I am hopeful that the upcoming presidential cycle will have a little less content-free horse race coverage than the cycles we’ve had in the past. It just seems like people in the media are a bit chastened by the election of Donald Trump and don’t want to repeat all the same mistakes this time around. Yet, I know I am being optimistic. We’re still going to see a lot of bad takes like this one from NBC’s First Read that tries to convince us that Bernie Sanders is tanking because he’s only polling at 16 percent in Iowa and New Hampshire.
On the numbers alone, this take is a bit ludicrous. Sanders is currently polling in second place in both states, and he’s in first place among candidates who have actually declared that they are running. He trails only Joe Biden, and he’s more than doubling the numbers of well-funded and well-known candidates Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren in Iowa and nearly doing so in New Hampshire.
This piece takes no account how delegates are actually awarded in the Democratic primaries, where you need to break 15 percent to get anything, and if you are one of only two candidates to clear that hurdle, you can count on getting more than 40 percent of that states’ haul. If these elections were held today, Biden and Sanders would be splitting all the delegates between them, and even if Sanders were losing every state it would take him a long time to be eliminated.
Without projecting too far forward, Bernie Sanders is in an enviable position, and his fundraising is excellent. He raised the most money of any candidate in the first quarter by a wide margin and reportedly has a $28 million war chest. Yet, he is supposedly not taking the criticism he deserves for polling far below where he finished in 2016 during a one-on-one contest with Hillary Clinton.
A better take comes from Jonathan Bernstein, who correctly points out that relatively few people are paying close attention to the race at this point and that the polls are therefore largely about name recognition. He also argues that negative stories about candidates are probably being treated as more consequential than they’ll prove to be in the end. And I think that depends on the candidate. First impressions are important, and it did real damage to Amy Klobuchar when she faced a bunch of criticism from former staffers soon after she announced. Stories about Joe Biden’s inappropriate grabbiness and voting record aren’t as crippling because people already know what they think about the former vice president. In any case, he’s probably happy to get these stories covered now before he’s even announced himself as a candidate.
Biden and Sanders are leading the polls in large part because they are the best-known politicians in the bunch, but also because Democrats genuinely like them. While there may be a wide ideological gulf between them, especially if we go back decades in time, most voters aren’t making those kinds of distinctions. They’re both leading because they are popular with Democrats all along the ideological spectrum, and this seems to confound and perplex political analysts and activists alike. Progressives are supposed to be repelled by Biden and white working-class voters are presumed to dislike socialism. Neither assumption bears out in the polling numbers.
As the other candidates begin to execute their campaign strategies and get their chances to perform on bigger stages, we will see these polling numbers begin to fluctuate, and there will be horses that show a burst for a time. It’s interesting to speculate about which candidates might have the talent or good fortune to move closer to the front. The Democratic primary voters may want a reliable hand like Biden or an economic populist like Sanders or Warren or a fresh and charismatic face like O’Rourke, Harris, or Booker. They might want someone completely new and from outside of Washington like Pete Buttigieg or Washington governor Jay Inslee.
All we know right now is that Biden and Sanders are in the best position to win the nomination. We’re not suffering because there aren’t enough takes being published about why they’re not doing better.