Bernie Sanders Probably Won't Win the 2020 Democratic Nomination. Here's Why.

Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for President of the United States to much fanfare last month. After a bruising 2016 election, during which the upstart Independent-turned-Democrat (read: Democratic Socialist) from Vermont was deprived of his chance to be the Democratic nominee by the Democratic National Committee, Bernie Sanders established himself as the leader of the ideologically driven left wing of the Democratic Party. In the three years that have passed since that run, Bernie has continued to build his base and increase his name recognition at the national level. He has spearheaded several important bills supporting fair pay for workers, insurance for flood victims, and home adult care legislation for veterans. His strong record coupled with high early polling numbers in Iowa make him a clear contender for the nomination. However, as Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight notes, while it would be wrong to say that early polling does not matter, since “a candidate polling at 25 percent in early polls is five or six times more likely to win the primary than one polling at 5 percent... it would be equally if not more wrong to say whoever leads in early polls is certain to win the nomination.”

To put it bluntly: there are several ways that Sanders could lose the race for the Democratic nomination again. As hard as it is for many Sanders supporters to fathom, Democrats are, for the most part, not on the Bernie bandwagon. The reasons for this are varied, but the first and most obvious reason is that Sanders is no longer the fresh-faced upstart, and he is no longer alone in putting forward a progressive platform. Other politicians have taken up the banner that Bernie Sanders hoisted in 2016 and run with it. True, not all of these politicians are running for the Presidency. Indeed, the most outspoken of this new vanguard of leftists is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). She might even be farther left than Sanders by some metrics. For instance, unlike Bernie, she and her fellow radical leftists would like to see the dissolution of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE. In contrast, while Sanders doesn't go quite as far as saying it should be abolished altogether, he does want to see the program completely restructured and he fundamentally agrees with AOC and Rep. Ilhan Omar in their critiques of Trump’s immigration policies. 

The contrast between Sanders and these younger politicians is indicative of a shift in the narrative of the progressive left. Sure, Bernie Sanders brought life back to many of the ideas that the new left champions today, which had long been dormant under Obama and Clinton: Medicare for all, a liveable wage, and the dream of a social democratic state with all the functions and social protections for poor and disenfranchised people. But he no longer holds a monopoly on the conversation surrounding these topics. The field of progressives is wider and deeper than it has been in decades. Of course, this reality is largely due to Sanders’ effect on the Democratic party in 2016 and before: Sanders has used much the same rhetoric since the ‘60s. Whether or not he wins the Presidency, his legacy will include the fact that he nearly single-handedly shifted the platform of the Democratic Party away from neoliberalism and toward a progressive leftist worldview. Many candidates in the current field of the Democratic nominees, such as Harris, Warren, and Booker, have looked to Sanders for inspiration for their own platforms and political ideologies. Other candidates may not acknowledge Sanders as the forefather of their own political movements, but they all owe some debt to him and his legacy of progressive activism. This is arguably the signature achievement of Sanders’ political career so far. But the threat these new leftists pose to Sanders’ current campaign is clear: they give Democrats who are looking to elect progressives more options and may fracture the base that Sanders built since 2016.

Another way that Sanders could lose is tied to how he deals with the still-open wounds from 2016. Democrats are split in their attitudes about the 2016 election. Many Democrats are still angry, and they want to re-litigate the 2016 election. Others want to heal those wounds and reset the status quo to the West Wing-style politics of the Obama years. Sanders naturally appeals to the former group, but he must be very careful not to alienate the latter group, who are already wary of him: former Obama and Hillary supporters, for whom the rise of Trumpian politics is not the dawning of a new era in American politics, but an aberration that must be corrected. These are the Democrats who decry the rising antipathy towards comprise as “not normal,” and who see the charismatic centrist populism of Biden and O’Rourke as the balm that will heal America’s wounds. With Biden leading in every single national poll of the 2020 Democratic primary tracked by RealClearPolitics, the former Vice President poses the greatest threat to Sanders. The fact that Biden has not even announced his candidacy yet highlights the challenges facing Bernie Sanders: if he cannot win over at least some of these centrist Democrats, he could lose the nomination to a former Obama administration member for the second time. Such a defeat would be particularly bitter for progressive Democrats.

Similarly, the history of the upstart campaign that Sanders led in 2016 may also turn out to be a weakness for him in 2020 in terms of image management. After all, the Democrats suffered heavy losses in states across the union in 2016 where voters reacted negatively to the specter of what the conservative media convinced them was a dangerous socialist. For many Americans, there is no difference between a democratic socialist and a pure socialist, and all socialism is bad. The unfortunate fact that Sanders has now been labeled a “bad socialist,” and that this identity has been indelibly attached to him in the minds of many independent centrists means that he will have to do a lot of defensive work to counter the negative narrative surrounding the controversial term. Sanders has so far addressed the issue by embracing the term in an effort to normalize it. But centrist Democrats are wary of nominating any candidate who openly associates with the concept of socialism, and even progressive Democrats who are not concerned by the concept of socialism are wary about how the term itself will play on the national level in a general election. 

Sanders also faces some opposition within the hard left-wing of the Democratic party to his protectionist border policies, especially among those who support open border policies championed by the likes of AOC and Omar in the House. Unfortunately for Bernie, many of his border policies are uncomfortably similar to Trump’s general posture. For very different reasons, they both support strong border protection. With his obsessive focus on workers’ rights, Sanders has long been an opponent of Koch brothers-style open border policies. Bernie would rather have stronger border protection and send more foreign aid to struggling nations than an open border policy that he worries could allow corporations to more easily outsource their workforce and hurt domestic workers. Regardless of their different reasonings, the fact that Trump has been constantly beating the drum for a border wall and ramping up efforts to deport migrants along the Southern Border means that many Democrats are not open to other positions that might result in similar support for beefed-up border policies. That puts Sanders and Warren, who both support protectionist policies, in a bind. They must buck the trend among leftists like AOC’s supporters for advocating open border policies and face a potentially strong backlash from Democrats. Sanders can offer this as a demonstration of leadership on the issue, but whether Democrats will buy this remains to be seen.

Not many of Sanders’ border policies help him with minority voters, a demographic he struggled with in 2016 and to whom he can only offer somewhat erudite comforts and messaging against a strong feeling that he may be more of a hindrance to their interests. The situation is similar among women. At a time when the MeToo movement has begun to mature and women and minority candidates are winning races around the country, Bernie Sanders seems out of step with the national conversation around social justice and racial equality. It’s not enough that Bernie Sanders marched in the Civil Rights Campaign and was arrested for his efforts in the 60’s to many voters who want to know what Bernie Sanders can do for them now. Moreover, other candidates in the field such as Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are fresh-faced minority candidates with the right backgrounds to take on the prison industrial complex and urban and housing development industries. That does not make Sanders look like the most attractive candidate to Democrats who are concerned with social justice. If more allegations of sexism within the Sanders campaign arise, he could similarly face further damage to his already tenuous support among women. 

Relatedly, Sanders may no longer be the clear leader among candidates on issues regarding rising social inequality and the advent of the politically empowered billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump, and Howard Schultz. Power and money go hand in hand, and Sanders has been a major critic of the richest Americans, who see themselves as leading what they hope will be the dawn of a new era of wealthy oligarchic rule. Bernie Sanders has long promised to tax the rich heavily, reduce income inequality, and prevent the excesses that directly lead to the great recession and the bailout of the Wall Street banks a decade ago. But unlike 2016, when he was the most outspoken candidate on these issues, Bernie Sanders is no longer the sole voice of the poor. Elizabeth Warren has also taken up the banner of financial reform and taxation reform. She has arguably a deeper history of activism than Bernie Sanders on these fronts and her policies consistently outflank Sanders regarding the core treatment of corporations. For instance, she wants to break up large technology corporations like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Warren has also gone after Wall Street bankers and made her name in the post-recession effort to hold the financial industry accountable. Here again, Sanders may no longer be the most attractive candidate for voters who care about curbing income inequality and the financial excesses of the wealthy.

On the opposite side of the income-inequality debate, a major problem that Bernie Sanders faces is that he is no longer the only candidate appealing to white working-class voters on economic issues. Instead, Joe Biden, Andrew Yang, Kamala Harris, and several others are making direct arguments to the white working class in middle-America and swing states on issues that were once hallmarks of Bernie Sanders’ platform. The other candidates have well-developed plans to solve the jobs crisis that many industries are facing as jobs get outsourced or automated. One of the failures of the Democratic Party in 2016 was their inability to offer a coherent economic vision to American workers. Bernie Sanders was in many ways the only one offering a plan, but that is no longer the case. Now, Sanders must convince voters that his progressive infrastructure and green jobs plan is better than the several other infrastructure and green jobs plans that are supported by other candidates.

Finally, Sanders challenged Hillary’s candidacy in 2016 with a strong grassroots campaign based on small donations and no funding from super PACs. With the crowded democratic field likely to thin as large donors make up their minds and voters show their preferences at the grassroots level with small donations, Bernie Sanders is likely to remain a strong contender going into the latter half of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. However, other candidates like Harris, Warren, and Biden, have strong grassroots organizations that rival Sanders’. Moreover, for all his efforts in 2016, Sanders was unable to keep much of the infrastructure he built after the end of the primary season. He will have to build a lot of that infrastructure again from scratch. With enthusiasm for his cause diluted by other candidates, it is not clear that Bernie Sanders will be able to muster the same level of excitement as he did in 2016 and translate that into donations. 

The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that Bernie Sanders faces an uphill battle to win the nomination. He is trailing Biden in national polls, and he is out of step with large swaths of the Democratic base on issues ranging from social justice to border policy. He is also no longer the sole representative of a positive economic vision for working-class Americans. And while he does still enjoy strong support among his progressive base, he could be overtaken by other progressives like Warren or fail to win the support of centrist Democrats who favor a more traditional Obama-style candidate like Biden or O’Rourke. But at the end of the day, no matter how things play out for Sanders, his impact on Democratic policy is undeniable. His legacy will always be evident in the re-ignition of the otherwise dormant progressive left. As recently as 2012, the Democratic Socialists of America had just 6,500 members. Today, their membership exceeds 50,000. Even if he does not win the nomination and ultimately the presidency, that surge just about guarantees that the strong leftist policies that Sanders has pushed for all his life will continue to find representation in American politics for decades to come.

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