Democrats' strategy to stop Sanders could be fatally flawed

As the results of the Nevada caucuses showed Sen. Bernie Sanders solidifying his status as a — or the — Democratic frontrunner, those in the party who fear his nomination mounted increasingly panicked calls for other candidates to drop out and allow the opposition to coalesce around a single challenger.

On CNN, it was former candidate Andrew Yang, who left the race Feb. 11 when he concluded he wasn’t going to win, urging others to follow his example. On MSNBC, it was former Sen. Claire McCaskill begging billionaire Tom Steyer to leave the race and spend his money against Sanders. Michael Bloomberg’s campaign began making the same argument last week, when they urged the other candidates, many of whom had been in the race for a year or more, to clear the field for him.

EL PASO, TX - FEBRUARY 22: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a campaign rally on February 22, 2020 in El Paso, Texas. (Photo by Cengiz Yar/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. (Cengiz Yar/Getty Images)

One problem with this strategy, or course, is that it depends on candidates’ willingness to fall on their swords for the assumed benefit of the party. As Yang said, “Each candidate wants to be the last person standing to absorb the non-Bernie energy.”

But is the underlying premise, that narrowing the field would stop Sanders, even valid? Sanders, an ideologically polarizing figure, hasn’t won a clear majority in any of the primary contests so far, so the argument is that with most of the race still to play out, the candidate or candidates remaining would inherit the voters who oppose him. However, there’s evidence to support a theory that fewer candidates would not only fail to harm the Vermont senator but could actually help him.

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll published last week showed Sanders with double-digit leads in hypothetical one-on-one matchups against Bloomberg, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Former Vice President Joe Biden trailed him by 4 points, and the best option to oppose him was his ideological doppelgänger, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, down by just 2 points. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week echoed those results, finding Sanders leading Bloomberg by 20 and Buttigieg by 16 in one-on-one races.

Another factor potentially helping Sanders down the stretch is that average Democrats like him. If you only surveyed the ranks of cable news pundits and newspaper op-ed page writers, you might assume Sanders is a polarizing figure within the party, but poll after poll shows that to be untrue. A Monmouth poll released this month found Sanders to have the highest net favorability rating among Democrats of any of their candidates, coming in at plus-53. Next closest was Warren at plus-48, down to Bloomberg with plus-14.

And it’s not just liberals or progressives supporting Sanders in polling: A February Associated Press-NORC poll found that Sanders was not just the most popular candidate among Democrats but also the most popular among all general election voters. A Quinnipiac survey found that Sanders had a plus-43 favorability rating among Democrats who self-identified as moderates or conservatives. If you are a Democrat who disapproves of Sanders — or Biden, Warren, Buttigieg or Klobuchar, for that matter — you are in a clear minority among your peers.

Finally, Sanders has hidden strength as the second choice of many Democrats, who are open to voting for him if their preferred candidate drops out. In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week, Sanders led among Democratic voters’ second choices, with nearly a fifth of respondents saying they’d turn to him. An ABC News/Washington Post poll asking the same question found him in second, behind only Warren.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders gestures as he takes the stage during a campaign rally at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas, U.S., February 23, 2020.
Sen. Bernie Sanders during a campaign rally at the University of Houston on Sunday. (AP)

The Nevada caucuses showed this in action. On the first alignment, Sanders received 34.3 percent of the vote. After each precinct eliminated the weakest candidates and their supporters migrated to someone else, Sanders’s share jumped 6 points. Warren supporters accounted for just a fraction of that, as her share fell by less than 2 points; the rest of Sanders’s second-round gain came from voters whose original preference was one of the centrist candidates. This echoes Nevada entrance polling, which showed Sanders tied or leading among self-described moderates/conservatives. This is in contrast to Iowa, where the Sanders popular vote lead shrank between first and final ballots.

Sanders is by no means a lock for the nomination at this point. As a 78-year-old who had a heart attack in October, he still faces questions about his health and his refusal to release his medical records. The trove of opposition research his rivals say is waiting to be uncovered could surface. One of the other contenders could enjoy a surge: Warren could build off her Nevada debate performance and strong underlying numbers, Biden could find new life after a win in South Carolina, or Bloomberg’s strategy of flooding the airwaves in Super Tuesday states could pay off. But those assuming that Sanders will automatically fail going one-on-one with any of the other candidates should ask themselves: What if they’re wrong?

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