The AOC Effect?

Bernie Sanders woke up today in very good political shape. He’s at or near the lead in the first three states. He’s ahead of Elizabeth Warren in the national polling averages. The betting markets have him as the second most likely nominee. Sure, Joe Biden is still the favorite, but Bernie is well positioned.

If younger Millennial and older Gen Z voters turn out in higher than usual numbers (and remember they beat expectations in November 2018), it’s easy to chart a path to the nomination. Failing at that, Bernie is going to stick around the race for a long time. If the contest doesn’t sort down to a final two by the immediate aftermath of Super Tuesday, he’ll be participating in the first brokered convention in generations.

Contrast this with the morning of October 14, the day before that month’s debate. He was recovering from a recent heart attack and was convalescing at home instead of being on the trail. Everyone was reminded he was born before Pearl Harbor. Warren was at or near her apex. Here’s where the numbers were:

Quinnipiac National Poll (10/11 to 10/13)

Warren 30%

Sanders 11%

Emerson Iowa Poll (10/13 to 10/16)

Warren 23%

Sanders 13%

PredictIt Nomination Odds (on 10/14)

Warren 48%

Sanders 7%

The Quinnipiac poll is normally Warren-friendly, but still. That’s a 3:1 gap. At that point, the markets figured she was seven times more likely to get nominated. Warren was strongly challenging Sanders among his base–younger, lower income voters, and swamping him among older, upper income, college educated respondents.

Many characters were typed suggesting Sanders should drop out. Hey Bernie, good job, you’ve moved the conversation, made a difference, now step aside and let Liz carry the torch, etc. Then three things happened:

Bernie had a strong debate

Warren started taking some hits from Buttigieg, Biden, and Klobuchar

AOC endorsed Bernie

We’ll talk about the possible impact of each in a minute, but look how those three metrics have moved in two months:

Quinnipiac National Poll (12/4 to 12/9)

Sanders 17% (up 6)

Warren 15% (down 15)

Emerson Iowa Poll (12/7 to 12/10)

Sanders 22% (up 9)

Warren 12% (down 11)

PredictIt Nomination Odds (on 12/11)

Sanders 19% (up 12)

Warren 16% (down 32)

He hasn’t vanquished her. His national lead on Warren is modest, and Biden is a clear #1. The betting markets aren’t totally sold on Bernie yet. While Warren is in clear trouble in Iowa, Bernie still has plenty of competition there. But wow, what a difference two months makes.

And we’re talking about two candidates with well established national images, especially Sanders. This isn’t a Buttigieg or Harris, who are new enough that a couple events caused big fluctuations.

It helped that Bernie came back strong and debated well. For those who worried he wouldn’t be able to go the distance, those fears are well in the background for now. But Warren was already well ahead of him before the heart attack. The quick recovery could have returned them to their late September positions. This is much better than that.

Taking heat from the more moderate candidates made a big difference. Warren was doing very well with the “somewhat liberal” group and better than you might have expected with moderates. That’s eroded a lot. It doesn’t look like many voters fled to Biden, but Buttigieg has moved up, as has Klobuchar in Iowa. Bloomberg is in that space too.

In her attempt to deal with them, Warren introduced her updated Health Care plan, with some guidance on how she wanted to pay for it. It wound up not satisfying the more moderate side, or the most progressive side. This has clearly mattered. In Iowa, where voters are paying the most attention, her drop is most noticeable. While she’s still a clear third nationally, in Iowa, she’s at risk of Klobuchar passing her for fourth.

I want to be careful to avoid the correlation/causation mistake with AOC. Her endorsement matches the moment things turned around. But so do the other two factors. It’s not like this all reversed within a few days of the endorsement. It’s happened over a two month march.

But I think it made a much larger difference than we figured. AOC didn’t have anything to do with Warren losing voters who wouldn’t have picked Bernie. And that’s a good half of what happened. Among 18 to 34-year-olds, Quinnipiac has Sanders leading Warren 52-17.

Two months ago, Warren led that same group 34-28. That’s the biggest move. Yes, the voters who identify as the most liberal have shifted as well, from 50-14 Warren to 33-28 Warren. Guess which progressive voters moved? The youngest ones. Older progressives, especially women, are still with Warren.

But the youngest voters have returned home to Bernie. He’s doing well with the under-35 set, even among Democrats who identify as somewhat liberal or moderate. Yes, AOC is well known for being extremely left of center. Beyond ideology, her fan base is disproportionately young and multi-ethnic (not mutually exclusive, young Democrats are very diverse.)

Older African-Americans are strongly with Biden and seemingly not moving for anything. Voters over 50 are allergic to Sanders, in part because they perceive a socialist won’t beat Trump. Upper income Gen X voters weren’t even with Sanders in 2016. Warren and Mayor Pete are doing very well with them at the moment.

His biggest opportunity to grab voters was with exactly the group who AOC resonates most strongly with. A group that was giving more than serious thought to Warren. There’s another benefit. While Bernie and Buttigieg might not compete for similar voters, they are each trying to win caucuses and primaries.

At least until the field narrows tremendously, Sanders is the very definition of a high floor, low ceiling candidate. His core support ensures he can hang in. But the skepticism of older voters limits his ability to pull 30-35% in a contest with several candidates.

Mayor Pete has his own limitations, but the most obvious of them, non-Asian voters of color, isn’t a big factor in Iowa and New Hampshire. Two months ago, in the Quinnipiac national survey where he registered 7% overall, he got 6% of the 18-34 group. Now, in a poll that gives him 9%, he’s at 2% with the youngest group.

There’s a way for Buttigieg to win contests without African American voters, and shaky Latino support. It’s a bad look, but mathematically possible outside of the South. Remove white and Asian voters under 35, and it doesn’t add up anymore. AOC is noticeably critical of Mayor Pete and a focal point of the pushback against him on Woke Twitter.

This may not keep him from winning Iowa. The new Emerson Poll has him at 10% with voters between 18-29, still his worst group, but clearly better than 2%. It does appear Mayor Pete is stronger when voters know him better, and he’s spent a lot of time in Iowa. It sure helps him that it’s a very white place, but he’s running better there than with white voters of similar ages and ideologies elsewhere.

It could be deadly in California. Warren and Buttigieg are both under pressure to win in Iowa and New Hampshire. In a world where Mayor Pete wins Iowa, Warren takes New Hampshire, Sanders Nevada, and Biden South Carolina, Super Tuesday starts looking even more important than normal. In this universe, several southern states are going to pick Biden. The AOC block leaning extra heavily for Bernie could easily make the difference elsewhere.

If Warren gets knocked out early, the clear support will make it much harder for Buttigieg to rally voters who don’t want Biden. I’m not under the illusion that AOC is picking the nominee, but unless or until there’s an Obama endorsement, there is no bigger kingmaker in the party.

Her impact is already showing up in the data, and if there’s a rumble in Milwaukee this summer, Bernie is going to feel much better with the Squad having his back.

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