Sputtering About: Where Bernie Sanders Stands a Month Out from the First Debates

Here we go.

Exactly one month out from the first Democratic primary debates of the 2020 presidential election and we now have our first glimpse as to how each candidate is doing.

Of course, using polls this early to predict the party's nominee is highly unscientific. Ask early leaders Howard Dean in 2004, Rudy Giuliani in 2008, Mike Huckabee in 2012, and Jeb Bush in 2016 about what it means to lead early in the polls. But what polls can tell us early on is who is rising, who is falling, and what some of the early reasons for those swings might be. The majority of these polls are focused on name recognition with those who have a national following tending to do better than relative unknowns. Because of that, there are candidates who have built-in advantages at this point of the game and those candidates can and should be at the head of the pack.

Which is why Bernie Sanders should be so very, very concerned. 

Outside of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders has more name recognition than any Democratic candidate running according to the latest Morning Consult poll, released last week. Much of this can be attributed to Sanders' unsuccessful 2016 campaign for president. But while Sanders may be well known nationally, his poll numbers have taken a huge hit since the emergence of Joe Biden. In the latest Emerson poll, Biden has an 8-point lead over Sanders, a 13-point drop for Sanders after Biden entered the race. In Iowa, Sanders is now tied with Biden having announced his candidacy in the latest online survey. In New Hampshire, Biden currently has an 18-point lead over Sanders. In Nevada, the first state with a high population of Latino voters, Biden as a 13-point lead over Sanders. And in South Carolina, the first state with a significant voting bloc of African-American voters, Biden has a massive 31-point lead over Sanders who we've seen time and time again struggle to connect with people of color.

Cleary, Bernie Sanders is no longer the front-runner for the nomination.

And his team has responded accordingly. Despite being the first candidate to sign the Indivisible Unity Pledge, Sanders and his staff have ruthlessly attacked Joe Biden from the moment Sanders claimed he wouldn't attack his fellow nominees. Sanders' personal attack dog, David Sirota, who officially joined the campaign in March, had a long, undisclosed history of working with Sanders and using his platform to attack Sanders' Democratic rivals. Just two days ago, Sirota went on a tweet storm, referencing several right-wing media articles in an effort to draw a sharp contrast between Sanders' record with that of Biden's. While Sirota has been the lead attack dog, Bernie Sanders himself has gladly joined the fray. Within the past three weeks alone, Sanders has gone after Biden's views on trade deals, the Iraq War, and climate change. Whereas when Bernie Sanders was the front-runner, his supporters said that attacking him was doing damage to the unity of the Democratic Party. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, his very same supporters see nothing wrong with attacking the new front-runner in Joe Biden.

But perhaps most troubling for Bernie Sanders is not only how far behind he is with Joe Biden but how other candidates are starting to catch up to him. According to the latest Monmouth University poll, Sanders has only a 4-point lead over Kamala Harris and a 5-point lead over Elizabeth Warren. This, in itself, should terrify Sanders as both Harris and Warren have much less name recognition than Sanders but also both are skilled orators who are likely to do well on the debate stage. While Joe Biden does have the name recognition, a large swath of Democratic voters are looking for a woman and/or a person of color to represent a party they see as being diverse and both Harris and Warren could very well emerge as the alternative to Biden. If that were to happen, there would be little to no lane for Bernie Sanders as those that oppose Biden for being a long-standing member of the Democratic Party would hardly shift their allegiance to another long-standing member of government who lacks both the achievements and accomplishments that Biden has amassed over the years. 

Truth be told, Sanders is faltering because he's no longer the alternative to Hillary Clinton, the most vilified politician of her generation. Whereas Sanders was able to skate by in 2016 due to a complacent media refusing to vet him, he no longer has that luxury. When numerous Democratic candidates release their tax returns, Sanders can no longer refuse to do so as he did in 2016. While Sanders offered no real policy proposals in 2016 other than to break up the banks and then failed to explain how he would do that, he now must compete with the likes of both Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren who have offered multiple policy proposals. Even when Sanders does try to create a policy proposal like he has with his plan to regulate charter schools, that plan now faces scrutiny, especially from those in the African-American community who have seen how good charter schools can help lift their children out of poverty. In 2016, Sanders was the like the guy who runs for class president, promising a full-day recess with no idea how to accomplish it. In 2019, Sanders is now the guy who forgets to write his speech and eventually does so by plagiarizing the speeches he has already heard.

The major issue is that Bernie Sanders is no longer the only show in town. Democratic voters have choices. Millennials can vote for Mayor Pete, whom they see as one of their own. Populists can vote for Elizabeth Warren, who shares many of Sanders' economic views but is so much better at articulating them. College students have a number of candidates who have offered debt-free education plans and these plans are much more comprehensive than Sanders'. The White working-class that abandoned Hillary Clinton in 2016 sees Joe Biden as one of their own. Whereas Bernie Sanders was able to corral the support from the majority of these groups in 2016, he can no longer be that single candidate this time around. When that happens, when other candidates emerge who have better plans than you and when you don't offer anything new, that is when support erodes for a candidate who may have near-universal name recognition. That is why we are seeing support for Bernie Sanders dissipate before our very eyes.

And the fact that all this is occurring before the first debates shows that Bernie Sanders is on a downward trajectory that may simply be too much for him to overcome. Sanders is a one-trick pony in debates with "Noun, verb, Wall Street" being his favorite tune. Sanders and his finger-wagging may have endeared him to supporters in 2016 but in 2019 when he will be up on stage with 8 or more candidates, it will seem offensive and rude. Combine that with the fact that Sanders will be the oldest candidate on stage, sometimes having 25+ years on some of the more energetic candidates and it becomes apparent that Sanders won't be able to win over any new Democratic voters. Once that happens, once surging candidates like Warren and Harris begin to build their name recognition, there is the strong chance that both of them pass Sanders in the polls. Should Sanders end up finishing in fourth and perhaps even fifth place in the early primary states, it will be hard for Bernie Sanders to convince the American people that he is most deserving of the nomination. 

But knowing who Bernie Sanders truly is, he will undoubtedly try. 

Like what you read? Keep us going.