The Intercept, December 2018
Who will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States in 2020?
Will it be Sen. Bernie Sanders, who came second in 2016? A growing number of voices, both liberal and conservative, loudly disagree. “I think his moment is passing,” says Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas. “Bernie Sanders is Shrinking,” declared a headline in the Weekly Standard (only a few weeks before the neocon magazine, ironically, closed down). “Democrats will soon decide that Bernie Sanders is an indulgence they cannot afford,” opined The Economist.
Yet the arguments that these diverse critics offer against another Sanders bid for the White House seem to be either overstated, irrelevant, or flat-out false. Consider five of the most common criticisms of the independent senator from Vermont:
He’s Behind in the Polls
It is Joe Biden, and not Bernie Sanders, who has been ahead in almost all of the opinion polls so far. A new survey out of Iowa finds the former vice president leading the field with 30 percent support from Democratic voters, followed by Sanders far behind at 13 percent, and rising star Beto O’Rourke, snapping at his heels with 11 percent.
But here’s the bigger question: Are the polls really relevant at this stage? The election is 23 months away, and none of the main runners and riders have formally announced that they’re even running yet.
For comparison, guess who came top in a CNN survey of potential Republican presidential candidates in December 2014, 23 months before the 2016 presidential election? It was Jeb Bush, at 24 percent, with a double-digit lead over his nearest rival, Chris Christie. Ted Cruz, who would end up coming in second in the 2016 GOP primaries, was eighth place with 4 percent. Donald Trump’s name didn’t even make the list.
He’s Too White
“Mr. Sanders fought Mrs. Clinton to a draw among white voters,” concluded an examination of the exit poll data by the Wall Street Journal in 2016. “The decisive edge for Mrs. Clinton: She won African-Americans by more than 50 percentage points.”
Except … that’s not quite true. A whole host of prominent African-American figures — including Keith Ellison, Cornel West, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Spike Lee, among others — backed Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and then-press secretary Symone Sanders were key surrogates of his.
In 2016, the Vermont senator’s problem was with older black voters — not black voters per se. In fact, according to polling by YouGov, Sanders “fought Clinton to a near draw with people of color between the ages of 18 and 44,” and according to polling by GenForward, “among African American young adults who indicated they voted in the primaries, a majority, 54 percent, said they voted for Bernie Sanders.”
Since 2016, Sanders has worked hard to make further inroads into African-American communities, helping to bolster the insurgent campaigns of up-and-coming black politicians, such as Florida’s Andrew Gillum. Last week, a CNN poll found that Sanders had a higher approval rating, at 58 percent, with nonwhite voters than any other major candidate. So, will this latest survey put an end to the black-voters-dislike-Bernie canard? I doubt it. As my colleague Briahna Gray has observed: “Bernie Sanders doesn’t have a black problem — he has a pundit problem.”
He’s Too Old
Come Election Day, November 2020, Sanders will be 79 years old, which would make him the oldest person to ever run for the White House.
Yet his likely Republican opponent, Trump, will be the previous record-holder. He was 70 in 2016 and will be 74 in 2020. Yes, the overweight sitting president, who eats junk food, doesn’t exercise, and refuses to release his medical records.
In terms of the Democratic primaries, Sanders will be 79 in 2020, but Biden will be 77 and Elizabeth Warren will be 71. Oh, and did you know that Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi and her top deputy Steny Hoyer are both older than the Vermont senator?
So why should his age be held against him?
He Isn’t a Democrat
He’s a Socialist
Again, so what? While it may indeed harm him in the presidential election, with a clear majority of Americans claiming that they wouldn’t vote for a “socialist,” it certainly won’t hurt him in the Democratic primaries. According to polling from Gallup, a majority of Democrats have a positive view of socialism — in fact, Democrats have “a more positive image of socialism than they do of capitalism.”
Even in the presidential election itself, I suspect Republicans would find it difficult to demonize Sanders with the S-word, having deployed it to try and smear the centrist Barack Obama for eight long years. Going beyond the label itself, Sanders’s left-wing policy agenda is hugely popular with the electorate — even with hardcore Republicans.
Let me repeat, however, something I said in a recent column on Warren and 2020: I am not endorsing Bernie Sanders for president or saying that he is the perfect person to battle Trump. The Republicans will throw the kitchen sink at him, and the “socialist” attack line might get some traction with independents. Some of the candidates he backed in the midterms won historic victories, but plenty of others lost.
The junior senator from Vermont has also made his own series of gaffes and misjudgments, especially on race and identity issues, and needs to do much more to woo older black voters in the South. He has been far too reluctant to challenge the racism and bigotry of the Trump base and far too eager to blame the president’s 2016 victory on “economic anxiety.” On foreign policy, Sanders has moved further to the left since his clash with Clinton and is “quietly remaking the Democrats’ foreign policy in his own image,” but he still has a long way to go.
There is also a strong case for the Democratic candidate who takes on the racist and sexist Trump in two years to be a woman, a person of color, or both.
Nevertheless, the case for Sanders in 2020 is as strong as it was in 2016 — if not stronger. He now has much better name recognition, a standing army of loyal and experienced activists, an unrivaled social media presence, an authenticity that cannot be bought or taught, and a string of substantive policy wins under his belt, from big-name Democratic support for his “Medicare for All” bill to the Stop BEZOS Act to the historic Senate vote on Yemen last week.
Will he emerge victorious? In an age of Trump, predictions are a fool’s game. The Democratic primaries will feature more than a dozen talented, ambitious, and experienced presidential wannabes, from a bevy of senators and governors to a popular former vice president.
But ignore the opinion polls and the bogus arguments against him: whether you like him or not, Bernie Sanders is the frontrunner right now.