Against all odds, it looks like Bernie Sanders might be the Democratic nominee after all

Biden and Buttigieg have split the center of the party — and polls show Democratic voters are unexpectedly looking for a much more progressive candidate

Max Burns
New York
Tuesday 07 January 2020 19:22
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Bernie Sanders launches second presidential campaign

With the first-in-the-nation Iowa Democratic caucus less than a month away, even top-tier presidential contenders like former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are struggling to capture voter attention. In a nation overwhelmed by political crises, is anyone surprised?

According to a recent Economist/YouGov poll, only a third of Americans are paying “a lot” of attention to the 2020 presidential campaign. Nearly half of those polled admitted they hadn’t given much or any thought to who they plan to support. Pundits and political elites correctly call 2020 the most consequential election in modern American history – but rank-and-file American voters are apparently in no hurry to make up their minds.

That isn’t surprising. The December Democratic debate generated the lowest ratings of any 2020 outing, drawing just over six million viewers. That pales in comparison to the over 18 million viewers who tuned in for the first Democratic debate in June. There are increasing signs that the American people are exhausted by the nonstop nature of our modern political theater. From a contentious presidential impeachment to possible war with Iran, Americans are overloaded and burned out by an endless circus of political crises.

Among those voters who make up the Democrats’ activist base, though, a Morning Consult national poll reveals a surprising shift in the ideological makeup of Democratic politics. Unabashedly progressive candidates Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren capture nearly 40 per cent of Democratic primary voters. The appeal of a progressive presidential candidate is so strong, Morning Consult found, that even most Biden supporters consider Sanders their second choice.

Last September, I wrote about what might happen if progressive voters had to make a choice between Warren and Sanders. As Joe Biden fades in Iowa and New Hampshire, the question of how (and if) progressives unify behind a single candidate is now a pressing concern. Divided between two candidates, progressive Democrats are unwittingly providing a lifeline to Biden’s struggling campaign. Unified, their momentum becomes unstoppable.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says it would be an 'honour' to serve as Bernie Sanders' vice president

Just last week, the Sanders campaign blew the doors off its fourth quarter fundraising, generating a staggering $34.5 million. Warren raised an impressive $21.2 million. Combined, that more than doubles Joe Biden’s $22.7 million haul. Divided though they may be, the death of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party appears greatly exaggerated.

The battle for the soul of the Democratic Party is real, and the progressive wing increasingly has both a fundraising and organizing edge.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has emerged as the center of political gravity for both the Beltway media and progressive activists, recently flexed her muscles with a series of rallies supporting the Sanders campaign. That creates a serious challenge for Warren, who is struggling to regain momentum after a series of run-ins with progressive activists on everything from her private-sector legal work to the details of her phased Medicare-for-All plan.

Nothing has proven more surprising than the remarkable comeback of Bernie Sanders. In October, Sanders suffered a heart attack that briefly took him off the campaign trail. The Washington chattering class speculated that Sanders had reached the end of his political road.

Yet in the three months since then, Sanders has rebounded in polling and fundraising to reclaim a commanding position among the left wing of the Democratic Party. At the same time, Warren’s national polling numbers fell by nearly half. Sanders enters 2020 without any serious challenge to his dominance of the Democrats’ left flank. Now Democratic elites are concerned Sanders could be the nominee after all.

Centrist Democrats shouldn’t breathe easy. The illusion of unity behind Joe Biden may not survive a strong performance by Pete Buttigieg among Iowa and New Hampshire voters. Faced with a frontrunner unable to win early primary states, the centrist coalition currently backing Biden could easily transition into Buttigieg boosters. Then the moderate wing of the Democratic Party would find itself with the same dilemma as their progressive colleagues.

The Iowa caucus offers Democrats their first major opportunity to reshape a party traumatized by the nihilism and instability of President Donald Trump. For the resurgent left, 2020 offers the best opportunity in decades to shift Democratic Party values in a more progressive direction.

But first they have to win.

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