Bernie Sanders's wheezing, sputtering 'juggernaut'

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump, Biden clash over health care as debate begins Biden calls Trump a 'liar' and a 'clown' at first debate Biden mocks Trump campaign debate claims: 'I've got my earpiece and performance enhancers ready' 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.

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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 BidenFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate 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 Klobuchar3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight 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 ButtigiegCindy McCain joins board of Biden's presidential transition team Billionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November MORE, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren won't meet with Barrett, calling Trump's nomination an 'illegitimate power grab' The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's tax bombshell | More election drama in Pennsylvania | Trump makes up ground in new polls New Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments MORE (D-Mass.), businessman Tom SteyerTom SteyerTV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month Inslee calls Biden climate plan 'perfect for the moment' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration finalizes plan to open up Alaska wildlife refuge to drilling | California finalizes fuel efficiency deal with five automakers, undercutting Trump | Democrats use vulnerable GOP senators to get rare win on environment 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 BloombergFeehery: Are you better off now than you were 47 years ago? Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida 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.

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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