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Could Bernie Sanders become US president in 2020?

Jan 14, 2020
Gabriel Power

Progressive senator storms into the lead in Iowa and New Hampshire in race to secure Democratic nomination

Getty Images

Sanders at a forum on gun safety in Iowa last summer

Bernie Sanders is enjoying a surge in support for his campaign to become the Democratic candidate in the upcoming US presidential election, according to latest polling figures.

The Independent reports that with less than a month to go until the Democratic primaries kick off, the Vermont senator has “risen sharply” in polls for Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states scheduled to vote.

Politico notes that this surge comes after Sanders secured the backing of “progressive leaders and organisations”, who are choosing him as their preferred candidate over progressive rival Elizabeth Warren. With even Donald Trump claiming that Sanders is “looking very good against his opponents”, could 2020 finally be the veteran politician’s year?

What do the polls say?

Widely considered the most progressive candidate in the Democratic primary field, Sanders performed well in the polls at the start of his campaign last spring, but plateaued in the second half of 2019 amid a surge from fellow progressive Warren and a stubbornly solid lead for moderate candidate Joe Biden.

Sanders’ bid for the White House appeared to have been derailed when he then suffered a heart attack in October, forcing the 78-year-old off the campaign trail. But polls of the Democratic field in the first two weeks of 2020 paint a different picture - one of a major resurgence.

Sanders, the oldest candidate running, is polling at 20% support in a survey for the Des Moines Register newspaper in Iowa, which on 3 February will become the first state to vote on the Democratic presidential contenders.

That result represents a five-point gain since November and puts him ahead of Warren, on 17%, and Pete Buttigieg, the centre-left former mayor of South Bend in Indiana, on 16%, reports The Times.

But the most notable aspect of the Iowa poll is Sanders’ growing lead over former vice-president Biden in the state. At a national level, Biden is the clear front runner among all the candidates, polling at 29.3% - a nine-point lead over second-place Sanders - but in Iowa he is languishing in fourth place.

And separate polls for New Hampshire - which will be the second state to vote, on 11 February - show Sanders and Biden almost neck and neck. So could these states be a bellwether for a bounce that sees Sanders overtake Biden?

Is this Sanders’ year?

The results from Iowa and New Hampshire are the “latest sign that Mr Sanders - lifted by his loyal supporters and an unchanging message - has strong campaign momentum” heading into the Iowa caucuses, says The New York Times.

Politico reports that “two groups run by young people - the Sunrise Movement, which seeks to combat climate change, and Dream Defenders, which advocates for people of colour - endorsed him last week”.

The news site adds that Sanders has “also won the backing of People’s Action and the Center for Popular Democracy, which together claim more than 1.5 million members”, as well as liberal-minded labour unions and three lawmakers in the so-called “Squad” - a group of influential young female Democratic congresswomen of colour including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.

“There’s no denying that this is a good poll for Bernie Sanders. He leads, but it’s not uncontested,” says J. Ann Selzer of polling firm Selzer & Co, which conducted the Iowa survey. “He’s got a firmer grip on his supporters than the rest of his compatriots. The Bernie factor is stronger than we saw in the last cycle.”

That resurgence has been noticed in the White House. On Sunday, Trump tweeted: “Wow! Crazy Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls, looking very good against his opponents in the Do Nothing Party. So what does this all mean?”

Sanders responded: “It means you’re going to lose.”

What might stand in his way?

Despite his recent gains, Sanders still trails Biden in polls on a national scale, and has been accused of being too radical to take on Trump and win.

In an interview with The Guardian, Republican political strategist Rick Wilson has argued that Sanders would be “the easiest person in the world to turn into the comic opera villain Republicans love to hate, the Castro sympathiser, the socialist, the Marxist, the guy who wants to put the aristos in the tumbril as they cart them off to the guillotine”.

Wilson draws parallels with the recent UK general election, in which Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn suffered a devastating defeat to Boris Johnson - “a very unlikeable PM [who] was able to convince a lot of Brits his opponent was too much of a risk”, says the US politics guru.

As a result of such fears, there could “be a stop Sanders movement among Democratic elites”, says CNN’s political analyst Harry Enten.

Some commentators also warn that the two recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire are not sufficiently representative of the US’s ethnic make-up to tell the full story.

Both states have disproportionately small black communities, representing only 3.4% of the total population in Iowa, and just 1.3% in New Hampshire. By contrast, the nationwide average is 13%.

In order to take the lead at a national level, experts agree unanimously that Sanders has to win the favour of the country’s powerful black voting bloc - a demographic that overwhelmingly favours Biden.

A recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll put Biden on 48% support among black Democratic voters, with Sanders trailing on 20%. All of the other Democratic candidates polled in single digits.

“I think neither Warren nor Sanders and certainly not Pete Buttigieg have ever had a breakthrough with African-American voters sufficient to eliminate Biden’s advantage,” Republican strategist Wilson concludes.

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