Bernie Sanders refuses to be counted out of the Democratic primary field, and, based on two recent polls, it appears that voters are backing him up.
After he was hospitalized for a heart attack in October, pundits questioned whether Sanders should continue his campaign. The Washington Post observed that the incident raised questions about his age, reminding readers that he is 78. Politico media writer Jack Shafer wrote at the time that if America had a version of the 25th Amendment that applied to presidential candidates (not just to presidents), “we would be talking right now about subtracting Bernie Sanders from the campaign trail until he proves himself physically fit to assume the powers of [the] chief executive of the United States.”
Instead, Sanders has bounced back stronger than ever, according to two new polls. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll released Monday shows that even in the crowded Democratic primary field, 22% of respondents said they would vote for Sanders. Joe Biden came in first place, at 24%. Together, they have the support of almost half of Democratic and Democratic-leaning independent respondents. Elizabeth Warren came in third place, at 17%. Pete Buttigieg was fourth, at 13%.
The survey wasn’t the only good polling news for Sanders in the past week. In a survey of California Democratic voters by the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, 24% of respondents said they prefer Sanders over Warren (22%), Biden (14%) and Buttigieg (12%).
Mark DiCamillo, director of the UC Berkeley poll, told the Los Angeles Times that “the race is really unusually fluid.” In terms of specific candidate qualities, the Times observers, Sanders was respondents’ top choice in three areas: “being the candidate who would bring the right kind of change to Washington (28%), the one who comes closest to sharing voters’ values (27%) and the candidate who best understands the problems of ‘people like you’ (28%).”
Media outlets are taking notice of this upswing in public opinion, with BuzzFeed and Politico releasing Sanders-focused features on the same day. BuzzFeed’s piece is a profile of the candidate; Politico’s is an analysis of what a Sanders administration and governing style might look like. While it might seem early to plan a Cabinet, as David Siders explains in Politico, “If the 2016 election taught the political class anything, it’s that the old limits of plausibility no longer apply, and the prospect of a Sanders presidency is worth taking seriously.”
The BuzzFeed profile suggests that the Sanders campaign is deploying a strategy related to its new slogan: “Not me, us.” The plan, writer Ruby Cramer implies, is to get away from the perception that Sanders is focused only on himself, and instead present a message that emphasizes his campaign as a broader social movement aiming to fight economic inequality.
“There’s this idea that Bernie Sanders is ‘a man of the people who doesn’t like people’—just issues,” Cramer explains. “That’s not exactly right, though the precise balance between the two can be difficult to pin down.”
Cramer recounts how, in 1990, Sanders told his press secretary, “Some people say I am very hard to work with,” according to that former staffer’s memoir. “They say I can be a real son of a bitch. They say I can be nasty, I don’t know how to get along with people. … Well, maybe there’s some truth to it.”
According to Cramer’s conversations with Sanders’ staff and supporters, as well as outside experts, he is countering that narrative by balancing the giant rallies typical of his 2016 campaign with more discussion-oriented town hall events, where attendees can share their stories not only with the candidate, but with each other, building a sense of togetherness and collective power. The campaign also is focusing on sharing people’s stories of struggle under an unequal economic system, rather than simply Sanders’ own. It is also releasing campaign ads and videos featuring stories of families struggling to pay their rent, deal with medical debt or pay for college.
“The stories he collects and broadcasts across the internet aren’t just voter testimonials produced to validate the campaign or its policies—they’re aimed, in Bernie’s mind, at people validating one another,” Cramer writes.
As for Sanders’ governing style, Siders writes in Politico that his aides imagine:
… a government driven by impatience, one that sees itself with a mandate to confront climate change vigorously, to shore up the nation’s labor unions and defend its immigrant populations. Maybe there won’t really be Medicare for All, thanks to Mitch McConnell and a Republican Senate, but they at least see less expensive prescription drugs and health care for more people than currently have it.
With two months to go until the first primaries and three until Super Tuesday, there is plenty of time for the narrative to change, but whatever happens, it looks like the media might finally have to take Sanders seriously.