Is Sanders Surging?

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, August 10, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
Two new polls show the Vermont senator gaining strength in Iowa and New Hampshire. Watch out, Elizabeth Warren.

Much of the media has been so excited to crown Elizabeth Warren the progressive alternative to Joe Biden that you could be forgiven for forgetting that Bernie Sanders is still around and very much alive in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

While a narrative has developed that Warren is a clear second in the Democratic race, she has actually been effectively tied with Sanders in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls since the beginning of July.

Warren drew a lot of attention when an early August Monmouth poll of Iowa showed her jumping into second place: She trailed Biden 28 percent to 19 percent, with Sanders in third at 9 percent. But the latest CBS News/YouGov poll, conducted August 28 to September 4, suggests that Sanders is the one surging in Iowa: He sits in second place at 26 percent, three points behind Biden and nine points ahead of Warren in third. In the previous edition of the same poll, conducted in July, Biden sat at 24 percent, Sanders at 19 percent, Warren at 17 percent, and Kamala Harris at 16 percent.

In New Hampshire, meanwhile, a Boston Herald poll released on Tuesday showed Sanders jumping out to an eight-point lead over Biden, 29 percent to 21 percent, with Warren in third place at 19 percent. Other recent surveys of New Hampshire Democrats have varied, but the average of polls shows a three-way race between Biden, Sanders, and Warren. One advantage for Sanders, of course, is that he defeated Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire by 23 points during the last presidential-primary cycle.

If Sanders is really surging in the Democratic primary, one big question is what exactly Warren is going to do about him.

The Massachusetts senator’s strategy so far has been to hug her democratic-socialist colleague as closely as possible. “I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All,” Warren said at the Democratic debate in Miami this summer. She is obviously operating on the theory that if she stands with Sanders and can outlast him, she might inherit many of his supporters.

That strategy didn’t play out too well in the 2016 Republican primary for Ted Cruz, who called populist outsider Donald Trump “terrific” early in the campaign with the hope of inheriting Trump’s supporters if he dropped out later. When Cruz finally turned on Trump shortly before the Iowa caucuses, it was too late.

But maybe Warren will have better luck. Sanders does appear, after all, to be more concerned with ideology and policy than Trump ever was. It’s entirely possible that he could ultimately endorse Warren if he thinks she is the best vessel to defeat Joe Biden and advance progressivism.

Besides which, it’s not quite clear how Warren would even begin to attack Sanders if she wanted to. She calls herself a capitalist, while Sanders calls himself a socialist, but the two agree on most important matters of policy, including Medicare for All, free college, and the Green New Deal. Sanders supports voting rights for all felons in prison, including the Boston Marathon bomber, while Warren is undecided on the matter.

Warren could try to attack Sanders on the issue of electability, but he actually polls a bit better than she does in head-to-head match-ups against Trump, and putting electability front-and-center might only help Biden.

Tonight will be the first time that Biden and Warren are on the same stage together. The media is hoping for fireworks, and may get them. But be sure to keep an eye on Sanders as well. Even if he’s not ultimately the nominee, he might play a key role in deciding who is.

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