How Low is Bernie’s Ceiling?

There are a few key questions in the ongoing Democratic nomination scramble. Can more moderate voters unify around a single candidate? If so, whom? And, perhaps most important, where is Bernie’s ceiling? If it’s high enough, it doesn’t matter if he only has a single opponent. If it’s low enough, he could lose the nomination even in a world where Joe Biden survives in addition to Mike Bloomberg being a force. Maybe even if those two are joined by Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg for the duration.

The fun part is there are excellent arguments for varying levels. Let’s try a few out:

The Sky is the Limit

Sure, Bernie’s national poll numbers are still in the 20s. He’s got very few polls anywhere over 30. It’s easy to see why you’d think he’s got limits. But remember. He got well over 40% of the vote in 2016. Seventy percent of Democrats like him. We know he does best with the youngest voters and worst with the oldest. Some of the oldest 2016 primary voters are no longer with us. But the kids aged 14 to 17 in 2016 can participate now. And millions of voters who were old enough but didn’t bother are registered this time.

No, he’s not going to magically get a majority of twenty-somethings to participate in the primary. But these new voters are very much in his wheelhouse. Take the 43% he got last time, make the demographic adjustments for 2020, and voila, he’s damn close to 50%. And it won’t take 50% for him to get a majority of delegates.

I know what you’re thinking. We can’t do that. Many of his 2016 supporters were just sending Hillary a message. They weren’t actually Berners. True. If it wasn’t, he’d have started this round as a clear front-runner. But we have new poll data that says he can get to 50% all day against a single opponent. YouGov just did an endless set of one-on-one matchups. Here’s what they found:

Bernie 53%, Bloomie 38%

Sanders 54%, Klobuchar 33%

Former Mayor of Burlington, VT 54%, Former Mayor of South Bend, IN 37%

Tio Bernie 48%, Uncle Joe 44%

Bernie 44%, Elizabeth 42%

He leads in each matchup. He’s over 50% most of the time, very close with Biden. His most difficult task is the candidate he’s least likely to wind up in a one-on-one with. It’s very likely Bloomberg, Buttigieg, or Klobuchar would close the gap after gaining voter familiarity and doing well enough to be the big moderate survivor. But the fact remains Bernie is currently over 50% against them, while they’re in the 30s. Better to be the candidate trying to keep the not-that-decided voter than trying to get them.

Let’s Not Get Carried Away

As auspicious as those one-on-one matchups look, does it seem like that’s gonna happen anytime soon? And Bernie is in plenty of danger in a three-person scrum. For one thing, it appears only a third of the primary electorate is committed to voting for a far left candidate. While Sanders and Warren regularly combined for 40% of poll support for months, their combined total dropped to 35% in New Hampshire.

The FiveThirtyEight national average has them at 34.7%. Real Clear Politics, 36%. And that number is propped up by some pre-Iowa and many pre-New Hampshire surveys. In South Carolina, it’s only 26%. Biden could beat Sanders, even if Steyer and Buttigieg or Klobuchar are in play. Things in Florida are more stark. The two progressives only combine for 24%. Bloomberg could do great, and Biden would still potentially finish ahead of Sanders.

Even if you assume Sanders would pick up all Warren voters in a contest where Biden and Bloomberg are the other two, there’s plenty of room for one of the others to finish ahead of Bernie on a regular basis. If Klobuchar or Buttigieg is in the trio, I’d strongly contest the idea that all Warren supporters would go to Sanders, something that’s already implausible in the other scenario. The numbers indicate Bernie could expect an average of 30-32% support in a Warren-free universe. He wouldn’t be doomed, but safety would require three opponents instead of two. Then, and only then do the numbers favor him again.

It may seem odd, but 2 looks safe and 4 is possibly safe, but 3 is not. Bernie’s ceiling varies depending on what room you’re in.

Don’t Forget to Duck

There’s a superficially solid argument that Sanders can follow Donald Trump’s 2016 primary course. He does have a plurality of overall support, if well short of a majority, like Trump did. His supporters are clearly the most committed as his were. In a divided field, a quarter of voters being solidly in your corner goes a very long way. Bernie’s favorability ratings are higher in his own party than Trump’s were in February 2016. We’ve already discussed how many voters did already take the leap for him once. Trump didn’t have that advantage.

This overlooks a few key factors. First, after the first several contests, most Republican primaries were winner-take-all. Under the Democrats’ 2020 rules, Trump would have fallen far short of a pre-convention delegate majority. You may recall how concerned his team was about not having that majority locked up. Ted Cruz was itching for a convention fight. We can assume Sanders would need to look over his shoulder too if he reaches Milwaukee with merely a plurality.

Second, Sanders isn’t doing as well as Trump did in the early contests. Even with as many or more contestants as Bernie is facing, Trump averaged 34.7% through the first four contests, finishing slightly worse than Sanders in Iowa, and almost 10 points better in New Hampshire. Trump’s South Carolina result was double Bernie’s current polling there, and he broke 47% in Nevada. Until Sanders at least breaks into the mid-30s in a single contest, we need to assume his several candidate ceiling is well short of Trump’s.

By this point in 2016, Trump had dominated the national conversation for several months. Sanders is a very strong politician, underestimated at the peril of his opponents. But he’s unable to create a Trumpian total eclipse of the press. Instead he’s fighting someone who may drop more than a billion dollars between now and the convention, plus the most recent VP. If Buttigieg or Klobuchar stick around, they’re a more interesting media story than the Return of the Bern. Sanders has many skills and many advantages, but he’ll get a tenth of the free media Trump did.

So what’s the answer? Which of these three levels are most likely? I’m tempted to weasel out. It’s clear his ceiling is very context dependent. But I’m going to default to the middle option. He’s got more room than his current inability to get out of the 20s suggests. But Sanders isn’t as strong as those head-to-head numbers look either. Much as I used to say about Biden, if you need to bet on someone, bet on Sanders. But take the field over him. Unless he breaks 40% in Nevada. Then he’s on the Trump track.

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