Bernie Sanders survived a heart attack, and so did his campaign. Now party leaders wonder if he's their future.

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 38 days until the Iowa caucuses and 312 days until the 2020 election.

With the Iowa caucuses now just 38 days away, Democratic Party insiders are coming to terms with a potential primary result they’ve ignored for most of 2019: Bernie Sanders could win this thing.

In articles this week in Politico and the New York Times, national officials and local leaders in Iowa laid out why the 2016 primary runner-up hasn’t faded despite an October heart attack and what his supporters have called a “blackout” of media coverage.

“For months, the Vermont senator was written off by Democratic Party insiders as a candidate with a committed but narrow base who was too far left to win the primary,” reads the Politico story with the headline “Democratic insiders: Bernie could win the nomination.” “Elizabeth Warren had skyrocketed in the polls and seemed to be leaving him behind in the race to be progressive voters’ standard-bearer in 2020. But in the past few weeks, something has changed. In private conversations and on social media, Democratic officials, political operatives and pundits are reconsidering Sanders’ chances.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., waits to speak as his wife Jane O'Meara Sanders speaks during a rally in Venice, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders waits to speak at a rally in Venice, Calif., on Dec. 21. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

“His anti-establishment message hasn’t changed for 50 years, and it resonates with working-class voters and young people who agree the system is corrupt and it will take a revolution to fix it,” reads the New York Times story headlined “Why Bernie Sanders Is Tough to Beat.”

What’s behind the positive Sanders press? Although former Vice President Joe Biden has maintained his national 9-point lead, surveys in the first three Democratic primary states to vote all show close races that could find Sanders coming out on top and Biden slipping as far as fourth. (Public polling of the early states was sporadic over the holidays, and fresh polling in the new year could show a different picture.) In Iowa, the RealClearPolitics polling average has it as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg in first with 22 percent and Sanders in second at 20, with Biden and Warren just behind. In New Hampshire, the polling average shows Sanders in the lead and Biden in third. In Nevada, which hasn’t had a public poll since November, the latest average showed Biden in first and Sanders in second.

If Biden were to falter, the Sanders campaign thinks many of his voters might end up supporting him in the slate of Super Tuesday primaries and beyond. A CNN poll released last week showed Sanders with the highest favorability rating of any Democratic candidate. For those interested in an electability argument, general election polling shows Sanders in the same range as Biden when pitted against President Trump.

It’s possible that Sanders will not be able to rise above the 15 to 20 percent window where he’s been for most of the year, but his campaign is banking on getting Americans who typically don’t vote — younger and working class — to the polls. Sanders dominates among younger voters, with the most recent Quinnipiac poll showing him with the support of 52 percent of voters 34 and under. He also polls well with younger African-Americans and, as our Andrew Romano wrote in this space earlier this month, Sanders’s campaign is working to lock down the Hispanic vote with big-name supporters like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and rapper Cardi B. It’s an important voting bloc considering states with large Latinx populations like Nevada, California, Texas, Florida and Arizona all vote on or before March 17.

A final advantage for Sanders is his fundraising base, with more than 1 million donors and 4 million individual donations. Other candidates once viewed as strong contenders such as Sen. Kamala Harris have dropped out for lack of money. Biden is well funded but has relied more than most on big-money donors who may be close to reaching the maximum allowable contribution, but Sanders has tens of thousands of recurring donations every month reloading his war chest.

With many voters undecided or yet to begin paying attention to the primary, there is still a long way to go in deciding who will face Trump in November. If Sanders were to surpass Biden as the frontrunner, more obstacles will await, including potentially former President Barack Obama, who reportedly said he would speak out against the Vermont democratic socialist if he appeared to be in a position to win the nomination, although he is expected to support whoever the party ultimately nominates. Although Sanders, 78, has been campaigning vigorously, his age and health could still make some Democrats nervous about nominating him. After his heart attack, his campaign promised to release his health records by the end of the year. He has not yet done so.

But while nothing is certain, the money and polling have forced many in the Democratic elite to embrace a thought they had set aside for most of 2019: Sanders can win.


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