Analysis

Can Bernie Sanders Really Win?

Sanders' plan to save the planet — and journalism — and his new Trump-beating credentials give him some ammunition

Bernie Sanders addresses a town hall gathering in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, August 29, 2019.
Meg Kinnard / AP

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders faces two major roadblocks in his bid for the nomination: The perception that he can’t beat Donald Trump in a general election; and fellow senator Elizabeth Warren’s quest for his share of the party’s progressive left. But this week, Sanders appeared to make significant strides in overcoming both challenges.

The Vermont senator put out two new policy proposals this week: One is a $16 trillion version of the congressional resolution the Green New Deal, geared toward weaning Americans off oil, natural gas and nuclear energy; the second is a proposal to save journalism.

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Sanders published his plan in The Columbia Journalism Review, outlining his desire to undo moves by the Trump administration that have made media mergers easier. He wants to freeze all major media tie-ups until their effects can be studied, and he aims to protect local news outlets and independent media from corporate consolidation.

“In the spirit of existing federal laws, we will start requiring major media corporations to disclose whether or not their corporate transactions and merger proposals will involve significant journalism layoffs,” Sanders writes.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn-born candidate says his $16 trillion federal investment to fight climate change would, in 10 years, facilitate the transition to publicly owned clean electricity, create 20 million new jobs and address pollution’s baleful affect on poor communities.

But while progressives may get excited about Sanders’ policy proposals, moderates and establishment Democrats still worry that he can’t beat Trump. In an early-August poll by Quinnipiac University, only 12 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said Sanders had the best chance to beat Trump, while 49 percent said Biden.

Luckily for Sanders, this number is only 9 percent for Warren. Sanders is battling the wonky Massachusetts senator who releases detailed policy proposals that one-up her rival from Vermont. As a result, Sanders releases new, ever-more ambitious proposals of his own.

Biden's gaffes

Both Warren and Sanders are being helped by former Vice President Joe Biden’s famous gaffes, with both the media and Trump questioning whether he’s fit for the top job. Biden still has a commanding lead over his two main rivals to the left, but the two upstarts are rising in the states that vote early in the primaries.

The week kicked off with a shocking new poll by Monmouth University showing a tie between Warren and Sanders for first, with Biden a point behind them. Still, while that survey sent the media into a frenzy, Patrick Murray, the university’s polling chief, said the poll showing Biden’s support dropping 13 percent was an “outlier.”

Sanders also benefits from being a known commodity with an approval rating that has remained in the mid-50s since his loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016, while his disapproval rating remains in the 30s. Those numbers shine compared with Trump’s net disapproval over the long term and Clinton’s unfavorable figures in 2016.

RealClearPolitics’ average of national polls has Biden at 28.9 percent with 17.1 percent for Sanders and 16.5 percent for Warren. In New Hampshire, where Sanders stunned Clinton by 22 points in 2016, it’s a different story. At 21 percent, Biden leads Sanders and Warren at 19 percent and 14 percent respectively.

In Iowa, Biden is beating Warren 26 percent to 18 percent, with Sanders at 14 percent. But Warren has surged in Iowa in recent months, drawing ever larger crowds.

Either way, while polling this far out should always be taken with a bit of skepticism, the fact that Sanders is already so well known gives these polls more credibility than usual.

Speaking about the unpredictability of the 2020 race, Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, told The Associated Press that while winning New Hampshire is important, Sanders could still lock up the nomination without the Granite State.

“But if it doesn’t happen — again, go through the hypotheticals — is there a chance he could still win?” Shakir asked. “Yeah. There’s still a chance he could win.”

Facing Trump

Both Sanders and Warren have received a boost in recent weeks by new polls showing that they handily beat Trump in the general election. An August 28 Quinnipiac University poll has Biden defeating Trump at 54 percent to 38 percent. For Sanders it’s 53 to 39 percent, and Warren 52 to 40 percent.

The poll also found that California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg beat Trump by nine points. Even as Biden, Sanders and Warren dominate the surveys for the time being, there are still many months for another candidate to break through. A Pew Research Center poll from May found that only 3 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents believe it’s best to have a president in his or her 70s. (Biden, Sanders and Warren are all in that bracket.)

If the Democratic race remains a three-way tie, the possibility of Sanders emerging as the first Jewish presidential nominee of a major party gains traction. Biden, hobbled by his long, mixed voting record as well as those gaffes and questions about his fitness, could leave a wide opening for Warren and Sanders.

And while Warren may be Sanders’ most dangerous competition, her emergence as a major rival changes the conversation regarding the November 2020 election. After all, a Warren-Trump race is seen as a tougher challenge for the Democrats. In this sense, Sanders might have the chance to emerge as the safer choice for the Democrats.