By DAVID SHUSTER
Thanks to a political murder-suicide, enduring passions among Democratic progressives, and the dynamics of a crowded field, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders emerged from the first Democratic Presidential debates with the inside lane to the party’s Presidential nomination. I know what you are saying: “Huh?” Bear with me.
Four years ago, in the Iowa caucuses – the first Democratic nomination contest — Sanders lost to establishment favorite Hillary Clinton by a whisker. At 49.9 to 49.6%, it was the closest margin in the state’s caucus history. Sanders then beat Clinton decisively in the New Hampshire primary, the candidates traded victories in subsequent states, and Clinton eventually went on to win the nomination. Along the way, however, Sanders captured 43% of the Democratic party’s popular vote.
Ever since 2016, Sanders’s progressive support has remained consistent and passionate. In most surveys over the past few years, around a quarter of all Democratic respondents have told pollsters they would vote for Bernie Sanders again regardless of who else is running. The most recent poll of Iowa Democrats (CBS/YouGov) had Sanders at 22%. Progressive Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren received 12%. Among the more moderate candidates, Vice President Joe Biden was favored by 30% of Iowa Democrats. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, got 11%. California Senator Kamala Harris, who has been moving her policies to the left, got 5%.
Let’s now factor in the first 2019 Democratic debates. By all accounts, Bernie Sanders made no gaffes or glaring mistakes. And he emphatically reminded his fellow revolutionaries about his commitment to turn Washington, D.C. inside out. “Nothing will change,” he roared, “unless we have the guts to take on Wall Street, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the military industrial complex, and the fossil fuel industry. If we don’t have the guts to take them on, we will continue to have plans, we will continue to have talk, and the rich will get richer and everybody else will be struggling.”
After the debate, most of the mainstream media analysts paid no attention to the populist Sanders. Instead, the talking heads repeatedly declared California Senator Kamala Harris the debate winner. They noted that Harris had dramatically confronted Biden over his opposition to school busing in the 1970’s. According to the pundits, it was a clear breakout moment for Harris and a sign of potential trouble for Biden.
If you look at the debate in a vacuum, Harris had a great night. But as a native Midwesterner who has spent his career covering national politics, trust me when I tell you that Iowa Democrats are unique. They are exceedingly polite, earnest, and strongly opposed to political attacks — the very attacks that rate well with the coastal media elites.
Do any Democrats really believe that Joe Biden is on the wrong side in the ongoing battle in the United States against racism and discrimination? Of course not. And, Iowa Democrats have a record of punishing candidates like Harris who pull out the long knives and launch high profile attacks.
For most of 2003, Vermont Governor Howard Dean led the Democratic field in Iowa. Then, Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt opened fire on Dean as unstable and a threat to national security, in part over Dean’s opposition to the Iraq war. The attacks dropped Dean to third on caucus night, behind the eventual nominee John Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards. But Gephardt also lost ground in the Iowa, finishing fourth in the caucuses and ending his campaign.
It is possible that Kamala Harris, thanks to her strong stage presence and praise from most pundits, will gain ground in national polls. She might even get a bump from some Iowa Democrats who are soft in their support of Biden. But, any Biden drop is a boon to Bernie Sanders.
Many political experts in Iowa believe that Bernie Sanders has a bedrock support among progressives across the state that will give him at least 20% on caucus night. Progressives account for about a third of Iowa Democrats. And that helps explain the 12% poll number going to Elizabeth Warren in Iowa. She does check off many progressive boxes: Medicare for all, reining in Wall Street, and tackling inequality. But most of Warren’s positions, like addressing college loan debt, don’t go as far left as Sanders. And there are lingering progressive suspicions, fair or not, that Warren is more deferential to the Democratic establishment.
Let’s assume the political experts in Iowa are correct and Sanders goes into Iowa caucus night with around 20% and Warren is around 15%. Will Joe Biden or Kamala Harris get at least third of the remaining Democratic caucus goers? Under this scenario, that would translate to 22% of the total caucus vote and an Iowa victory. But in a crowded field, where progressives are sure about their candidate, and the rest of the party is split between Biden, Harris, Buttigieg, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, to name just a few, the math for candidates who are not in the progressive wing becomes tricky.
It’s the same dynamic that anti-establishment Republicans benefited from in their 2016 Iowa battle. Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump split the party’s anti-establishment vote, a block that accounted for about half of all caucus goers. Cruz won Iowa with 27%. Trump came in second with 24%. Eight establishment Republicans divided the rest of the pie, with Florida Senator Marco Rubio leading that group. He got 23% of Iowa GOP caucus goers to earn a third place finish overall. Establishment favorite and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush finished sixth.
In the next 2016 GOP nomination contest, the New Hampshire primary, the anti-establishment candidates together received about 45% of the vote. Trump got most of those voters and finished first in New Hampshire with 36% of the total vote. Cruz finished with 11% for third place. Ohio Governor Jon Kasich came in second at 16%.
The GOP field remained crowded going into South Carolina. Trump won with 32%. Marco Rubio got 22%, slightly ahead of the 21% t for Cruz in third place.
The point is that Donald Trump received crucial early nomination momentum, even though he never accumulated much more than a third of the early contest voters.
In 2020, if Joe Biden or Kamala Harris or any other party establishment candidate can’t break out from the pack in Iowa, Bernie Sanders and his steadfast progressive supporters will likely see victory.
And if Iowa goes to Sanders, and New Hampshire follows suit for him as it did in 2016, watch out. Iowa and New Hampshire wins are rocket fuel in South Carolina and beyond. And by the time the Democratic establishment tries to coalesce around one Sanders alternative, whether it’s Biden, Harris, or somebody else, it will be too late to stop the Democratic nomination from feeling the Bern.
Yes, debates are often interesting and revealing. But, they are part of a larger picture. And when you zoom out, any memorable clash between top Democratic establishment candidates helps Bernie Sanders the most.
David Shuster, an Emmy Award winner journalist, served as an anchor for MSNBC, where he also hosted his own show, “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” He also previously served as an anchor at i24 News, anchoring two primetime shows, and was a Managing Editor of the news department. With a long history in television journalism, Mr. Shuster also worked as a correspondent for Fox News Channel, a reporter for ABC, and a field producer for CNN.
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