by the votes of older people. A source of much frustration for the young, especially when their elders tend to lean conservative.
In the 2016 Democratic primary, about 60% of the electorate consisted of voters aged 45 and above. In this age bracket, Hilary Clinton vastly outperformed Sanders and went on to win the nomination as a result. And this leaves one to wonder if history will repeat itself in 2020.
The good news is that Sanders still leads with under-45s in most national opinion polls. The bad news being that this is offset with a rather middling performance with the over-45s — where Biden dominates. Uncle Joe boasts more than 30% of this demographic while Sanders scores just below 12%. A marked improvement from a few months ago, but still cause for concern.
And as unimpressive as the “notorious flapjaw” might seem to young voters, Biden still enjoys a steady level of support. Over the last six months his numbers have remained relatively stable (much like Sanders). And for many he remains a “safe” choice: a recognizable figure whom a majority of voters believe can beat Donald Trump.
Biden will be the main roadblock to a Sanders victory. His popularity with older voters and name recognition alone make him a tough opponent. But his coalition is also surprisingly diverse, drawing from White, Hispanic and African-American backgrounds. Black voters in particular play a crucial role in deciding the nominee, and though Sanders is no slouch with this demographic, Biden still enjoys the lion’s share of their support. And unless Sanders can win over more of these voters, defeating Biden will prove a Herculean task.
How Sanders can win
When all is said and done, Sanders still has the best chance out of any candidate to beat Biden. The Economist even has his betting odds at 34% against Biden’s 37%. A frivolous measure perhaps, but one that rings true all the same.
Still, rather than attempt prediction, it would be wiser to outline the circumstances that would lead to a Sanders victory. Politics, after all, is an unpredictable arena. A lot can change over the course of a few days. Better then to prepare for the future than forecast it.
And so, I present the following three scenarios in which Sanders would emerge triumphant.
Firstly, Sanders could win if the youth turnout is big enough. Young people tend to cast their votes on a less consistent basis than the over-45s, but this primary might prove an exception to the rule. According to a poll conducted by the Havard Institute of Politics, 43% of voters aged 18–29 intend to vote in the Democratic Primary — an increase from 35% in 2015. And among this age group, Sanders is overwhelmingly popular.
Most election polls use a rather conservative sample size where young people are concerned. Not unreasonably either, given turnout rates in the past. But with Millenials outnumbering Baby Boomers as the largest generation, and Sanders’s ability to mobilize his supporters, there is a very real chance that enough of them could show up and sway the outcome of the election.
Secondly, Sanders could build momentum from early state victories. The Democratic primary is decided on a state-by-state basis, with some states voting on a nominee as early as February, and others as late as June. Results are typically announced within a day’s time.
Such early victories would further establish Sanders as a serious contender and provide increased media coverage. There is nothing the media loves more than a horse race narrative. Close contests are exciting. Underdog stories are compelling. And a horse race that centers Sanders could give him the edge he needs: more visibility, more credibility, and more votes in the subsequent primaries. A positive feedback loop. And it’s quite possible when so many voters are still undecided. All they need is that extra nudge.
Finally, the other candidates could peel away support from Biden’s electorate. Both Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg have emerged as potential nominees during the primary, occupying fourth and fifth place respectively. And though neither man has a real shot at winning, they’re much more likely to cut Biden’s lunch than Bernie’s if they do start climbing in the polls.
Their bases both overlap with Biden’s in terms of age. And their unpopularity with younger voters means that’s not going to change anytime soon. As such, they are likely to divert some decisive votes away from Biden in key states like California and Washington.
Of course, the simplest path to a Sanders nomination would be one where he continues to win support. His rise over the last few months has been slow but gradual, and so long as he can keep this up, the divide between him and Biden will narrow.
If the Democratic primary was just a quick, impersonal gamble then Joe Biden would be the safe bet. The guy that you expect to win. The guy who’s currently topping all the polls.
But for those who want real change — a departure from the last few decades of American politics — the primary isn’t a question of who looks like they’re going to win. It’s about who will deliver this change. It’s about the candidate they trust to end a status quo of inequality, environmental degradation and forever wars.
Bernie Sanders has a consistent record on these fronts. He is also the candidate best positioned to beat Joe Biden: a man who’s own record includes voting for the Iraq War, opposing school integration and calling for Social Security cuts. If electing a progressive to office is your chief concern, then Sanders is your best chance. Besides Biden, he’s the only candidate that pollsters give a decent chance of beating Donald Trump.
It falls now to Democratic voters to decide their nominee. And for those who want to see a Sanders presidency, registering to vote and turning up for the primaries is more important than ever.
It might just make all the difference.