As many are aware, Bernie Sanders had emergency heart surgery earlier this week. From the sound of things, he will recover, and he plans to participate in the next round of debates. But the development poses new questions about Sanders’ age and forced his supporters to momentarily consider a nightmare scenario: if Bernie Sanders were forced to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination, which of the other candidates would they support? The DSA has passed a resolution saying that they will not support any candidate other than Sanders no matter what, so they can’t give his supporters much leadership in this regard.
Sanders supporters would likely fracture if his campaign were to end, with each of the remaining candidates getting some share of his base. But the two candidates most likely to draw support are Warren and Yang. After all, the other remaining candidates don’t have much to offer to his supporters. Harris and Booker are unlikely to draw any interest from Sanders supporters given their lack of policy overlap with Sanders, especially their emphasis on social justice reform over economic justice. Biden is not attractive to Sanders supporters because he represents everything that they dislike about establishment liberal politics in America: neoliberalism, hawkish foreign policy, incrementalism with regard to healthcare, and (what Sanders supporters consider to be) a disingenuous commitment to Unions and workers rights, and an Obama-era focus on seeking compromise at the expense of policy goals. Next, Buttigieg may get some supporters from Sanders, but he needs to convince them that “medicare for all who want it” will be better than Medicare for all, which is unlikely to happen. Finally, O’rourke, Gabbard, and the rest of the field are unlikely to draw significant numbers from Sanders’ ranks simply because they are struggling in the polls in general. This leaves Warren and Yang as the two most likely options.
Before we get into the comparison between the two, let’s look at the positive reasons for each. Warren is clearly a good choice for Sanders supporters. She shares a similar policy vision and has courted Sanders supporters heavily. In fact, you could say that Warren has already been the default backup choice for many Sanders supporters for months. The two campaigns get along very well, and their supporters often mingle amicably at campaign events. Warren even sent Sanders’ team dinner after he went into the hospital. The two candidates have a noticeably close bond. They travel together often, defend each other during debates, and seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Sanders supporters also tend to name Warren as their default second choice simply because of the fact that none of the other candidates support the vision of Medicare for all that Sanders and Warren have pioneered. In fact, Warren and Sanders are so close that they have at times appeared to be running twin arms of a single campaign. This is borne out in the polls, in which, until recently, they both garnered almost exactly the same amount of support. Warren has only recently pulled ahead.
The argument for Yang is a bit harder to piece together. After all, Yang and Sanders disagree on a lot of policy goals, including UBI, which is Yang’s signature proposal, and Medicare for All, which is Sanders’ signature proposal. Yang's focus on UBI comes from his concern that automation, especially accelerating robotics technologies, like self-driving cars and 3D printing, will require novel political solutions to address as they put Americans out of work. This is a completely different angle to approach politics from than Bernie Sanders and it is not immediately clear why Sanders supporters should look into Yang other than the fact that they are both concerned with labor issues. The differences are great, but once the full picture is seen, it becomes clear that, while Warren is a great second choice for Sanders supporters, Yang is actually a better choice.
The first thing to point out about Yang is that he is solidly anti-establishment and a complete outsider to DC politics. This is important to Sanders’ supporters. As the Sanders movement has formed into a true movement, it has become more closely linked to establishment Washington politics, which is inevitable to some degree. But Sanders’ big draw in 2016 was his outsider status. He was fresh and bold and new, and his supporters loved that about him. It was exciting to campaign for Bernie, and the feeling of momentum and energy among his growing base was palpable. And guess who has that same feeling of energy and momentum behind his campaign? Andrew Yang. Energy and momentum can make or break a campaign, and it is a key indicator that commentators look for when evaluating a candidate's chances. Do voters look revved up and excited when they leave a candidate’s events or do they look sad and confused? Yang supporters are clearly the former. In fact, that intangible energy is so important that it can often make or break a campaign. Warren has a good amount of energy, but Yang is bursting at the seams.
Energy isn’t everything, though, and the second reason that Sanders supporters should consider Yang over Warren has to do with their history in dealing with race relations. Sanders supporters tend to look at racial justice questions as following from and dependent upon economic justice questions. Warren and Yang do as well, and they share many similar ideas about the causes and effects of racial inequality in America. But whereas Warren wants to solve these issues with reparations, Yang wants to roll the entire idea of reparations into the motivations for UBI. For Yang, UBI is not a catch-all silver bullet to the problems of racial justice, but he argues that $1000 cash in hand every month could be thought of some sort of reparations. Importantly, Yang argues that giving people money with no strings attached will give them the opportunity to reinvest in their communities, which will benefit distressed communities in particular. That is more in line with Sanders’ position. Notably, Sanders has declined to support reparations for slavery, and signaled a preference for policies with a specific focus on helping distressed communities. Yang’s UBI could fit that mold very well.
A follow-up to the issues of racial justice that should also be noted is each candidate’s personal performance on racial topics when in the public eye. Warren has a distressing history of missteps and faux pas surrounding the question of her Native American ancestry. She has tried to put the issue to rest, but Republicans will almost definitely use it against her in the 2020 elections. Meanwhile, Yang has also done his fair share to piss off another minority group, Asian Americans, by perpetuating Asian model minority myths. However, Yang has also said that he draws a line between what he thinks is lighthearted, comedic fun, and outright racism. His surprisingly effective attitude of clemency toward those who accidentally step over the line, which he demonstrated during the recent controversy over Shane Gillis, a comedian who got fired from SNL after using racial slurs aimed at Asian Americans. Even if they disagree with Yang about this specific incident, Sanders’ supporters are likely to find a lot to admire in his emphasis on forgiveness and comedic fun when it comes to race relations.
Finally, while Warren is sure to fire up the Democratic base, Yang can do that and attract centrists and conservative liberals on economic issues. Yang appeals to working-class libertarian-minded Democrats as well as some republicans because he advocates giving people cash as opposed to expanding the social welfare state. On this point, Sanders’ supporters will likely balk at first. But when framed as an alternative to a minimum wage, Sanders’ supporters may come around. The argument here would be that a minimum wage and benefits that come from a decent job are not available anyway to caregivers, stay-at-home parents, and others who fall outside of the regular day job economy. Many of the social services that Sanders supporters advocate for are targeting those who fill these types of rolls, and Yang’s UBI would apply to them as well, whereas a minimum wage would not. In that way, Yang is arguing that UBI would give universal support to all Americans regardless of economic position in a way that social services and a minimum wage cannot.
Taken together, these points show that Yang is a better backup choice for Sanders supporters than Warren. Though Warren has the ability to fire up the Democratic base, Yang has that outsider energy that can generate excitement and propel him into the White House. He also has less baggage on racial issues than Warren, and his plan for addressing racial inequality is closer to Sanders’ positions. The area that will likely cause the most friction with Sanders supporters is the fact that Yang would like to offer UBI and reduce to the size of the welfare state, while Warren has an ambitious plan for workers that includes a federal minimum wage, which is similar to Sanders. But if Yang can successfully convince Sanders supporters that UBI is a better alternative to a minimum wage, then he will have a good shot at convincing them that he is a better default second choice than Warren.