The race for the Democratic nomination began in earnest over the past couple of weeks, or at least it feels that way. After flirting with a run for months, Beto O’Rourke finally made his move by jumping on a bunch of countertops. Pete Buttigieg became a Cinderella story, rocketing up the polls to fifth—ahead of Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker—in what David Brooks, to a chorus of groans across America, referred to as “the biggest star-is-born moment since Lady Gaga started singing ‘Shallow.’” Joe Biden, who leads in the polls despite not having declared his candidacy, was accused by two women of unwanted touching, prompting a reevaluation of his entire, handsy history with women. And now the first-quarter fundraising numbers are trickling in: $7 million for Buttigieg. $12 million for Kamala Harris. O’Rourke, rather than reveal his three-month total, announced that he raised nearly $10 million in just 18 days since announcing his candidacy.
That about sums up the Democratic field right now—or so you might think, based on the political conversation of late. But a certain someone is missing from this picture: the candidate who consistently polls first among declared candidates, and who, in the first quarter, raised $18 million from an astounding 900,000 donors. He is the frontrunner for the nomination until someone proves otherwise.
And yet, Bernie Sanders is being treated as something of an afterthought, as the national press and Beltway pundits hop from one shiny object to the next.
As MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt argued earlier this week on Twitter, “Anyone who doesn’t treat [Sanders] becoming the Democratic nominee as a realistic and even likely possibility is making a big mistake (and failed to learn from mistakes made in 2016).” She added:
The root of Sanders’s appeal, as Hunt points out, is his performance during the 2016 primary. He won 23 primaries, receiving more votes from people under the age of 30 than Clinton and Donald Trump combined. Some have argued, convincingly, that he won by losing: He not only pushed the Clinton campaign to the left; he pushed the Democratic Party to the left.
But for months, this strength—his profound influence over the party’s direction—has been treated as a weakness. In late December, The New York Times labeled Sanders a “victim of his own success,” arguing that he’d lost his edge because his positions on health care, Wall Street, and the minimum wage have become party orthodoxy. “Sanders may have been the runner-up in the last Democratic primary, but instead of expanding his nucleus of support, in the fashion of most repeat candidates, the Vermont senator is struggling to retain even what he garnered two years ago, when he was far less of a political star than he is today,” Jonathan Martin and Sydney Ember wrote.
Three months later, this take—echoed by other leading publications—seems to have gotten Sanders backwards. While other campaigns have rushed to embrace Sanders policies, such as Medicare for All, he remains the party’s policy pacesetter. Other Democrats who are parroting his positions, often in watered-down form, have yet to dent Sanders’s poll numbers, even as more candidates enter the race. This is even true of Warren, whose ambitious policy work has surpassed Sanders’s in detail and scope (if not in radicalism).
Reports of a decline in enthusiasm among Sanders’s supporters also appear to have been greatly exaggerated. His fundraising and poll numbers disprove the idea that he’s an also-ran. But there are other signs of his continued vitality. Despite his near-universal name recognition, and the media’s overwhelming attention lately to O’Rourke, Biden, and Buttigieg, Sanders has consistently been among the top three Democratic candidates in Google searches, suggesting continued interest in his campaign. Finally, he appears to be broadly liked throughout the party. A Morning Consult poll in February found that he was the second choice for voters who supported the campaigns of Biden, Warren, and O’Rourke, suggesting that support could coalesce around his candidacy as other Democrats drop out.
Sanders may be a victim of his own success in a different way than the Times hypothesized: His popularity is now taken for granted. O’Rourke and Buttigieg, two young and dynamic candidates, have received an enormous amount of coverage over the past several weeks in part because they are fresh faces on the national scene. Sanders, as both the 2016 runner-up and a 77-year-old politician who has served in Congress since the early 1990s, is old news—and so is the resurgence of socialism in American politics, for which he’s largely responsible.
The caucuses and primaries don’t begin until next February. Many candidates will drop out well before then, due to poor polling and fundraising—both of which Sanders has in spades. He almost certainly will be one of the last candidates standing. The coverage of his campaign will only grow, especially as the remaining candidates seek to distinguish themselves from the Man Who Remade the Democratic Party. (The Washington Post published two opinion pieces this week that represent the case that Sanders’s detractors will likely make against him: that he is “the Donald Trump of the left” and that he is unable to answer specific questions about his ambitious and expensive proposals.)
Anything is possible. That’s been the most common refrain in Beltway punditry ever since Trump shocked the world on November 8, 2016. It’s worth remembering that at this point in the 2016 cycle, Trump was more than two months away from even announcing his candidacy. So it’s possible that such a figure is waiting in the wings of the Democratic contest (Mike Bloomberg doesn’t count). It’s also possible that support will coalesce around a dark-horse candidate like Buttigieg. And it’s possible that Biden will finally enter the race and defy both his anemic performance in previous presidential contests and the emerging #MeToo narrative about his handsiness.
But “anything is possible” is, perhaps, the wrong lesson to take from Trump’s victory. After all, he took the lead in Republican primary polls barely a month after entering the race, in late July, and he never relinquished it. It wasn’t until Republican voters began casting ballots that it dawned on the media that Trump might actually win the nomination. All of the available evidence right now suggests that Sanders is the frontrunner. The pundits ignore this at their own peril.