Sanders searches for answers amid Warren steamroller

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders 'outraged' after MLB threatens to cut ties with minor league teams Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (I-Vt.) is searching for answers as allies worry he’s at risk of being eclipsed on the left by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism stirs up controversy Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (D-Mass.).

The Vermont senator has retooled his political teams in Iowa and New Hampshire and is embarking on a pivotal stretch of campaigning aimed at galvanizing the young voters and union members who propelled his 2016 presidential run.

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This time around, Sanders is battling for support on the left against Warren. Both candidates are chasing former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenNew York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Graham invites Giuliani to testify about recent Ukraine trip Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications MORE, the clear front-runner in the race.

Unlike his one-on-one matchup against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo, the polls aren't wrong — but you have to know what to look for How to shut down fake Republican outrage over 'spying' on Trump More than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls MORE in 2016, Sanders faces a bigger crowd of rivals this time, including insurgents such as tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Yang unveils plan to address care for children and adults with disabilities Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE and Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardDemocrats set early state primary debates for 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Gabbard news items generating more social interactions than other 2020 Democrats: study MORE (D-Hawaii), both of whom have large online presences and outsider appeal.

Many of the once-fringe policies Sanders championed in 2016 have become mainstream and are being promoted by his rivals, such as Warren, who has caught and in some cases surpassed Sanders in recent polling.

Warren this week locked down the endorsement from the progressive Working Families Party, which backed Sanders in 2016. Warren’s rallies have attracted tens of thousands of supporters, a sign of grass-roots enthusiasm that had been a hallmark of Sanders’s 2016 run.

The news media and pundits appear eager to cast the race for the nomination as a two-person contest between Biden and Warren.

A sense of urgency has fallen over Sanders’s supporters, who worry that the liberal energy in the race has shifted behind Warren.

“It does look like she’s starting to take over,” said one Sanders ally with close ties to the campaign. “Nobody is attacking us, and that’s probably because their internal polling says there’s no reason to attack us, for the same reason you don’t see people out there attacking Beto O’Rourke. Biden’s not out there attacking our electability. His allies are out there attacking Warren’s electability. Why do you think that is?”

The Sanders campaign says it’s not sweating the ebbs and flows of the race.

“Bernie Sanders has a lifetime record of standing for working people in marginalized communities and he’ll continue to do that, that’s why he almost won the nomination last time and will win the nomination this time,” said Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver. “There are a lot of new candidates and voters are appropriately kicking the tires on them. But at the end of the day, Bernie’s consistent advocacy and his willingness to fight for working people are what will set him apart.”

Liberals note that this primary season is longer than most and that it’s extraordinarily difficult to sustain momentum in a field this large.

“It’s way too early to count out any candidate, including Sen. Sanders,” said Neil Sroka, a strategist for the progressive group Democracy for America, which has not endorsed yet but is considering several candidates, including Sanders and Warren. “Bernie and his supporters have a long history of being counted out and left for dead, so declaring this race in any way over, or finalized or having moved on to a new phase, is completely premature.”

Over the past few weeks, the Sanders campaign has quietly reshuffled its top leadership positions in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote in the primary.

In New Hampshire, the Sanders campaign replaced the state director who oversaw his 2016 primary victory over Clinton in the Granite State. That move was puzzling to some, as polls show Sanders running strong in New Hampshire.

Late Wednesday, the Sanders campaign confirmed to The Hill that it also parted ways with its Iowa political director.

A poll of Iowa released this week found Biden at 25 percent and Warren at 23 percent, with Sanders falling to fifth place at 8 percent, although most other surveys show Sanders running stronger in the Hawkeye State.

“We’ll continue to make moves that we feel best position this campaign to win,” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir said in a statement to The Hill.

But Democrats say that staffing isn’t necessarily the issue. They say Sanders needs to find a new formula, because playing the same hits from 2016 isn’t working as effectively this go-round.

“He’s not doing anything differently, it’s the exact same thing,” said one unaffiliated Democrat. “I don’t think he’s realized the game has changed and he’s not running against one individual person, he’s running against 20 people.”

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Weaver argued that this time around, Sanders has shifted his focus from attacking billionaires to being the lead proponent on "Medicare for All" and the Green New Deal. 

“He’ll continue to draw a contrast here with the other candidates who as a group have weaker proposals with lofty goals but not enough substance to achieve those goals,” Weaver said.

And Sanders’s allies say reports about him losing traction are overblown. They believe Sanders’s fervent base of supporters and his commitment to Medicare for All have kept him in a strong position in the race.

“Everyone knew there would be ebbs and flows in a competitive race, and most people are just now beginning to tune in,” said Jonathan Tasini, a Democratic strategist who backs Sanders. “With all that has happened, Bernie continues to have a very strong, loyal base, which is expanding, for example, to growing support among Hispanics. At the end of the day, all the polls, big crowds and media hype today won’t matter as long as there is a strong organization to turn supporters out to vote.”

The Sanders campaign believes it’s being underestimated and has accused the media of highlighting polls aimed at furthering a narrative around his decline.

It’s true that not all polls show Warren breaking free from Sanders.

A national Fox News survey released on Wednesday found Biden at 29 percent support, followed by Sanders at 18 percent and Warren at 16 percent. Sanders remains competitive in most polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, and analyses have found Sanders with a solid base of support from a diverse coalition that includes white working-class voters and Hispanics.

On Thursday from Chapel Hill, N.C., Sanders embarked on a tour of colleges and universities in an effort to turn out the young voters who have been the bedrock of his national campaigns.

Polls show Sanders dominating the field with young voters and the campaign believes their support is not reflected in the polls.

The campaign says it has raised more from young donors than Biden, Warren, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Sanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate Booker cancels NH activities, campaign says he has the flu MORE (D-N.J.), Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial MORE (D-Minn.), South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Buttigieg rolls out endorsements from South Bend officials Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (D) and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang combined.

And the Sanders campaign is touting what it describes as an unmatched network of volunteers in Iowa, which includes more than 1,500 students who signed up to train as campus leaders for Sanders.

“There is no doubt, students and young voters are going to deliver Bernie Sanders’ victory in the Iowa caucus,” said Sanders’s Iowa state director, Misty Rebik.

Sanders’s group of national surrogates will be along for the ride, underscoring his support from prominent African Americans such as rapper Killer Mike, actor Danny Glover, intellectual Cornel West and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner.

Some progressives note that Warren still has a lot of work to do with black voters, although recent polls show her gaining some traction here.

Sanders this week will also be doing outreach to labor unions, with a focus on teachers, which the campaign says is the top occupation for Sanders’s donors.

The campaign has released new ads promoting the teacher strikes in West Virginia. Tasini praised this strategy, noting that the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association “send the largest organizational share of delegates to the Democratic convention.

“While other candidates court big money at fancy fundraisers, this campaign is supported by teachers from West Virginia and every state in the country,” said Shakir.