Sanders slips in polls, raising doubts about campaign

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to call on 2020 Democrats to reject money from drug, health insurance industries The hidden connection between immigration and health care: Our long-term care crisis Harris tops Biden in California 2020 poll MORE (I-Vt.) is slipping in polls following the first Democratic debate, raising questions about whether he can recapture the insurgent energy that nearly carried him to the party's presidential nomination in 2016.

Three new polls released after the first Democratic debate show Sanders falling into fourth place behind former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Sanders to call on 2020 Democrats to reject money from drug, health insurance industries Harris tops Biden in California 2020 poll MORE, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris tops Biden in California 2020 poll The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Democrats fret over Trump cash machine MORE (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenHarris tops Biden in California 2020 poll The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Democrats fret over Trump cash machine MORE (D-Mass.).

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A fourth poll, released Wednesday morning as this story was published, found Sanders retaining his second place standing behind Biden. The ABC News-Washington Post poll found Biden in the lead at 29 percent, followed by Sanders at 23 percent and Harris and Warren lagging at 11 percent each.

The Sanders campaign says those counting him out are once again underestimating a candidate who surprised the political world three years ago and remains a small-dollar fundraising juggernaut with an enthusiastic core of supporters.

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.

“I think many of you were wondering whether the Bernie Sanders campaign would persist, and how strong it would be,” campaign manager Faiz Shakir said Tuesday on a phone call with reporters.

“There have been moments where I think people have written off the campaign. I think one of those moments … was after the debate," he added. "We felt very good about his performance and the numbers indicated we were generally right about that.”

But Sanders’s rivals are stepping up to challenge him, including Warren, who is trying to overtake him as the party’s progressive standard-bearer.

Harris's star turn at the debate vaulted her into direct competition with Biden for the top spot in the field, while South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegHarris tops Biden in California 2020 poll The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet MORE outraised Sanders in the second quarter.

“Bernie didn’t scare anyone away from jumping into this race and now he comes out of the debate with the worst possible outcome – nobody is talking about him,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist.

“In 2016, he benefited from being the only alternative to the establishment candidate. In 2020, the entire political world has changed except for him. His biggest problem right now is that he looks like a candidate of the past, and that’s not a good place to be,” he added.

While the ABC News-Washington Post poll gave the Sanders campaign a shot in the arm, three other polls suggested he has lost some support.

A Quinnipiac University national survey released Tuesday found Sanders falling 6 points into fourth place at 13 percent, trailing Biden at 22 percent, Harris at 20 percent and Warren at 14 percent.

A CNN national survey found Sanders falling 4 points into fourth place, with 14 percent support. Biden registered 22 percent support in the poll, followed by Harris at 17 percent and Warren at 15 percent.

And a Suffolk University survey of Iowa released Tuesday found Harris surging into second place at 16 percent, followed by Warren at 13 percent. Sanders sagged into single digits, pulling 9 percent support.

Even before the ABC News-Washington Post poll, Sanders's supporters were highlighting other polls that are more favorable for the senator. Sanders’s pollster Ben Tulchin released a memo directly after the debate drawing attention to a FiveThirtyEight survey conducted by Morning Consult that found Sanders was the only candidate to tick upwards in support after both nights of the debate.

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The poll found Sanders maintaining his standing in second place, with small leads over both Harris and Warren.

Sanders’s aides insist the polling does not reflect the candidate’s strength on the ground, where the campaign has relationships with delegates, infrastructure in place from 2016, and tens of thousands of volunteers in the early voting states.

The Iowa caucuses are a measure of activist enthusiasm for a candidate, and Sanders has 25,000 campaign volunteers there, which accounts for about 10 percent of the caucusgoing population from 2016.

Most polls have also found Sanders matching Biden as the candidate who performs best in head-to-head match-ups against Trump, despite concerns about whether a self-professed Democratic socialist can prevail in a general election.

“You have to look at who it is that’s underestimating us,” said Bill Neidhardt, a spokesman for the Sanders campaign. “If you look at polling, voters want the candidate who can beat Trump, and the polls clearly show that Bernie is the candidate who can do that. So is it the media underestimating us? The pundit class? Fine, they underestimated us last time. The voters looking for change aren’t the ones who tend to underestimate him.”

Still, Democrats interviewed by The Hill described a weakened contender who hasn’t been able to electrify primary voters the way he did in 2016. Buttigieg announced on Monday he had raised nearly $25 million, about $7 million more than Sanders, although he has been falling in the polls.

Sanders’s critics also say that he’s failed to attract new support from mainstream Democrats, older voters or people of color.

“He’s still dangerous and he’s going to raise a lot of money, but he’s at risk of becoming an afterthought to Warren and Harris, who both appear to be well positioned to eat into his support,” said one prominent Democratic strategist. “He’s dependent on the same folks from 2016. He hasn’t been able to build a broader base and now it looks like his coalition is starting to splinter.”

The Sanders campaign insists it’s growing its base of supporters by reaching out to disillusioned Trump voters and the politically disengaged.

They believe these voters are attracted to Sanders’s outsider message and will leave the campaign well positioned to send shock waves through the race when voters begin casting ballots next year. 

“It’s a movement that’s going to grow over the fall and into the winter and ultimately as we get into early next year we’ll be attracting new voters to the polls, people who have become cynical and may have checked out, people who may have thought they were going to get change out of this president but didn’t,” Shakir said.

“We’re hoping that when we get around to early next year you’ll see a swell of voters, working class people, to show up for Bernie Sanders,” he added. 

This story was updated at 8:34 a.m.