As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) polling numbers have declined for months. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has been the primary beneficiary of his falling numbers, in part, by aggressively appealing to the same radical base that Sanders has been trying to win over.

But the results from a fresh round of polls that came out after last week’s debate indicate Sanders’s issues go way beyond Warren. alum and CNN polling analyst Harry Enten explains:

While much of the attention in post-debate polling has focused on the drop of former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders’ polling looks far worse.


Sanders was at just 14% in CNN’s latest national poll. That’s down from 18% in our last poll. As important, Sanders is now running behind California Sen. Kamala Harris (17%) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (15%). These are candidates who have lower name recognition than he does.

It’s not just the CNN poll, either. Sanders doesn’t look much better in Quinnipiac’s latest poll, which puts him at 13%. A poll released Wednesday morning by ABC News and The Washington Post did have somewhat better news for him, putting him at 19%, second behind Biden, among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. Still, an average of the three polls out this week puts him at 15%.

History has not been kind to primary runner-ups of previous primaries polling this low of a position. I went back and looked at where 13 previous runner-ups since 1972 have been polling at this point in the primary. All six who went on to win the nomination were polling above Sanders’ 15%.

Indeed, we can widen it out and see how perilous Sanders’ position is. Among all well-known candidates, only 9% polling at between 10% and 20% at this point went onto win the nomination.

What’s Bernie’s most significant issue at this point? Enten says it’s not that Democratic voters find him unlikeable. Instead, Bernie’s problem is that, for primary voters, there are so many similar alternatives to him this time around that don’t come with his 2016 baggage.

Enten’s points about 2016 versus now are key, I think. In 2016, Bernie was the far left wing Democratic candidate, while Democrat voters perceived Hillary Clinton as more moderately left wing. Sanders had no competition for the socialist vote then, but he does now.

So what he’s had to do this year in contrast to 2016 is sell himself more so than his socialist policies:

He is a victim of his own success in that the planks of his 2016 campaign have become liberal litmus tests that many of his rivals for the 2020 nomination are trying to pass: “Medicare for All” and free college tuition among them.

For Sanders to win, he’ll have to convince Democratic primary voters that he’s the right person for a very specific mission.

“They care more about beating Donald Trump than who the candidate is,” said Bill Press, a liberal talk show host and former California Democratic Party chairman who backed Sanders in 2016 but hasn’t yet picked a favorite for 2020. “It’s not going to come to him automatically. He’s going to have to fight for it.”

That’s an uncomfortable position for a politician who has spent his career playing down personality and using the ideological purity of his policy preferences as a political cudgel. The safe space for Sanders — who has few close friends in Congress after 30 years in the House and Senate — has always been to focus on everything but personal qualities.

But now it has to be about him — about why he’s the one.

That article came out in February. It’s been five months now, and it’s clear that Sanders’ attempts at distinguishing himself from the crowded field are not working for him anymore.

That said, it’s early still, and the Sanders campaign thinks no one should count him out as time goes on:

Sanders has an inexhaustible base of grass-roots donors that will churn out tens of millions of dollars for him as long as he’s in the race.

On Tuesday, the campaign announced that it raised $18 million in the second quarter, collected from about 1 million donors giving an average of $18 a piece. Nearly the entire amount came from donors who will be able to give again.

Many of these donors are blue-collar voters who will be pivotal in determining the outcome of the 2020 election — teaching is the most common profession among Sanders donors and Walmart is the most common employer, according to the campaign.

And while most of the buzz coming out of the first Democratic debate centered around Harris and Warren, the Sanders campaign said that it had its second best fundraising day of the year the day after the debate, bringing in $2 million over the course of 24 hours.

Will Sanders be able to win back the support he’s lost before the next round of debates, which are just a few short weeks away? Stay tuned. Because there’s no telling what trillion dollar proposal he’ll come up with next.

— Stacey Matthews has also written under the pseudonym “Sister Toldjah” and can be reached via Twitter. —


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