A year ago, I thought Bernie Sanders had almost no chance at the nomination. You only get to be an insurgent once. He pushed Hillary Clinton in large part because he was the only vessel to protest her coronation. Many other candidates had taken up key parts of his platform. It was a victory for his cause, but hurt his odds.
Even before Joe Biden signed up, Bernie’s poll numbers were in the mid-high 20s at absolute best. That’s not good for a candidate with 100% name recognition who finished second last time. This was before Elizabeth Warren became a serious contender too.
Every so often, he winds up with a 9% Iowa poll result, or 12% nationally, the sort of thing that makes it seem like we shouldn’t even talk about him as an upper tier candidate. Also he’s 78. And had a heart attack. He seems to have no interest in seducing the press or broadening his coalition.
Yes, he has money. But so do Warren and Pete Buttigieg. And Biden may not need very much. Plus he has the Super PAC now. It’s hard to imagine Sanders having an easy time at a contested Democratic Convention.
Last time, Bernie did best in states holding caucuses. Lower attendance gave the true believer Berners more impact. After his Iowa virtual tie and Nevada loss, Bernie won the rest. This time, most of those caucuses are now primaries.
So how does he do this?
We begin in Iowa. Yes, he’s currently 4th in the Real Clear Politics average. He’s also less than four points off the lead, which puts him within the margin of error. Also, CBS/YouGov is due for a new poll, and this is usually his strongest survey. In 2016, Sanders trailed by 4 points in the final average, with Hillary ahead in 6 of the 8 pre-caucus polls.
He’s within striking distance by any reasonable standard. Warren has the highest ceiling, and she has a great ground team. But she’s at a very surmountable 20 percent right now. Her strength is being able to pull across age groups. Her weakness is having more voter overlap with other candidates than Bernie has.
She’s also viewed as a greater threat to win the nomination. As such, Warren will take way more incoming fire than Sanders over the next couple months. A good example is how Biden is approaching each of them on the Medicare for All issue. He begins by saying “Bernie is telling the truth.”
Partly, this is because he’s being significantly more honest about the costs than Warren. Partly it’s because Bernie is viewed as safe to compliment. Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are getting in to it with Warren, not really Sanders. This is because Warren is pulling better with the older voters who also like Buttigieg/Klobuchar.
Neither of them are getting propelled by voters under 30 or 35. They’re also conceding that true believers on the left aren’t picking them anyway. It’s different for Warren. She’s trying to share the hard left with Bernie, while also winning over some traditional liberals.
If you think of the voter base as very left, left, left-center, and semi-center, Warren needs to do very well with the left group, and do well on each side. The semi-center is going to prefer Biden or one of the more moderate alternatives. She has no one area as safe for her as voters under 30 are for Sanders.
There are two key unknowns:
How many young and first-time voters show up?
Whatever age buckets are shown in any poll, Sanders always does best with the youngest and worst with the oldest. But this age gap exists within the buckets too. So you’ll see he does better when the poll shows 18-29 than 18-34. Better when it’s 30-44 than 35-49, etc.
He’s stronger with voters 18-24 than 25-29. The least reliable voters on the planet are those under 25. Many have never voted before. Will they turn out on Caucus Day? We’ll only know when it happens. The polls have to guess when they weight their results. As a rule, if you see Bernie is doing better than you figured, the survey is assuming good turnout of the youngest voters. If he’s doing worse than expected, the reverse is so.
Among youngish voters, those with more education are more likely to pick Warren. Normally more educated voters show up more often too. This is another thing pollsters are very aware of when weighting their sample. Given the interest in the 2020 election cycle, it’s not unimaginable that the least likely voters to appear will show up in higher than expected numbers.
Donald Trump was able to narrow the attendance gap between more and less educated white voters in 2016. It helped him during the primaries, and pushed him over in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan against Clinton. While Democratic turnout will run higher in 2020 than 2016 among all caucus age groups, if Bernie can narrow the distance between 18-24 year olds and middle aged voters as well as between younger voters with and without lots of degrees, he’s in very good shape.
His campaign has the experience of having done this before. They got started earlier than last time. And being in a several candidate race instead of head-to-head, they can focus on a smaller range of voter prospects. Of all candidates, Bernie has the highest percentage of current supporters who are sure of their choice. He’ll be able to work on turnout and conversion instead of convincing those who are already with him.
What happens with Andrew Yang voters who have to swap, and how often do they have to swap?
The 15% rule only exists in Iowa, and only on the Democratic side. If a candidate doesn’t get 15% support on the first vote in a given precinct, their voters need to find another home. Yang is at 3% right now, with a top result of 5%. He’s likely to outperform this, because his support is strongest with college students who are clustered in specific precincts.
In those areas, he may sometimes clear 15% with room to spare, in which case, there’s nothing to redistribute. But there will be other precincts