Progressives are selling revolution, and it once seemed as though the only question was who would be the leader. Back in October, the party’s left wing of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren appeared ascendant. While moderate Joe Biden was the top-polling candidate, combined support for progressives in the race easily beat Biden’s numbers.
Now that voting has gotten underway, Sanders is the apparent answer. The media quickly proclaimed him the front-runner after he took the most votes (albeit by a razor-thin margin) in New Hampshire, demonstrating that he had consolidated the support of the progressive wing of Democratic voters to lead in the polls.
The combined backing for progressive candidates is much lower than it was in the fall — in fact, it now trails the combined support for moderates considerably.
But the rush to crown Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont and self-proclaimed democratic socialist, as the heir apparent to the Democratic nomination overlooks a central dynamic. Sanders is topping the polls as Biden’s support has eroded and the moderate lane has completely fractured. Yet the combined backing for progressive candidates is much lower than it was in the fall — in fact, it now trails the combined support for moderates considerably.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, the moderate share of the vote beat out Sanders’ and Warren’s. Iowa gave 54 percent of its votes to Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Biden, versus 44 percent to Sanders and Warren. New Hampshire then built on the trend: 53 percent went to the big three moderates, versus 35 percent to the progressives — and even adding all of the 10 percent that went to other candidates wouldn’t flip the balance. (Like most states, New Hampshire has a primary system that allows independent voters to participate, which can shift the electorate a bit to the right.)
Nationally, with Mike Bloomberg in the mix, the moderates are polling well ahead, garnering 48 percent to the progressives’ 39 percent (including Tulsi Gabbard’s support), according to the current RealClearPolitics averages. And of course, the delegate race that actually determines who becomes the nominee is led by Buttigieg, with 23.
After all the hype about the progressive turn in the Democratic Party, voters aren’t signing up for revolution when they get into the voting booth. That was already clear in 2018, when candidates backed by the Sanders wing of the party were more likely to flame out than the more pragmatic voices who helped win back the House.
This year, Sanders’ totals in Iowa were, as Warren put it in a memo to supporters right before the extent of her stinging loss in New Hampshire was made clear, “no more than half” of his 2016 total in the state’s presidential caucuses. While there is more competition for votes this year, Sanders’s $100 million campaign has successfully defined his vision as distinct from the rest of the field — and his narrow win of 27 percent of the ballots shows that voters are rejecting it more than joining in.
Indeed, many Democrats who were part of recapturing the House in 2018 fear that a ticket led by progressive candidates could doom the party’s chance to avoid four more years of President Donald Trump and even to keep control of the House. Front-line Democratic representatives, including red-to-blue-district newcomers like Joe Cunningham of South Carolina and Dean Phillips of Minnesota, are worried that Sanders will sweep them from office.
The far-left competitors have built a brand around issues that scare many voters — a recent Hill/Harris poll found that only 13 percent of Americans support banning private insurance, for instance. And a recent Gallup Poll found that socialists were the only group (as opposed to all types of religions and ethnicities) that majorities of Americans said they wouldn’t feel comfortable voting for. The revolution may rev up hard-core Democratic activists, but its support of policies that voters reject points toward electoral disaster.
And it’s not only the broader electorate that’s concerned — in and of itself a factor that’s affecting Democrats, as primary voters have repeatedly shown that they’re voting strategically to choose a candidate who can beat Trump. Beyond that, a significant swath of the party itself is turned off by Sanders’ program.
The infeasibility of the Sanders agenda was a key point that Buttigieg and Klobuchar emphasized as they jumped from New Hampshire polling averages that had combined to hover just above 20 percent before Iowa and finished with 44 percent of the votes the week after.
The reality of the opposition to key parts of the progressive agenda came to life as the campaign turned to Nevada ahead of Saturday’s caucuses. The Culinary Workers Union is the kingmaker: The majority-female, majority-Latino union is a major force in a state where Latinos are nearly 30 percent of the population. And the union is a leading opponent of “Medicare for All,” informing its 60,000 members that Sanders wanted to take away the health care they bargained for. (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Sanders supporters reacted by walking back their cornerstone policy, saying Medicare for All would likely not become law.)
Even these setbacks for Sanders have fed the mistaken narrative that he’s securely on his way to the nomination. The headlines that acknowledge moderate gains focus on Democratic stress over the “crowded” or “clogged” center “lane,” calling moderates “too divided to stop” the democratic socialist in their midst.
But that’s misreading how getting the Democratic nomination works. Sanders is not like Trump in 2016, when he was atop the polls with 30 percent in December and about 35 percent in January in a Republican primary process that allocated delegates using a winner-take-all formula designed to choose a nominee quickly.
Sanders is at only 25 percent as we hit the midpoint of February, just about at his high from his announcement bump a year ago, and he is running in a Democratic primary that awards delegates proportionally above a 15 percent threshold. That’s why Buttigieg leads that race, and progressive leaders are already preparing for Democratic National Convention wheeling and dealing for delegates in case Sanders falls short of a majority. Sanders could easily lose the nomination if he has only a plurality of the primaries’ popular vote heading into the convention.
Sanders could easily lose the nomination if he has only a plurality of the primaries’ popular vote heading into the convention.
Part of the reason media and political groups have given outsize importance to the most radical elements of the Democratic Party until now stems from campaigns’ focusing of resources on digital and field operations to turn out the most partisan people, because they are often the most reliable voters.
But when campaign staff are talking only to these Democratic supervoters, they come to believe that far-left policies have more traction than they actually do. The result is an undue sense of fealty to a set of purist left-wing ideas that, hardened by Twitter-addicted advisers, cannot command majorities as a whole. As the electorate expands, the feedback from those hard-core partisans is looking more and more misleading.
At the end of the day, a revolution requires a mandate from the people for change. And 25 percent is no mandate for revolution.