Early polling shows Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden as the frontrunners for the 2020 Democratic nomination. But, early polling has been an unreliable predictor of future success. (If you haven’t already, you should follow the Washington Post’s polling twitter account, @wholed, where you will see that many of those in the lead at this point in previous elections didn’t end up as their party’s nominee).

What’s more important at this stage of the game is the ability to set the terms and the terrain of the game. This is where Sanders has dominated. The Vermont Senator has set the rules (both written and unwritten) and has forced the rest of the field to follow them.

Policy Terrain:

On the eve of the Iowa caucuses in 2016, Hillary Clinton attacked Sanders’ push for Medicare for All as unrealistic. She ran an ad in which she argued that "Americans can't afford to wait for a plan that looks good on paper but will never make it in the real world.”   

Today, Medicare for All has become the default position of almost every candidate in the race. While the 2020 candidates have differed in their approach and embrace of Medicare for All, the issue is animating — and dominating — the 2020 primary debate. That is exactly how Sanders would like it to be. That, however, is not where a lot of Democrats would like to see the focus of attention— especially those who worry that a debate over ‘socialized medicine’ will be a political disaster for their party in 2020.   

The DNC Rules:

Before the 2020 cycle, presidential candidates would spend serious time and energy corralling the support of elected party leaders, known as superdelegates. These party leaders and insiders (who typically make up between 14 and 20 percent of the total delegates at Democratic conventions) were free to support any candidate of their choosing. Many of these superdelegates announced their support of a candidate long before the primaries got underway. It was a signal to the party faithful that the candidate they were supporting should be taken seriously and was viable.

While superdelegates can theoretically throw their weight - and the nomination - behind a candidate who did not win the most pledged delegates in the primaries - that has never happened.  

Even so, during and after the 2016 campaign, the Sanders campaign and his backers attacked the nominating process as opaque and tilted in favor of the establishment.  To help restore faith in the DNC, the organization last year agreed to reduce the influence of superdelegates.

The new rules dictate that superdelegates are "barred from voting on the first ballot to choose the party's presidential nominee unless a candidate has secured a majority of the convention using only pledged delegates, whose votes are earned during the primary process.”

How does this help Sanders?

Well, it means that an ‘establishment’ candidate (i.e., an anti-Bernie candidate) won’t be able to build up an early, pre-primary lead among superdelegates, which can impact not only the number of delegates a candidate can claim, but can also impact perceptions of electability and viability.

Boris Heersink of the Washington Post “Monkey Cage” blog wrote last September that superdelegates have played an important role in the so-called "invisible primary" process that takes place before any voters hit the polls. “In 2016 Clinton already had several hundred superdelegates backing her before the first primary voter cast a ballot. Opponents of the old system argued that could affect voter behavior: Since the media reports on candidates’ delegate totals, including those of superdelegates, voters could have overestimated a candidate’s popularity. Political scientist Larry Bartels’s classic study of presidential primary voting behavior suggests that voters do consider a candidate’s likelihood of winning the nomination — which means that superdelegate support could theoretically affect primary voting.”

Moreover, Sanders and his allies have been effective in painting these delegates as subversive. That serves to lessen their influence, even on a second ballot at a contested convention. In other words, if Sanders comes into the convention with the most pledged delegates, the superdelegates' ability to coalesce and deny him the nomination will be seen as illegitimate. 

Unwritten Rules:

Not that long ago, presidential candidates liked to boast about their fundraising prowess. They hyped their support from wealthy 'bundlers' who would raise tons of cash from their friends and colleagues. They didn't shy away from raising money from those who worked on Wall Street or Silicon Valley.  But, that's no longer socially acceptable in a Democratic primary. Candidates are now held to the Bernie Sanders’ small-dollar donor standard.  Or as a  recent POLITICO deep dive into Democrats' 1st quarter fundraising noted, "fundraising among Democratic candidates for president has been muffled so far this year, as many Democrats try to prove their distance from special interests and wealthy donors, instead of leaning on online small-dollar fundraising for support."

That report found that Sen. Kamala Harris had received the most donations from the Obama/Clinton bundlers in the first quarter filing. But, "almost 4 in 5 of the Obama and Clinton fundraisers have yet to give any significant donations in the 2020 presidential race." This hesitancy for the big dollar donors to commit to a candidate is also a huge boon to Sanders who, POLITICO notes, "drew the least support from Clinton and Obama’s elite fundraisers: He received donations from only two of them — one fewer than self-help guru Marianne Williamson.”

The longer the big dollar fundraisers sit on the sidelines — and the more they are demonized — the better for Sanders who is also the best equipped to succeed at low-dollar fundraising. A break down of the 1st quarter fundraising totals by the Campaign Finance Institute found that Sanders raised 84 percent of his $18 million with donors who gave $200 or less. The candidate who had the second highest percent of low-dollar donors was Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 70 percent. But, she raised a third ($6.1 million) of Bernie’s haul.

Overall, a total of six Democrats raised at least half of their total dollars from small donors.

But, the second biggest fundraiser in the field, Sen. Kamala Harris, got just 37 percent of her $12 million haul from low-dollar donors.

Having a huge number of small-dollar donors gives a candidate more ‘growing’ room in the fundraising. You can go back to these donors again and again, as opposed to big dollar donors who you can only hit up once. But, it also assumes that these donors are going to keep coming back to donate. Or that they are only donating to your candidate and not spreading out $150 across three or four of them.

Whether it’s the focus on low-dollar donors, the reticence of big money folks to jump in feet first for a candidate, or a combination of both, the total 1st quarter fundraising of 2019 is decidedly lower than it was back in 2007, the last time Democrats had a highly competitive primary at this stage in the process. For this quarter, the 2019 Democratic candidates raised a total of $75.3 million. Impressive, but not as large as the $83.2 million raised by Democratic candidates in the first quarter of 2007. And, if you put those 2007 dollars into 2019 equivalents (as Campaign Finance Institute did), the 2007 Democrats would have outraised the 2019 Democrats by $15 million.

Bottom Line:

We are too early in the game to start throwing around terms like “favorite” in this very wide open primary among the Democrats. But, Sanders has succeeded in a very important aspect of the game: thus far he’s been able to dictate the rules and the terrain in which it is set. The questions going forward are: 1) can anyone beat him at his own game?; and/or 2) can someone else rewrite those rules?


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