We’re only two debates-and-their-aftermaths deep into the Democratic primary campaign, and already one of my 2020 scenarios is looking wobbly. This spring I prophesied that Bernie Sanders had a chance of imitating Ronald Reagan’s leap between 1976 and 1980 — in which a former insurgent dismissed as too old and too ideological became a nominee and then a history-making president. But now in summer Sanders is struggling — not plummeting but leaking support, watching money and media attention pass to others, laboring to hold his base rather than expand it.
Sanders loyalists will insist that their man is getting underestimated yet again. After all, the Vermont socialist’s polling numbers still have him about equal with Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, and his fundraising and ground game will make him competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire no matter what.
But when I offered my Sanders-as-Reagan parallel, I assumed his national polling floor was higher — that there was enough zeal and good will for him among the party’s leftward voters to keep Sanders hovering between 20% and 30%, as Donald Trump did in the fall of 2015. That hypothesis has been disproved, as Sanders has dropped to around 15% in the current polling averages — a number that’s arguably weaker than it looks, given his near-universal name recognition and the fact that his support drops further when you screen for the most likely Democratic voters.
So far the Sanders response to this swoon has been a kind of base strategy, which seeks to register and mobilize while blunting Warren’s momentum by emphasizing Bernie’s brand as the real left-winger in the race. Hence his big speech explaining democratic socialism; hence his debate performance, conducted at a “we need a revolution, not just a white paper” pitch.
But when you look at the polls of Democrats’ first and second choices, you see something interesting: While there are certainly Warren voters for whom Bernie is a second choice, there are actually more Biden voters who list Sanders as their second option (and vice versa).
This is proof, in part, that voters don’t always fit the neat ideological categories that columnists deploy. But to the extent that Biden really is the candidate of moderate Democrats, it’s also evidence for a longtime Team Sanders argument — that Bernie has an underrated appeal to a certain kind of culturally conservative, economically liberal voter who wouldn’t normally be drawn to a candidate of the extreme left.
If that’s the case, then Sanders might have a better strategy available than the fend-off-Warren approach he’s taking at the moment. Because presumably the demographic choosing between Biden and Bernie isn’t looking for the candidate who has the most rigorously Scandinavian vision, the most fully fleshed-out theory of revolutionary change. Instead they want someone who seems to be on their side against the plutocrats, who seems to prefer economic fights to cultural ones, and who can be trusted to beat Trump and not to be a fool or fanatic once in office.
If we assume that Sanders passes the first two tests, then his mission should be to peel off Biden voters by reassuring them on the third count — telling them that he’s more than just a radical, that he isn’t allergic to compromise, that he can actually make deals and work the inside game. That it’s safe to vote for him, in other words, if you like the man but aren’t sure about the revolution.
And Sanders actually has a record that could let him make that case. As mayor of Burlington he famously dabbled in international anti-anti-Communism, but he was also a pragmatic mayor who worked well with Republicans on everyday city governance. As a candidate for statewide office in Vermont he consistently ran ahead of the national Democratic ticket, and his head-to-head polls with Trump are often slightly stronger than any other non-Biden candidate. And as a sitting senator, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias pointed out, he “talked about his blue-sky political ideals as something he believed in passionately, but he separated that idealism from his practical legislative work, which was grounded in vote counts.”
So there is no reason, when a debate question comes up about how the next Democratic president will handle divided government, why Sanders can’t cite this record as a selling point — even promising his own style of bipartisanship, pledging to work with populist forces in the GOP against monopolies and corporate power, or touting his recent foreign-policy cooperations with antiwar Republicans like Mike Lee and Rand Paul.
Reagan’s path to power in 1979 and 1980 didn’t just involve selling voters on Goldwaterite conservatism; it also involved selling Reagan as a pragmatist as well as an ideologue, a plausible president and not just the leader of a movement.
For Sanders to become a Democratic front-runner again, that might be the pitch he needs to make — not that he’s the truest lefty, the purest socialist, but that it’s safe to vote for him even if you aren’t.