Bernie Sanders's wheezing, sputtering 'juggernaut'

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike House set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package On The Money: Democrats scramble to save minimum wage hike | Personal incomes rise, inflation stays low after stimulus burst MORE (I-Vt.) says he is leading an unstoppable revolution, but his numbers tell a different story. His support is weak, and his current success is a result of the structure of the early primary process and the gaggle of also-rans shearing off parts of the moderate Democratic vote. Sanders is the front-runner for now, but the idea that he is coasting to the Democratic nomination is ridiculous.

The fact is that the first three contests were tailor-made for Sanders. As the only candidate with a strong legacy organization, Sanders had an enormous advantage in the caucus states — where organization is absolutely vital. Sandwiched between the Iowa and Nevada caucuses was the perfect primary state for him: New Hampshire. Granite State Democrats always plump for the Democrat from a neighboring state.

But even though the early contests are structured perfectly for Sanders, his wins were not impressive. Sanders vastly underperformed based on his 2016 totals. In New Hampshire, he got just half the vote he did four years ago (down 35 points). He was down more than 20 points in Iowa. Nevada was better, where he was off less than 1 percent, but it should be noted his opponents were completely consumed with competing in the first two states and had precious little time to devote to a caucus state. It’s a huge advantage when one candidate has an extensive organization and the rest are operating with skeletons.


Going forward, Sanders no longer has the luxury of caucus states inflating his totals. In 2016 Sanders won every caucus after Nevada, averaging nearly 65 percent. Democrats have replaced nine caucuses with primaries, leaving only Wyoming and North Dakota. In South Carolina his polling has improved, but he is still behind former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors Biden celebrates vaccine approval but warns 'current improvement could reverse' MORE. Marist has him at 23 percent and PPP at 21 percent, below his woeful 26 percent finish in 2016.

Public polls for five Super Tuesday states have been released since Nevada. His best poll is California (UMass-Lowell) where he is in first place with 24 percent (he won 46 percent against Clinton in 2016).  Minnesota is next best with 23 percent, behind Minnesota Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOpen-ended antitrust is an innovation killer FBI, DHS and Pentagon officials to testify on Capitol riot Five big takeaways on the Capitol security hearings MORE. In 2016 Minnesota was a caucus state where Sanders won with over 61 percent. In Texas and North Carolina, Sanders is polling at 20 percent and at only 13 percent in Oklahoma — a primary he won in 2016 at 52 percent.

What is propping up Sanders is that the Democratic field has hardly cleared. Party rules establish a 15 percent “viability” threshold for delegates. This threshold allowed Sanders to get two-thirds of the Nevada delegates with less than half the vote — as former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegExclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden vs. Trump, part II Chasten Buttigieg jokes about his husband biking home from work MORE, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenExclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren Minimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster Democratic strategists start women-run media consulting firm MORE (D-Mass.), businessman Tom SteyerTom SteyerGOP targets ballot initiatives after progressive wins On The Trail: The political losers of 2020 Biden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far MORE and Klobuchar could not clear the 15 percent level. Sanders needs these no-hopers to hang around as long as possible.

Only Biden and former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergDwayne 'The Rock' Johnson vs. Donald Trump: A serious comparison On The Trail: The political perils of Snowmageddon Five things to watch in the New York City mayoral race MORE remain as serious opponents to Sanders. Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Steyer and Warren are just taking up space and scarce oxygen. Steyer might stumble through Super Tuesday just because he has already bought media in those states and it’s only three days after losing in South Carolina.

Klobuchar made history when the political punditocracy decided anyone can have momentum. It turns out a weak third in New Hampshire really means nothing, as confirmed by an even weaker sixth in Nevada — but at least she beat everyone who dropped out. Klobuchar was finished even before New Hampshire, when she could only manage fifth place in Iowa, a miserable performance for a neighboring senator.


Warren is faring only marginally better than Klobuchar and Steyer. Her problem is that she doesn’t want to win — or doesn’t know how. She can’t resist attacking Bloomberg when her real opponent is Sanders. And, it’s not as if she has decided to be a stalking horse for her ideological doppelganger: she has attacked Sanders as ineffective, impractical and sexist. If she wants to win, go after Sanders. If she wants to help him, drop out and endorse. Warren takes the prize as the most strategically incompetent candidate in the Democratic field.

As for Buttigieg, he did come out of Iowa and New Hampshire with solid results; however, there is nothing really compelling about him from a message standpoint. He is polling at a mere 7 percent in South Carolina and can’t break into the top three anywhere. The progressive left views him with furious suspicion. He is still a small city mayor not big enough for the job. Buttigieg is like some nice young man selling magazine subscriptions whose earnestness and persistence generates enough pity sales to make his quota.

Sanders is the front-runner. But his vote totals and polling within the Democratic Party are much worse than when he lost to Clinton in 2016. Any thought that Democratic voters are coalescing around him is absurd and conclusively disproven by the numbers.

Bloomberg is in it for the long haul, even if he has to burn through a billion dollars to do it — and he is starting to climb above the 15 percent viability threshold. If Biden wins South Carolina and can get a shot of financing, Sanders will have a tough slog ahead.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711