Sanders seizes on Social Security with new Biden attacks
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is stepping up his attacks on former Vice President Joe Biden’s record on Social Security, a sign that he is looking to make inroads with the older voters who have helped power Biden’s recent string of primary victories.
A day after Biden racked up a slew of primary wins on Super Tuesday, Sanders rolled out a new negative ad accusing Biden of supporting cuts to Social Security. And in a news conference on Wednesday, he sought to contrast his record on entitlement programs with Biden’s.
“One of us has spent his entire life fighting against cuts in Social Security, and wanting to expand Social Security. Another candidate has been on the floor of the Senate calling for cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veteran’s programs,” Sanders said.
Sanders’s increasingly aggressive posture on Social Security signals an effort by his campaign to cut into Biden’s support among older voters, as the primary race this month heads to states like Florida, where seniors make up an above-average share of the electorate.
At the same time, the strategy is a tacit acknowledgement that Sanders will have to broaden his appeal to more reliable voting blocs if he hopes to rebound from his Super Tuesday defeats.
His campaign has placed a high premium on turning out young voters, with whom Sanders remains popular. But exit polls show that those voters aren’t showing up at the rate that Sanders and his team had hoped, dealing a setback to a central tenet of the Vermont senator’s electoral strategy.
Sanders conceded at his news conference on Wednesday that his campaign had not been as successful as he had hoped at turning out young people to vote.
“Have we been as successful as I would hope in bringing young people in?” he said. “The answer is no. We’re making some progress, but historically everybody knows that young people do not vote in the kind of numbers that older people vote in.”
Whether Sanders’s focus on Social Security and entitlement can help him win over the support of older voters remains unclear. He has long lagged his top rivals in support from voters 65 and older, many of whom are leery of nominating a self-described democratic socialist. And exit polls from the first 18 primary contests show him pulling little support from those voters.
In four states that held their primaries on Super Tuesday — Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma — Sanders support among voters 65 and older never rose above single digits. And only in one state — his home turf of Vermont — did he receive more than 20 percent of the senior vote.
That stands in stark contrast to the wide support Sanders received from young voters on Tuesday. Exit polling shows he captured about 58 percent of votes from 18- to 29-year-olds.
Biden, meanwhile, took nearly half of the vote cast by those 65 and older, helping him notch victories in 10 of the 14 Super Tuesday states.
Sanders and his aides have signaled in recent days that they see Biden’s record on Social Security and other entitlements as a weak point.
In a post-Super Tuesday ad, Sanders’s campaign revived audio of a 1995 Senate speech in which Biden argued for freezing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid spending amid a debate over a balanced-budget amendment.
And in a statement this week, Sanders’s campaign manager Faiz Shakir argued that Biden’s past efforts to hold up Social Security funding, along with his past support for trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), would be potentially fatal liabilities in the general election.
“Bernie Sanders consistently fought Joe Biden’s efforts to cut Social Security and pass terrible trade deals like NAFTA,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “That was not only the right thing to do, it is a record that makes Bernie Sanders a far stronger general election candidate against Trump.”
The attacks from Sanders haven’t gone unnoticed by Biden, who has long denied he wants to cut Social Security, though he has previously called for “grand bargains” to deal with soaring deficits that would consider tax increases and entitlement reforms.
The two candidates confronted one another on social media on Thursday night after President Trump said at a Fox News town hall that he would consider cutting entitlement programs, though Trump walked back the remarks the following day by vowing to protect Social Security and Medicare.
In a tweet, Biden vowed to expand Social Security if he is elected president, prompting a scathing response from Sanders.
“Here’s the deal: Joe Biden has repeatedly advocated for cuts to Social Security,” Sanders tweeted. “I’ve fought my whole career to protect and expand it.”
Biden fired back at Sanders, arguing that Trump was the only presidential hopeful who posed a threat to Social Security funding.
“Maybe you should spend your time attacking him,” Biden tweeted.
Even some Sanders allies are skeptical of whether that critique can turn things around for his campaign.
Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist and national surrogate for Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, said that the Vermont senator’s critique of Biden’s record is a compelling one, but noted that Sanders is up against an increasingly short timeframe to convince older voters to come to his side.
“People live with cognitive dissonance. Social Security is really important, but there’s a significant number of people who have not attached Joe Biden’s name to freezing or cutting Social Security,” Tasini said. “You have to make that argument, but it’s not easy to do overnight. You have to do that over time.”
“It’s not clear that there’s enough of a window to do that in,” he added.
Biden is riding a wave of momentum after scoring a decisive victory in South Carolina last weekend, followed by a series of wins on Super Tuesday.
The primary race is now moving into a handful of states that may prove difficult for Sanders. For instance in Michigan, which holds its primary on Tuesday, a recent poll showed Sanders trailing Biden by 6 points. And in Mississippi, Biden is expected to win by a wide margin given his strong support throughout the South, especially among black voters.
But Florida poses perhaps the biggest challenge for Sanders in the coming weeks.
With 219 pledged delegates up for grabs in the March 17 primary, the Sunshine State is one of the biggest prizes of the Democratic nominating nominating contest. But a poll released on Thursday showed Biden with a massive 49-point lead over Sanders there.
Older voters also make up a significant share of the primary electorate in Florida — about 25 percent, according to exit polls from 2016. Four years ago, younger voters accounted for a relatively small 15 percent. That makes Sanders’s efforts to expand his base of support all the more urgent.
“We just have to acknowledge that the theory of him winning this election has not panned out yet in terms of turnout,” Tasini said. “That could change, but the theory that we will win if the working class and young people turn out — that turn out has not happened in the way that we need to win.”