By now there’s little doubt that much of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) support late in the 2016 Democratic primary contest was a function of voters preferring him to the sole alternative, Hillary Clinton. While he quickly built a strong core of supporters that year and eventually rose to over 46 percent support in national polling, he came into the 2020 contest with a smaller, though still consistent, base of support.
As Sanders continues to be the candidate best positioned to clinch a majority of the delegates at stake in the Democratic primaries, his steady position in the polls has prompted some questions about how high he might go. Is he constrained by some ceiling of support beyond which he can’t rise? If so, some thinking goes, perhaps this is a route to blocking his nomination: Consolidate the field to offer voters a sole alternative to Sanders — and thereby block him from winning the nomination.
There are a few problems with that strategy, including the inherent challenge of convincing politicians that they should stand down for the greater good. The most immediate problem, though, is that the idea that Sanders is near his ceiling is suspect.
Consider, for example, a recent NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll of Democratic primary voters. Sanders led the field with 31 percent support among the remaining candidates. But he was also the second choice of 14 percent of respondents. In other words, he was the first or second choice of 45 percent of respondents. That’s more than any other candidate, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who was the most common second-choice pick. In total, she was the first or second choice of 35 percent of respondents.
Not only was Sanders the second choice of 14 percent of respondents, he was even the second choice of about that many supporters of former vice president Joe Biden and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, candidates who would seem to have bases of support that would be unlikely to turn to Sanders as an alternative.
Data compiled by The Economist with its polling partner YouGov suggest that Sanders is a common alternative to voters across the party’s ideological spectrum. About 40 percent of people considering voting for Biden are also considering voting for Sanders. More than half of those considering a Warren vote are also thinking about supporting Sanders’s candidacy.
Other candidates see larger overlaps with their opponents, like the 61 percent of people considering Bloomberg who are also considering Biden. But consistently at least a third of those considering one of the remaining Democrats are also considering Sanders.
The most obvious reason to think that Sanders hasn’t hit his ceiling is that he’s seen a recent surge in the polls. Before the Iowa caucuses, he was polling at about 23 percent in the polls. In the most recent RealClearPolitics average of national polls, he’s at 29.2 percent — about where Biden was before his post-Iowa plunge.
There are a few other things worth noting on that graph. The first is that Bloomberg, who surged into contention on the strength of a bajillion dollars in advertising, seems to have peaked. We’ve seen such peaks before from candidates, so it’s too soon to count him out. But that reversal mirrors Biden’s recent uptick in the same way that Bloomberg’s surge corresponded to Biden’s drop. This may be noise. It may be more than that.
More important to the question at hand is that steady 12 percent to 13 percent that Warren commands in the polls. Remember: She’s the candidate who probably has the most overlap with Sanders according to the Economist-YouGov poll. If she dropped out and that half of her support that was considering Sanders jumped to him, he gets a six-point boost. Things don’t work that cleanly in general (and the Economist data isn’t centered on supporters of candidates, specifically), but her presence in the race is a reminder that there are still Sanders-sympathetic voters who might commit to supporting his bid.
What will be interesting to watch is what happens if it becomes clear that Sanders has a big enough lead that he can’t be caught. He is certainly benefiting from the fractured field at the moment because a number of candidates who might fare well against him one-on-one are being held under the critical 15 percent threshold of support due to the size of the field — meaning that their ability to earn delegates is limited.
In 2016, Donald Trump’s rise in the Republican field spurred similar questions about his ceiling, but enough voters came on board before the end of the primaries that he ended up clinching the nomination early. It’s not quite as easy on the Democratic side, since there aren’t the same winner-take-all contests that would allow Sanders to quickly amass a lot of delegates (unless he’s the only one to cross the 15 percent threshold). But it may be the case that, in order to limit long-term party infighting, Democrats might coalesce/come to accept a Sanders nomination in order to focus on the general. That seems unlikely now — but it seemed unlikely in early 2016 that the Republican establishment would coalesce around Trump, too.
As of writing, the most likely outcome in the Democratic contest isn’t the one above, according to FiveThirtyEight’s models. It’s that the convention arrives with no candidate having earned a majority of delegates. Should that happen, the nomination comes down to votes on the convention floor, which could go in any number of directions.
A situation in which, once again, Sanders’s ceiling is fairly irrelevant.
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