Sanders gains strength – and mainstream Democrats worry

Why We Wrote This

Judging by his policies, Bernie Sanders is anything but a “Trump of the left.” But as a longtime outsider on the rise, he’s stirring the same kind of worry among his party’s establishment that Republicans saw in 2016.

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a climate rally in Iowa City, Iowa, on Jan. 12, 2020. Polls show him as one of the front-runners in the state, raising the possibility of a far-left nominee and a difficult general-election fight for the party.

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With just 12 days until the Iowa caucuses and a dominant front-runner yet to emerge, what once struck many as an unlikely outcome – “Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders” – is suddenly looking like more of a possibility. 

Mr. Sanders’ polling strength is eliciting anxiety within certain quarters of the Democratic Party not unlike the reaction many Republicans had in 2016 to another party outsider: Donald Trump. The worry: A “far-left” nominee could backfire for Democrats.

“I do believe that Senator Sanders is too liberal to defeat an incumbent Republican president, especially an incumbent president with a good economy and a huge bankroll,” says Marshall Matz, a registered Democrat who worked on the failed 1972 campaign of George McGovern.

But like President Trump, Mr. Sanders’ promise to upend Washington has attracted a passionate group of followers. 

“The ironic similarity between Bernie and Trump is that they both have clear messages,” says Iowa-based Democratic strategist Jeff Link. “[Bernie] is incredibly clear and consistent and authentic … and that is powerful in a time when people are cynical about politicians.”

Marshall Matz knows what a losing campaign looks like. 

An adviser to Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 White House bid, Mr. Matz had a front-row seat to one of the biggest losses in presidential history. Senator McGovern, a liberal who opposed the war in Vietnam, drew large and enthusiastic crowds on the campaign trail but went on to lose every state save Massachusetts and the District of Columbia to an unpopular incumbent.

Today, Mr. Matz finds himself watching the campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with a growing sense of alarm that history may repeat itself.

“I do believe that Senator Sanders is too liberal to defeat an incumbent Republican president, especially an incumbent president with a good economy and a huge bankroll,” says Mr. Matz, a registered Democrat who still admires the late Senator McGovern and considered him a close friend. 

“I’m trying to sound the alarm and say ‘heads up’ here,” he says.

With just 12 days until the Iowa caucuses and a dominant front-runner yet to emerge, what once struck many as an unlikely outcome – “Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders” – is suddenly looking like more of a possibility. 

Even though a heart attack threatened to derail his campaign last fall, Senator Sanders raised $34.5 million over the final months of 2019, more than any of his rivals. One recent Iowa poll showed him in the lead there for the first time this cycle, and a new national CNN poll has him leading the pack. At the final debate in Des Moines last week, Mr. Sanders was given one of the center-stage spots reserved for front-runners.

He’s benefitted in part from the struggles of fellow progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose support appears to have fallen off in recent weeks – and with whom he had a public spat last week over whether or not he once told her he believed a woman could not win the White House.

Mr. Sanders’ strength is eliciting a kind of anxiety within certain quarters of the Democratic Party not unlike the reaction many Republicans had four years ago to another party outsider who few initially believed could win: Donald Trump. Like President Trump, Mr. Sanders’ unconventional style and promise to upend Washington has attracted a passionate group of followers who can’t be neatly categorized – and could wind up scrambling the usual “rules” of politics. 

“The ironic similarity between Bernie and Trump is that they both have clear messages,” says Iowa-based Democratic strategist Jeff Link. “[Bernie] is incredibly clear and consistent and authentic … and that is powerful in a time when people are cynical about politicians.”

“Viable enough to win”

A lot can change in the weeks leading up to Iowa – and frequently does. Four years ago, Mr. Sanders closed a 12-point gap in the final three weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Today, polls show that 60% of the state’s caucusgoers are still undecided. 

But if Mr. Sanders actually wins Iowa (which he very nearly did in 2016), and then goes on to win New Hampshire (as he did in 2016), it is not hard to envision his momentum carrying him on to win in Nevada and beyond. The latest poll out of California, which will vote on Super Tuesday, has Mr. Sanders in the lead there.

“The realization that his campaign is viable enough to win multiple early states, and with the funding there as well, has awoken many to the possibility that he could win the nomination,” says Scott Mulhauser, a longtime Democratic operative who was Vice President Joe Biden’s deputy chief of staff during the 2012 Obama-Biden reelection campaign. “There is a steadiness to his campaign that has endured despite seemingly everything.”  

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
A supporter of Democratic 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stands during a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 20, 2020. Many Iowa voters remain undecided, heading into the state's Feb. 3 caucuses.

Lately, the drumbeat from establishment Democrats warning against a Sanders nomination has grown noticeably louder. 

Hillary Clinton made headlines Tuesday for speaking out against her 2016 primary rival. “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done,” she says in a forthcoming documentary – an assessment she repeated in an interview in The Hollywood Reporter. When asked if she would support Mr. Sanders were he to win the nomination, she replied, “I’m not going to go there yet.” (She later clarified that she would “do whatever I can to support our nominee.”)

In some ways, that’s a fight many of Mr. Sanders’ supporters seem to relish. To beat Mr. Trump in November, they say, the Democratic nominee will need to excite new voters and get them to the polls – voters who, like many of Mr. Trump’s supporters, have been disappointed by the party and are unhappy with the status quo. Some hypothetical general election matchups do show Mr. Sanders, along with Mr. Biden, faring best against Mr. Trump. One poll published last week by Marquette University Law School found they were the only two to beat Mr. Trump in the crucial swing state of Wisconsin. 

But while Mr. Sanders’ supporters see the passion he inspires as a strength, other Democrats see it as a threat. Many blame Mr. Sanders for Mrs. Clinton’s general election loss in 2016, and fear that if he fails to win the nomination again in 2020, his supporters will stay home on Nov. 3 instead of rallying around the party’s nominee.  

“Sanders concerns Democrats by getting the nomination – and by not getting the nomination,” says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. “Democrats are scared down to their toes that Sanders could tank the whole ticket.”

A “solid ceiling” on Sanders’ support?

Of course, not everyone is convinced that Mr. Sanders has a real shot at clinching the nomination. Most Democratic voters simply would never vote for someone who calls himself a democratic socialist, says Professor Goldford.

“I think people forgot that he has a solid floor,” he says, in response to the recent flurry of Sanders-induced panic. “But, at least last time around, he seemed to have a solid ceiling. And he would be underestimated only if he breaks that solid ceiling this time around.”

Some activists on the ground in Iowa express skepticism about Mr. Sanders’ strength. In northern Iowa, a conservative region represented by far-right GOP Rep. Steve King in Congress, several local Democratic leaders say chatter about Mr. Sanders’ rise is overblown. 

“I just don’t see it,” says Logan Welch, a member of the Hamilton County Democrats and local councilman for Webster City. “If you just went around Webster City and asked all the Democrats who they are going for, I don’t think Bernie would be in the top three.”  

He sees more local support for former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Warren, and Mr. Biden in Webster City, a town of less than 8,000 people an hour’s drive north of Des Moines. True, Mr. Sanders surprised everyone with his near-win against Mrs. Clinton in 2016, says Mr. Welch – but it would be shocking for him to rise to the top again this year with such a “thick bench” of Democratic candidates. 

Julie Geopfert, chair of the neighboring Webster County Democrats, says Mr. Sanders’ supporters don’t seem as “fanatical” this time around. In fact, she says she has seen a lot of Sanders backers from 2016 switch over to other candidates this cycle.

How caucus system could benefit Sanders

But the bigger field could actually be helpful to Mr. Sanders. Like Mr. Trump, he may benefit from a large and fractured primary, in which those opposed to him wind up splitting their support among various other candidates, and the percentage any one candidate needs to win is lower. 

In a January 2016 Des Moines Register poll, 43% of likely caucusgoers said they would describe themselves as “socialist,” which ended up being a good proxy for Mr. Sanders’ eventual support in the caucus that year. In this year’s poll, only 28% of likely caucusgoers described themselves that way. At first glance, that may seem like disappointing news for Mr. Sanders. But that also might be all he needs to win. 

“The campaign has thought all along that if they can maintain their base and there is a credible challenger to Biden in the establishment lane, then they would be in good shape,” says Mr. Link. 

The way the Iowa caucuses work could benefit Mr. Sanders even more. If candidates are deemed “nonviable” on caucus night (meaning they have the support of less than 15% of those in the room), then their supporters can “realign” with a different candidate.

Kelcey Brackett, chair of the Muscatine County Democrats, speculates that two candidates who may wind up as nonviable are Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. And he expects a high percentage of their supporters – many of whom identify as independents – will join the Sanders camp. 

Indeed, Mr. Brackett says Mr. Sanders is looking quite strong in the southeastern corner of the state, where he did particularly well in 2016. His campaign is large and active in Muscatine County, says Mr. Brackett, and seems to be knocking on more doors and making more calls than other campaigns.

“We’ve probably been underestimating [his support],” agrees Judy Downs, executive director of the Polk County Democrats, Iowa’s most populous county and home to the state capital of Des Moines. The Sanders campaign empowers volunteers by giving them a lot of autonomy, says Ms. Downs – but this also means it’s more difficult to fully estimate the strength of his campaign. 

“I think Sanders will be very happy on Feb. 4,” she predicts.

Since publicly speaking out against Mr. Sanders earlier this month, Mr. Matz says several of his colleagues from the McGovern years have reached out to say they agree. 

“We need to be more pragmatic than idealistic,” says Mr. Matz. “Who has the best chance of winning? I’m not sure who that is yet – but I’m pretty sure who it’s not.”

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