Is Bernie Sanders Really the Frontrunner?

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in New York, March 2, 2019. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Juliana Summers and Julie Pace of the Associated Press declare Bernie Sanders “an indisputable frontrunner” in the Democratic primary, pointing to his huge fundraising, “a loyal and enthusiastic voter base and a set of clearly defined policy objectives.”

Indeed, consistently polling between the high teens and high twenties in a field with perhaps 20 candidates is a nice place to be . . . but that also indicates how little it takes to be a frontrunner in a field split among so many candidates.

You can be a frontrunner because of your strengths as a candidate, or you can be frontrunner because of circumstances, and there’s some evidence that Sanders is the latter. The fact that every Democrat and their brother seems to be jumping into the ring indicates that few Democratic officials perceive 2020 as Sanders’s turn, or that he’s unbeatable in a primary. He’s no longer the anti-Hillary, the best or more or less only serious option for any Democrat who didn’t want to nominate Clinton. He’s the same guy as 2015, except four years older.

Democrats who worried he was unelectable in 2016 probably aren’t more confident about him this time around. There are probably some Democrats who feel his campaign and his supporters played a role in Trump’s victory; a March YouGov poll found that one out of every five Democrats has a somewhat or very unfavorable opinion of Sanders — higher than any other contender. And the Sanders team has sharp elbows. Late last year, the Sanders team went after Beto O’Rourke before he even announced; Biden’s team already suspects Sanders‘s campaign was fanning the flames of the inappropriate-touching stories. There are plenty of Democrats who would be happy to see the Vermont senator stumble the second time around.

Eventually the race will narrow down to a smaller group of candidates, and presuming Sanders is one of the last left standing, the race will come down to Sanders’s socialist overhaul of American society against a candidate that offers a softer or more moderate version of it. When boiled down to a binary choice, Democrats chose the less radical option in 2016. The early swooning for O’Rourke and buzz around Pete Buttigeig indicate Democrats may not be hungry for open 60s-style radicalism this cycle.

One last point: Hillary Clinton was arguably the worst presidential candidate in a generation: entitled, tone-deaf, scandal-ridden, arrogant, the opposite of a fresh face. And Sanders couldn’t beat her!

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