The Briefing, Vol. VIII, Issue 4: The Sanders Surge

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., answers a question Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Sanders Surge

  • Sanders surges as early contests loom
  • Humdrum impeachment shaking out as expected 
  • Schiff enrages Republican moderates

President 2020

Sanders’ surge: The stars really might be lining up for an unprecedented socialist presidential candidacy. All Bernie Sanders needs is a strong night in Iowa, and the nomination contest becomes his to lose..

The hope of Sanders’ campaign is that the polling collapse of Elizabeth Warren and his own rise are coming at just the right moment. The critical test will be in Iowa, where his lead seems less secure than it is in New Hampshire. 

In Iowa, Sanders and Joe Biden are dueling for first place. If Biden wins in Iowa, he will be unstoppable afterward. But if Sanders wins Iowa, he will carry great momentum into New Hampshire, where he has has surged to a comfortable lead. The last three published polls in the Granite State have him seven, nine, and 12 points ahead of the runner up — and depending on the poll, second place goes either to Biden or Pete Buttigieg.

Biden still dominates polls of South Carolina (February 29), but his problem is that he has to get there first, and he isn’t guaranteed anything before that. One of the states Biden has been counting on — Nevada (February 22) — has Sanders currently within striking distance. The latest poll out of Nevada shows Sanders down by only a single point. Were he to carry Iowa and New Hampshire, his support in Nevada would only increase.

Meanwhile, if Joe Biden cannot carry any state before South Carolina, then even his large lead there might turn out to be insubstantial. 

This is not to say that Sanders has it locked up. Even if he wins in Iowa and his momentum carries him forward, he would still have a mighty task ahead of him. This is one reason he remains an underdog. If Biden falters, Democrats who are really determined to stop Sanders might have other alternatives, such as Mike Bloomberg. People laughed when the billionaire former New York City mayor announced he would be playing only in the late states. But he is already polling at 10 percent in some recent national surveys. Given the unlimited resources he can put into any state contest, it isn’t hard to imagine him generating a great deal of interest if it comes down to him and Sanders.

Iowa: On the other side of the coin, and working in Sanders’ favor, is a dynamic, enthusiastic and ideologically motivated base of support, and the antipathy of Hillary Clinton. Her extreme bitterness, summed up in her remarks about Sanders in her new documentary and last week, serve is a reminder for Democrats about 2016 and the dangers associated with picking the “safe” candidate.

Caucuses are not like primaries. One cannot just show up and vote. Caucuses require your entire evening. They attract only the most committed and dedicated supporters. They are made specifically of 

In Iowa, there are two further considerations. First, Sanders’ surrogates — such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — are quite popular with Democratic voters. Although it was once believed that all senators running for president would pay a price for impeachment, being forced to stay in Washington, he may actually come out of it just fine.

The second consideration unique to Iowa is whether Sanders or Biden would be more likely to  the second choice of many caucus-goers for other candidates who are unlikely to meet the 15 percent threshold at many of the caucus sites. One might expect those caucusing for Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg to lean on the whole toward Biden, although not in all cases; those caucusing for Elizabeth Warren (in spite of the recent spat) or Tom Steyer might be more likely to lean Sanders if they’re forced to re-form into other groups. Thus, to guarantee a strong finish, Sanders really needs Warren’s collapse to be utter and complete. Likewise, Biden wants to see Buttigieg and Klobuchar fail to reach 15 percent in as many caucus sites as possible. Iowa is one of the few nominating contests in which such local second- and third-place results will have major direct significance for the overall outcome. 

Impeachment: The Senate impeachment trial continues apace. It seems to be confounding a lot of pundits that impeachment is generating almost no public interest at all. That’s because no one believes, as impeachment manager Zoe Lofgren put it Sunday, that “the country’s fate is hanging” on the outcome. 

In fact, impeachment is looking a lot more like an extension of the Democrats’ overall presidential campaign effort. The trial will not result in Trump’s removal, nor does anyone think it will, but Democrats hope it will provide a chance to campaign against his re-election.

In that context, it should come as little surprise that the trial’s ratings have been lower than those of Jeopardy! on a bad night. When the outcome is known in advance, what’s there really to watch? Democrats had been looking for an excuse to impeach ever since the Russia-collusion conspiracy theories were dominating nightly cable news shows. It is just as predictable now that Republicans will vote to acquit as it was that Democrats were going to vote to impeach.

Alienating the moderates: An additional development came about last week. Democrats had been hoping at least to sway or to pressure some Republican senators to vote for a longer process involving witnesses and additional documents. Whatever hope there had been of this, impeachment Manager Adam Schiff may have blown it on Friday. In his closing remarks, he repeated a rumor about Republican senators being threatened with having their heads put on pikes if they voted against Trump. The remark caused an audible gasp in the Senate chamber. Several of the very senators whom Democrats are hoping to persuade — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, in particular — went to the media and objected vociferously. This went over very poorly in a chamber where members are very particular about the personal respect that they expect to be shown by one another. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., one of the two Democrats who might vote against Trump’s removal (along with Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.), remarked simply, “That could have been left out, that’s for sure.”

The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, taken during a period when impeachment managers were making their arguments and released on Friday, shows opposition to Trump’s removal at 51 percent among registered voters, compared to the 45 percent who support it. What’s more, slightly more of these registered voters (43 percent) feel “strongly” that he should not be removed than feel “strongly” that he should be removed (38 percent). So it isn’t as if this is a one-sided and passionate issue. Meanwhile, the same poll shows Trump’s approval rating among registered voters at 47 percent, with 50 percent disapproval. This is not a poll showing a nation chomping at the bit for Trump for the last election to be overturned in this manner. Impeachment falls straight along party lines, with independents split 51 to 42 percent against Trump’s removal.

In short, it seems doubtful at this point that any Republican senator will feel more politically threatened, should he or she cast a vote to acquit.

If Republicans simply stick together and put a swift end to the impeachment trial, Democrats can still accuse them of a cover-up — indeed, they are doing so already. But they would also send a powerful message that this impeachment lacks seriousness, underscoring what the public already seems to understand implicitly. As we have noted before, it is very likely that Trump will spend the entire election year wearing his impeachment as a badge of honor, and attacking his opponent for supporting it. He is hoping that, by November, the impeachment will have continued to gain unpopularity. The jury, so to speak, is still out on that one.