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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

The Case for Covering Bernie Differently

Source: Wikipedia

One recent complaint about media coverage of the 2020 Democratic nomination contest is that reporters are ignoring or underplaying Bernie Sanders. Obviously, he’s getting plenty of attention, but many of his supporters complain that his endorsements and polling strengths aren’t taken seriously or given as much attention as others’ are. I honestly don’t know whether that’s empirically verifiable, but I think there’s a fair case to be made that the media should be treating him differently from the other candidates.

In general, it’s important to recognize candidates’ strengths and weaknesses and the contexts for their presidential bids. Yes, Joe Biden has lots of endorsements from Democratic elected officials, but as a recent vice president to a popular two-term Democratic president, he should. It would be pretty shocking if he didn’t. Indeed, if Pete Buttigieg, with no history in national politics, were suddenly leading in endorsements across the country, that would be an enormous story and should be. And if that were the case, Biden would likely have dropped out by now. Similarly, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Sanders was certainly welcome news to the Sanders camp but was hardly surprising considering her support for him four years ago; had she instead endorsed Amy Klobuchar, that would and should be treated as a big deal. 

Here’s another way to think about it: According to recent national polling averages, Sanders is at around 20 percent, and Elizabeth Warren is at around 15 percent. Who is in a better position to win the nomination?

The answer isn’t obvious. Yes, 15 is less than 20, but the winner of the nomination won’t be someone who just gets 15 or 20 percent of the vote across the upcoming primaries and caucuses. It will be someone who can grow that initial 15 or 20 percent of voters and caucusgoers into more than 50 percent of the delegates.

As polling evidence and my interviews with party activists have continued to demonstrate, Sanders has a very enthusiastic core of supporters but very high negatives among the rest of the party. A lot of party activists, elected officials, interest group leaders, and others within the party simply don’t like him. 

There are plenty of reasons for this, of course. Some are convinced he’s too far left (or otherwise vulnerable) to win a general election. Some are bothered by the way he ran in 2016, or by his downplaying of various issues of importance to Democratic constituents, or by his penchant for sticking his finger in the eye of the party establishment (which is also one of the reasons his supporters like him so much). 

Regardless, his dislike among a large chunk of the party is far greater than for any of the other leading candidates, and suggests he has a relatively low ceiling in his ability to grow his coalition. If reporters are treating his campaign successes differently, it’s because his prospects of translating those successes into a nomination are probably a lot lower.

If reporters are treating Sanders' campaign successes differently, it’s because his prospects of translating those successes into a nomination are probably a lot lower.

Here’s another way to compare the candidates. I’ve been examining patterns among donations to the presidential candidates during 2019. In the 3rd quarter of 2019, there were roughly 60,000 donations to the various Democratic presidential candidates of $200 or greater. The vast majority of those who donated to a candidate only did so for one candidate. However, a few donated to multiple candidates. In the figure below, I draw out a network showing the links between candidates based on their shared donors. The program (Gephi) arrays all the nodes (candidates) so that those with greater ties to each other appear closer to each other. The pink fuzzy balls are actually dense clouds of donors giving just to one candidate, but the ties between those balls shows the shared donor patterns.

What we can see is that there's an inner core of candidates receiving the bulk of the donations and having most of the shared donors between them. This consists of the likes of Warren, Harris, Booker, Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg. Sanders is off to the far left (of the graph). He has some shared donors with Warren, but pretty much none with the other major candidates. This is a way of saying that Sanders' support really is different from that of the other candidates. He certainly has a strong donor base, but those donors are not well tied to the rest of the party. (Whether you see that as a good or bad thing probably says a lot about how you evaluate Sanders as a candidate.)

This is only one slice of campaign finance data, of course, but it's consistent with a lot of other evidence that Sanders' support is separate from that of the rest of the party. Campaign staffers who worked for Hillary Clinton four years ago are now spread across multiple candidates; those who worked for Sanders then are mainly working for Sanders now. Similarly, those who are endorsing Sanders this year are mainly those who backed him four years ago. He has an impressive following and good prospects in some of the early-contest states, but his ability to reach the rest of the party and not just be a factional candidate remains limited.

Now, in fairness, that’s what a lot of political observers said about Donald Trump in 2016. A lot of the GOP was arrayed against Trump, but split in their support for other candidates, before people started voting in that cycle. Importantly, opposition to Trump within the party softened as he began racking up victories and delegates. The party didn’t fully embrace him until the Republican convention that summer (and even then, a number of prominent Republicans didn’t show up), but Trump’s low ceiling proved to be made of cheap styrofoam and he went right through it. Trump and Sanders are very different sorts of candidates, but it’s certainly possible that the Democratic establishment would fold as quickly as the Republican one did once Sanders seemed to be cruising toward a majority of delegates.

But probably a more likely scenario is that Sanders repeats the campaign of 2016; he does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, but trails in delegates to the establishment favorite as other candidates drop out of the race. What happens in this contest, though, will tell us a lot about the strengths of the Democratic Party establishment to screen out candidates it doesn't seem to like, and about whether that party is any more powerful than the GOP was four years ago.

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