Some criticisms of the political media, like that it fabricates allegations and makes up sources in order to embarrass our great president, are bogus. Others, such as that it oversells new “characters” and conflict-oriented storylines at the expense of conveying the full, contextualized totality of some situations, can be fair. And that critique is particularly fair right now in regard to the coverage of Bernard “Bernie” Sanders, the Brooklyn-Vermont “democratic socialist” who takes the debate stage Thursday night as one of the three leading candidates to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.
Given that debate performances are scrutinized for how they shape the primary “narrative,” Sanders is at a disadvantage. He’s not the Establishment Favorite—that would be Joe Biden—and he’s not the Surging Insurgent, Elizabeth Warren. He’s not An Inspiring Resistance Leader Who Might Appeal to Centrists (Kamala Harris), and he is certainly not An Uncannily Articulate 14-Year-Old Mayor Who Likes Radiohead (that would be Pete Buttigieg).
He is, instead, The Exact Same Guy He Was Last Time—a fiery leftist who has a substantial, if not primary-majority-size, base of committed supporters who believe in his ambitious plans to bring justice to a “rigged” society by sticking it to the damn fat cats. A Sanders presidency would, guaranteed, involve an attempt to raise taxes on top earners in order to institute single-payer universal health coverage and make college free.
It’s reasonable to be interested in seeing how Biden and Warren fare when they finally meet head-to-head in a debate. Biden, after long consideration or dithering, jumped into the race late and immediately became the front-runner; Warren has been the only challenger who’s risen consistently in the polls since she began campaigning. Sanders, meanwhile, has about the same amount of support now as he did in May, after Biden announced and started taking up polling space.
And while the Vermont senator has changed his rhetoric and his platform since 2016 to acknowledge and decry the role that race plays in economic disparities, he’s done so in a way that fills out, rather than erases and redraws, his public meaning. He hasn’t done anything, since the last time he ran for, and did not win, the nomination, to radically change the public’s established impression of who he is, what he believes, and how he would behave as president. If you liked him in 2016, you probably still do; if not, you still don’t. Relatedly, the press may be less inclined to speculate about Sanders’ momentum because of the fact that the U.S. has never had a socialist chief executive, even one who means socialism in the sense of expanding existing public-welfare programs rather than the sense of eliminating private property and assigning all economic decisions to bureaucrats in the Consolidated Uni-Department of Industry, Agriculture, and Proletarian Thought.
None of this is Sanders’ fault, or even a bad thing. Politicians being clear and consistent about what they want to do … is good. But it also to some extent justified the lack of hype that he got during the initial months of the campaign.
Now that it’s finally less than one full football season until actual voting starts, though, it might be time to start looking through the lens not of narrative and potential but of which candidate is going to secure the nomination by winning the most party delegates through the primary process. And from that perspective, Sanders is doing pretty well. The first four states to hold primaries or caucuses are Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina; this week Sanders has led a New Hampshire poll and a Nevada poll, and been within the margin of error of Biden in another New Hampshire poll and an Iowa poll.
Democratic voters are notoriously concerned with “electability” this cycle, and while the socialism thing makes that fraught for Sanders, if he starts winning elections and continues beating Trump in every head-to-head poll, he will start seeming more “electable.” (Even now, Democrats, at least by one measure, see him as more electable than any other candidate except Biden.) According to Morning Consult polling, Sanders is also the preferred “second choice” candidate of a majority of Biden and Warren supporters, which means he’d surge if one of those individuals were to, say, be heckled out of the race for, hypothetically, referring repeatedly to Beto O’Rourke as “Bobby” during a debate and claiming to have hosted Medgar Evers in the White House in 2011.
Sanders can stay in the race long enough to let bad things happen to the less-tested candidates, because he has a tidy $27 million in cash on hand and a deep e-Rolodex of small donors. Also, compared with him, the “less-tested candidates” are all of them: No one has been as recently vetted or run as large of a national campaign as he has, and he’s been rock-solid in debates. (Knowing what you believe and want to do is actually a good way of coming off well in superficial, theatrical situations, it turns out.)
And then, if he won the primary, he’d be running in a general election against Donald Trump—an unpopular president who’s overseeing a shaky economy—as a candidate with a history of appealing to the kind of lower-income, less educated voters that were key to Trump’s win in 2016.
It could happen!