On the day of the Iowa caucuses, the rumpled, tousle-haired democratic socialist senator from Vermont is, as political observers like to say, surging.
Bernie Sanders, you may remember, lost the 2016 Iowa caucuses to Hillary Clinton by a whisper, 49.6 percent to her 49.9 percent—that after trailing her by three points in the final Des Moines Register-Bloomberg poll. Today, one Bernard Sanders leads in four of the six most recent major in Iowa polls, with Joe Biden taking the top spot in the other two, and leads in all six of the most recent major polls in New Hampshire, according to Real Clear Politics. Also, for the first time, Sanders took the top spot in two national polls, CNN/SSRS and NBC/Wall Street Journal. Biden, whose campaign has “sharply limited his exposure to the media,” according to a new Time profile, still leads by an average of six points in most other major national polls, but Sanders has risen by about seven percentage points, while Biden has fallen by about four, since last August. In other words: after almost a year of primary campaigning with various surges and fizzles in which he largely held steady, Sanders, is on an upswing as the primaries kick off.
This has upset various members of the political establishment. If 2016 gave us the Never Trumpers, 2020 brings the Oh Not Sandersers. Last week, the Washington Post reported that “top Democrats are increasingly alarmed” that Sanders could very well be the nominee, but fear that even a “hint of an organized anti-Sanders movement would risk alienating the Vermont independent’s sometimes belligerent supporters and play into claims that the process is ‘rigged.’” Last week, the Atlantic’s David Frum argued that “Bernie Can’t Win,” and New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait went even further, pronouncing that “Running Bernie Sanders Against Trump Would Be an Act of Insanity.” In USA Today, Matt Bennett and Lanae Erickson, executive vice president and vice president, respectively at Third Way, asserted that “Democrats court doom by backing Bernie Sanders” because his “ideas are toxic outside blue America.” And then, as former Maryland congressman John Delaney retired his forgotten presidential campaign on Friday, he left with a parting shot at both Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, telling CNN that taking “health care away from a lot of people” and forcing them “on some new government plan” is a “hard way to win an election.” (As if the guy who beat Dan Bogino by 1.5 percent in a D+6 seat and couldn’t qualify for the last presidential debate knows much about running up election margins.)
It’s all enough to make me wonder: Is Sanders going to take this thing?
There is in the anti-Bernie bluster something of 2016—the wonky hubris, the near sneering self-assuredness that an outsider candidate couldn’t win at a time of social unrest. That year, Chait argued in February “liberals should support a Trump nomination” because he would “almost certainly lose”—which was as good an argument as his New Republic cover story of the “liberal case” for the Iraq War in 2002. On the eve of the 2016 election, Chait asserted “Donald Trump Is Going to Lose Because He Is Crazy” (which he didn’t) and that Trump “is not going to win Michigan,” (which he did). He certainly wasn’t alone. Of course, those doubters had their reasons: FiveThirtyEight gave Hillary Clinton a 71 percent chance of winning, while the New York Times’s Upshot had Trump with a 15 percent chance of winning.
That’s not the case today. Many of the indicators point in Sanders’s direction, or they’re fuzzy enough that hyper-confident proclamations predicting doom, disaster, and insanity seem to be just that: cherry-picked punditry. Or perhaps there’s something else at work: maybe the panicked Sanders-can’t-win takes are fueled by the deep-seated centrist fear that he definitely can.
Chief among the Oh Not Sandersers’ concerns is that Sanders is a lifelong democratic socialist. A Gallup poll shows that while socialism has become more popular recently, only 43 percent of Americans believe that socialism would be good for the country, while 51 percent believe it would be a bad thing. Chait argues that, though Republicans call every nominee a “socialist,” it’ll be “child’s play” for them to paint Sanders’s programs as “radical and dangerous” when he is a self-described socialist. Bennett and Erickson use Sanders’ primary losses in 2016 to argue that he couldn’t win the general in 2020.
Both points may be true, but despite Sanders’ proud socialism, he is still America’s most popular politician, drawing more individual donors (1.4 million) than any other candidate in 2019. And the pair leave out that in a more recent New York Times poll, Sanders leads Trump in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. However Americans feel about theoretical systems of government, it doesn’t necessarily translate to how they feel about a well-known individual politician.
Oh Not Sandersers argue that he is “untested” because he’s only won in the deep-blue state of Vermont. In this case, they cite old video of Sanders “palling around with Soviet communists,” bad writing from his youth (including a theory that sexual repression causes breast cancer and a musing on female rape fantasies), and the sketchy finances of his wife’s stretch as president of Burlington College. Frum also cites Sanders backing Iran when they took U.S. hostages. “Imagine what Trump and his team will do with that,” he writes. Of course, the Republicans will attack any candidate for anything: Last cycle, it was the much-tested Hillary Clinton and her e-mails, and Trump rallies still chant “lock her up”—nevermind that Ivanka Trump sent hundreds of e-mails about government business from a personal account. In the 2004 presidential campaign, the upright and near unassailable John Kerry—who received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts for his combat duty in the Vietnam war—was attacked for...his military service, making Swift Boating a political verb.
But voters seem to overlook damaging stories for candidates they like: Bill Clinton had numerous charges of sexual harassment and assault, including a credible rape accusation, George W. Bush was a dolt with a DUI. The real question to ask is how Sanders would respond to the attacks. Would he fumble and, say, challenge a potential voter to push-ups, as Biden did when asked about his son Hunter’s overseas business dealings on the campaign trail? By all indications, Sanders would push through it, and return to his message of economic populism. When he was asked about Clinton’s comment that “nobody liked him,” he quipped, "On a good day, my wife likes me, so let’s clear the air on that one." Sanders’s newfound prominence also means that the Republican attack machine hasn’t had the chance to build the case against him for years a la Clinton.
That all aside, the Oh Not Sandersers argue as if the choice for Sanders or not were a vacuum—as if there were not other candidates in the race. Pete Buttigieg, who trails Sanders by 16.8 percentage points in a national average of polls, has only 2 percent support from black voters, a key constituency for Democrats, while Amy Klobuchar, who trails Sanders by 19.2 points, has 0 percent support from black voters. Stop-and-frisk pioneer Michael Bloomberg, 15.5 points behind Sanders, has the highest unfavorable ratings with black voters, as well a plutocrat brand that may not inspire young voters in numbers that the Democrats need to win. After her own summer surge, Elizabeth Warren has fallen in the polls after fumbling her Medicare-for-All plan. And while Biden is the only candidate to lead with black voters and voters overall, he seems to be running his campaign in a general state of cognitive decline, and drew only 50 people to an Iowa event right before the caucuses. All of which is to say that if there’s a statistical case against Sanders, there’s an even stronger one against the Democratic alternatives.
It is certainly true that to win a general election, particularly with an electoral college stacked against a Democratic candidate, no nominee can run a Trump-like, base-only campaign to victory. Hillary Clinton won 2.9 million more votes than Trump, while Gore won 540,000 more votes than Bush. One electoral model showed that a Democratic candidate could win by 5 million votes and still lose the election. And Chait makes the salient point that leftist candidates haven’t won in swing districts, but Sanders himself has, as Jacobin points out, out-raised all his competitors in Obama-Trump districts: 81,841 individual donations from 33,185 donors in these flipped counties, about three times as many as the other leading candidates. Still, Sanders will have to expand beyond his enthusiastic-but-narrow base.
If we learned anything in the last two cycles (see also: Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who also scored upset victories), it’s that poll numbers can be illusory, particularly for a candidate with a message that reverberates with big, enthusiastic crowds and voters who aren’t typically counted in likely-to-vote predictions. Polls have their place. But perhaps, it’s worth considering models that correctly predicted Trump’s win. Chris Rock, who made crowds uneasy when he predicted Trump would win in 2016, may not be a professional political scientist, but in some ways great comedians are some of our most astute cultural critics. In Rock’s framework, “of the moment” candidates like Obama and Trump beat “it’s my turn” candidates like Gore and Clinton—you can see where Biden would fit in.
The Oh Not Sandersers have marshalled various political science studies, primary numbers, and perceived attackable spots, ignoring stats that point to Sanders’s strengths. Over the weekend, Sanders drew a crowd of 3,000 to an Iowa rally in Cedar Rapids, while Michael Moore, who also correctly predicted Trump would win last election when professional numbers watchers got it wrong, stumped for him in Des Moines. Whatever his chances, it’s unlikely that Sanders will forgo campaigning in Wisconsin to fly to California fundraisers, and, for all the acrimony of some of his followers, he has a dedicated army ready to gear up for the general to vote, recruit, and push back on unfair media narratives. Right now, Sanders sure looks like an “of the moment” candidate.
He went from the rumpled bit player of the progressive movement to a legit presidential candidate and liberal kingmaker. But now that Sanders wields such enormous power in Democratic politics, the question is, what’s he going to do with it? Jason Zengerle hit the road with Sanders as the senator grapples with what to do next.
Originally Appeared on GQ