Bernie Sanders has a lot going for him. He’s got almost universal name recognition, campaign infrastructure and an active small-dollar donor base (which has already helped him rake in $6 million since his announcement on Tuesday). His 'tell it like it is' style earned him admiration from cynical voters tired of polished politicians who say one thing on the trail and do another in office. Oh, he’s also got merch. Lots and lots of it.
What he lacks is his biggest asset from 2016: a one vs. one contest for the nomination. Back in 2016, Sanders was defined as much by who he wasn’t (Hillary Clinton) as by who he was (the democratic socialist). Where she was cautious and calculated, he was authentic and daring. Where she played to the middle, he played to the outside. Today, there’s no Clinton to push off against. And, there are plenty of other candidates who are competing for Sanders’ "authentic" agitator lane.
Here’s what struck me as well. There’s decidedly less enthusiasm for Sanders among Democratic voters than one might expect for a candidate who has come to define many aspects of the current Democratic policy agenda.
Despite Sanders’ strong showing in the 2016 primary, he’s averaging just 17 percent of the vote in national polling today. In New Hampshire, a state where he crushed Clinton with 60 percent of the vote, a new poll shows the Vermont Senator in second place - trailing former Vice President Joe Biden by eight points. Sanders came this close to winning the Iowa Caucuses in 2016, but a December Des Moines Register/CNN poll found him taking 19 percent of the vote — a distant second behind Biden’s 32 percent.
I know. I know. It’s way too early to be talking about polls. Very few of the 2020 candidates are well-known, which means that horserace polling at this stage is more about name ID than anything else.
So, instead, I took a deeper dive into voter perceptions of the candidate himself.
A CNN poll (January 30-February 2) asked those who identified as Democrats if they would be "likely/not likely to support [CANDIDATE] if they decided to run in 2020?"
Not surprisingly, Biden and Sanders were the best known of the group. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sherrod Brown were the least well known. And, Mike Bloomberg was the least popular, with 55 percent saying they were not too/or not at all likely to support the former New York City mayor.
Sanders, however, commands less enthusiasm from Democratic voters than Biden. Seventy-seven percent said they’d support Biden if he ran (including 44 percent who said they would be very likely to support him), while 20 percent said they wouldn’t (including 8 percent who said they definitely wouldn’t). Overall, the prospect of a Biden candidacy comes in at +57 percent positive. Support for Bernie was solid, but a smaller +36 percent. More important, the intensity of support — those who said they were very likely to support Sanders minus those who said they were very unlikely to vote for him was half of Biden’s (15 percent to 36 percent).
Of course, there is no national Democratic primary. So, let’s check in on some of the key battleground states.
Sanders came very close to winning Iowa. And, he starts with a reservoir of good will here. His overall favorable/unfavorable among likely Democratic caucus-goers in the December Des Moines Register/CNN poll is +52%. But, that he was polling just eight points ahead of newcomer Beto O’Rourke is not particularly impressive.
In New Hampshire, according to the U Mass poll, one-third (33 percent) of Democratic primary voters said that when deciding who to vote for in 2020, the most important quality they are looking for is that he/she "has the best chance of beating President Trump in a general election." That was followed by a candidate who is "honest and trustworthy" at 22 percent. Dead last on the list of attributes that voters said were critical to their decision: "will change how things are done in Washington." And, the candidate who is seen as having the best chance of beating Trump? Nearly 40 percent of likely New Hampshire Democratic voters chose Biden. Sanders came in a distant second at 12 percent.
The Wisconsin primary isn’t until April, so it’s not an official early state, or even a Super Tuesday state (March 3). However, it’s also a place where Sanders did very well in the 2016 primary, winning it with 57 percent.
Given that history, however, it’s notable that Democratic and independent voters in the state aren’t exactly pining for the Vermont Senator this time around. A mid-January Marquette University poll found little name recognition for any of the potential 2020ers except for Biden and Sanders. And, once again, Badger State voters found Biden the ‘more acceptable” of the two.
If we learned anything in 2016, however, it’s that opinions of even very well-known figures can change substantially over the course of a campaign.
Back in 2015, I was dismissive of Trump, in large part because he had almost 100% name ID and miserable approval ratings. An April 2015 Bloomberg Poll found that 62 percent of Republicans and independents said they’d NEVER consider voting for Trump in a primary. Just 26 percent said they might consider him. In a May 2015 poll taken by the Washington Post/ABC, Trump’s net unfavorable ratings among Republicans were 65 percent, including 43 percent who were strongly unfavorable.
If voters know someone really well, and they don't like that person, there’s little chance those voters are going to change their opinion of them.
Well, unless they do. By July of 2015, Republican opinions of Trump went from 65 percent unfavorable to 57 percent favorable — a 59 point swing - in just two months!
The moral of the story. Early perceptions of a candidate are malleable. And, not predictive.
The difference between Trump, however, and a candidate like Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden is that Trump wasn’t a politician. Perceptions of him were derived from what people saw of him as a TV personality. But, opinions of the two Democratic candidates, have been formed as a result of their performance as candidates and politicians. As such, it’s harder to see those opinions changing as dramatically. What can change, however, is the perception of these candidates once they are literally matched up with the other prospective (and currently lesser known) candidates in debates, town hall appearances and the campaign trail.
Here’s the bottom line: Bernie is still a serious contender in this contest. And, he’s got a base of support that’s significant. But, there are also some real warning signs for him. The intensity of support for him doesn’t match that of the only other universally known candidate in the field — Joe Biden. It’s also become clear that Democratic voters are prioritizing 'beating Trump' over 'starting a revolution.' That won’t help his cause either. Of course, we don’t know yet if Biden is getting in. If he doesn’t, where will that early support for him go? If he does, will his strong numbers — especially on the metric of 'most electable' - hold steady if he stumbles under scrutiny? One thing we do know: this race is WIDE OPEN. And, will likely stay that way for a good, long time.