This week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) surpassed former Vice President Joe Biden in the Real Clear Politics national polling average. This is the first time that Biden has trailed since mid-October — when he was overtaken by Elizabeth Warren momentarily — and only the second time he has fallen behind since entering the race back in April 2019.
The “rise” of Bernie Sanders hasn’t actually been an ascension but rather the result of a massive sell-off of support for the Biden campaign, which has dropped precipitously from 29.5% in late January to 19.2% as of yesterday (Sanders has remained steady at 22-23%). Having now lost decisively in both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, the Biden campaign has unofficially croaked. Here’s what this means for the party that will now likely put up an octogenarian socialist to challenge an incumbent president with a historically strong economy.
Biden was the moderate in the field. He was the familiar, nonthreatening elder statesman who was only half-alive but fully electable. The collapse of his presidential bid has left the Democratic electorate in a terrifying position. Ultimately, the party wanted to harness the energy and enthusiasm of the marginal Sanders support base without actually having to defend his wildly unpopular policies. They played a dangerous game in betting that Sanders would peter out toward the end and bequeath that energy to a more electable candidate who could moderate somewhat in the general. That never happened. Instead, Biden collapsed epically, falling off from a mid-May high of 41% in the RCP average (at which point Sanders stood at 14%).
The fall of Biden marks an odd deviation from the new party line: Beating Donald Trump by any means possible. According to NBC News exit polling data from the New Hampshire primary, 63% of respondents think it is more important for a candidate to be able to beat Trump than to agree with them on policy. It is only now that party leaders seem to be realizing the gravity of the mistake which has been made, particularly as it pertains to those vulnerable Democrats running in purple districts.
Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) called Sanders “about the worst candidate we can put up,” warning, “He not only won’t likely win the presidency; he puts the House majority at risk.”
“I think it would be difficult to have a socialist at the top of the ticket,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX). “I think he clarifies it and says ‘a democratic socialist,’ but a socialist is a socialist.”
A potential Sanders nomination should be a hard pill to swallow for Democrats seeking reelection in nine months. Sanders has been a collectivist for his entire political career. In the 1970s, he advocated nationalizing major industry and has not since repudiated that position; he vacationed in the former Soviet Union, drinking and singing before shrines to Lenin, and suggested that it should be illegal for anyone to earn more than they could spend, venturing as far as to actually propose an earnings cap. If you’re a Republican, the best part about Sanders is that, by comparison, he makes FDR look like vintage Barry Goldwater.
The party needs to consider more of the full spectrum of possibilities. Certainly, Sanders could upset Trump. As Trump has proved, it is possible for a candidate to take the nomination by repeatedly winning with a third of the vote as the field fails to consolidate moderate support. Sanders could walk the same path but would ultimately have to face an incumbent with a strong economy instead of Hillary Clinton.
On Tuesday, more than 130,000 Republicans showed up to vote for an incumbent in an effectively unchallenged primary — dwarfing the numbers picked up by former Presidents Obama (49,080), Bush (53, 962) and Clinton (76,797) in their reelection years. Trump has a uniquely enthusiastic support base, a historic economy and a talent for trench warfare — Sanders’ Soviet sympathies will be exploited thoroughly.
Circumstances are subject to change, but there is a very real possibility that Sanders would lose worse than Clinton in 2016 — and the Democrats would lose the House as a result of their all-or-nothing pursuit of the presidency. If Democrats were looking for energy, they found some. If they were looking for a competitive challenger, they probably just sent him packing.
Kevin Catapano is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .