Senator Bernie Sanders boasted Wednesday that he welcomes “hatred” from corporate America. Well, the Democratic primary electorate is not feeling the bern that much either, lately.
Sanders kicked off the 2020 campaign hoping to be next in a long line of second-place-finishers-turned-next-time-around nominees (Think Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012, and Hillary Clinton in 2016).
And, at the beginning of this presidential cycle, it looked like the same thing could happen for Sanders, who finished second to Clinton in 2016.
Except, according to national surveys and polls in the early states, Sanders has taken a slide among Democratic primary voters in recent weeks. He went from being the uncontested front-runner to second place after Joe Biden entered the contest, and now, as low as fourth place in some state surveys.
Indeed, in a South Carolina primary poll taken earlier this month, Sanders was tied for fourth place behind Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. A South Carolina survey taken in May showed Sanders in second.
In California, a behemoth for delegates also with a Super Tuesday primary, a new Los Angeles Times/UC-Berkeley poll showed Sanders in fourth — although just 1 percentage point behind Warren.
In Texas, a delegate-rich state with a nominating contest also on March 3, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll showed Sanders in the fourth spot behind Biden, former representative Beto O’Rourke, and Warren.
And in Iowa, where he split the first-in-the-nation caucuses with Clinton in 2016, Sanders has gone from being a strong front-runner to a strong second place to a three-way statistical tie for second. The latest Des Moines Register/CNN poll had Biden in first with 24 percent, Sanders with 16 percent, Warren with 15 percent, and Buttigieg at 14 percent.
To be sure, national polls still put Sanders in second place — though his support is also dropping there. His RealClearPolitics.com average — an aggregate of national polls — fell from 23 percent in late April to 15 percent in mid-June, with Warren right on his heels.
“Sanders’ support has been dropping for the last few months now,” said Patrick Murray, a pollster at Monmouth University, whose most recent survey showed Sanders in third place at 14 percent — a single percentage point behind Warren.
“A lot of this is because mainline liberals — those who consider themselves Democrats — are finding other candidates they are feeling more comfortable with,” Murray said.
In an interview with “Fox News Sunday” this week, Sanders dismissed these recent surveys as fleeting moments, saying “polls go up and polls go down,” while noting that he, like others, were found to defeat Trump in swing states.
“I think, frankly, I am the strongest candidate to defeat Trump. I think we can win in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan and some of the other battleground states and that’s a fight that I look forward to,” he said. A Sanders adviser pointed Tuesday to an Ipsos poll showing him doing the best against Trump in a national head-to-head race.
But Sanders will not be able to have that general election conversation without winning the primary. So far his biggest problems are Biden, whose lead is also softening in the latest polls, and Warren, who has been surging.
Indeed, Sanders’ slide and Warren’s rise in the South Carolina poll are symmetrical: He dropped 9 points in that state, while Warren picked up 9 percentage points. But the dynamic is more complicated than that, especially in the early states.
The fight for the progressive wing between Sanders and Warren may come to a head in New Hampshire, where expectations are high for the two liberals from neighboring states. Currently, Sanders remains solidly in second place in the state that hosts the nation’s first primary, buoyed by local grass-roots groups still intact from four years ago.
But there’s another key difference between Sanders and other second-place finishers for the nomination.
Since 2016, Sanders, unlike others in history, has spent more time fighting the Democratic Party than making friends — contesting, especially, those who opposed him last time. (Sanders, of course, has never technically been a member of the Democratic Party, “respectfully” turning down the party’s nomination when he sought reelection in Vermont in 2018.)
Where Romney sought to make inroads with the Republican establishment after losing to McCain in 2008, Sanders’ first post-presidential election moves were to challenge the Democratic Party to make structural changes. For example, Sanders called for the party to move from caucuses to primaries and to diminish the role that superdelegates play in the primary. And when he was asked in April whether he would reach out to Clinton and seek advice on how to win over her supporters he said, “I think not.”
“We have differences, you know,” said Sanders on ABC’s “The View.”
In other words, instead of becoming a uniter, Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, ran against the party with a larger goal — to move it leftward.
And on that, he has succeeded. Most major candidates have adopted his once radical ideas into their campaign platforms. These include Medicare for All and free public college.
But as these candidates take his ideas, they also present a fresh profile for Democratic primary voters.
Sanders’ speech last week defining what democratic socialism means was both an attempt to reboot his sagging poll numbers and to show he was the original progressive in the race.
“It’s pretty obvious what Sanders was trying to do with the speech,” said Murray, the pollster. “He was trying to win back liberal Democrats who are going to Warren because she is a traditional Democrat like JFK or FDR and telling them his brand of socialism is actually the same thing FDR pushed in the New Deal.”
And on Wednesday, he took the fight to Warren directly, retweeting a Politico story about centrists rallying around her as a Sanders alternative, and adding this comment: “The cat is out of the bag. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party is publicly ‘anybody but Bernie.’ They know our progressive agenda of Medicare for All, breaking up big banks, taking on drug companies and raising wages is the real threat to the billionaire class.”
It’s too early to know if either tactic will work. But as the primary season heads into the first set of debates next week, here’s a reminder that Romney was in such a powerful position in the 2012 GOP primary that he skipped the first debate.
This time, it is Sanders who needs to not only attend but also have a breakout performance to reassert himself in the top tier of candidates.