Bernie Sanders keeps getting bad news.
After Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren seized the spotlight in the first primary debate, the Vermont senator dropped to fourth place in two polls in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa. In some national surveys, Sanders fared just as poorly. And though he raised an impressive $18 million over the last three months, former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg posted bigger hauls in the same period.
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Inside the campaign, though, Sanders’ aides are defiant: They believe that Washington journalists are getting the presidential election wrong all over again, underestimating Sanders’ large volunteer base and mistaking temporary changes in surveys as permanent shifts in the race. They see the up-and-down polling — some of which has shown him gaining ground after the debates — as proof the primary is wide open. And they think that if Biden continues to lose support, as he did after Harris landed a blow on him in the first debate, Sanders is best positioned to win over his voters.
“When he announced in 2016, a lot of people in the elite class said that he stood no chance and couldn’t win. Over the course of his campaign, he proved a lot of people wrong,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager. “Fast forward to 2019, and you have some of the same skeptics saying it’s dead, it’s all over. I think they will be similarly proven wrong.”
Still, even though the Sanders team would never call it a “reset,” his aides are sharpening a new line of attack against his rivals and experimenting with different ways to connect with hard-to-reach voters as the race heats up. They’re also continuing to shift from big rallies to more intimate events in the nation’s early states, such as ice cream socials and selfie lines — an acknowledgment that Sanders needs to adopt a more personal approach and participate in additional retail politicking to win.
And even Sanders’ allies admit that he faces unique difficulties in 2020: Unlike in 2016, many of Sanders’ opponents have adopted major planks of his platform, giving voters more than one progressive candidate to choose from in the race. In recent weeks, some Sanders supporters have questioned if he should take a different approach in the debates, after not participating in mock sessions while prepping for the first showdown and ultimately failing to take on Biden in a memorable way.
Others have urged him to mix up his stump speech, which is remarkably similar to the talk he delivered on the trail in 2016.
“He has to clearly distinguish himself and say why people should vote for him when five or six other people are running for ‘Medicare for All’ or some version of free college tuition or a different kind of foreign policy,” said Jonathan Tasini, author of “The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America” and a national surrogate for Sanders in 2016. “Honestly, it’s a challenge.”
There is a sense in the Sanders camp that the race is extremely turbulent. While Sanders placed fourth in Quinnipiac and YouGov Blue-Data for Progress surveys after the debates, he was in second — and not far behind Biden — in Reuters-Ipsos and Washington Post-ABC News polls.
“It’s a very volatile field,” said Jeff Weaver, a top adviser to Sanders. “There will be huge swings in polling based on a moment. But if all it took to be president was a memorable debate performance, then a lot of people would be president. This is about a long-term campaign that is heavily dependent on organization and ground game in the states.”
Sanders performed strongly in caucus states in 2016, benefiting from his strong organization. And over the long haul, Sanders’ team is convinced that he has the most to gain if Biden falters. Since the beginning of the race, Morning Consult polls have repeatedly shown that Sanders is the second choice of a plurality of Biden voters.
As Warren and other rivals have built a beachhead in Iowa, the Sanders campaign says it is ramping up its field operation there. Last week, the campaign hired 11 aides in Iowa, bringing the number of staffers and interns in the state to 55. Sanders also opened eight offices in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada in the past month.
On Tuesday, an ice cream social with Sanders in Iowa City attracted about 900 people, nearly three times as many as the number who RSVPed, according to the campaign — which it took as another sign that its obituaries are premature.
Sanders’ team believes the primary will ultimately be won by the candidate who persuades voters he or she can defeat President Donald Trump and be trusted to fight the hardest for change. In order to do that, Sanders has repeatedly noted on the trail that he bests Trump in surveys of the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. But voters continue to rate him as far less “electable” than Biden, and in at least one poll, Warren and Harris.
The Sanders campaign also thinks he will be able to convince voters that he will push for change the hardest because he has been advocating for the same policies for decades, and has successfully prodded the Democratic Party leftward in recent years: During last week’s debate, they noted that the discussion often centered on Sanders’ ideas, such as Medicare for All.
In their view, many voters are dubious about other candidates’ promises and will come to appreciate Sanders as the original reformer.
“It’s important for people to be reminded — because they do know it — that if this debate was taking place in 2016, almost none of these candidates would be talking about these issues,” Weaver said, adding that voters are “always looking for authenticity in their leaders, and it’s sorely missing … they see one thing during elections, and they see another once people get elected.”
Sanders’ aides are also planning to continue to highlight the fact that his campaign is largely funded by small, online donors, while many of his opponents are holding high-dollar fundraisers. They have recently begun to note that their rivals’ money events are closed to the press. In 2016, one of Sanders’ more successful lines of attack against Hillary Clinton was that she declined to release her speeches to Wall Street firms.
And Sanders’ campaign argues that many of his potential supporters are not paying close attention to the race yet. Indeed, one of his challenges may be simply ensuring that his backers are registered to vote: In the Washington Post-ABC News poll, Sanders received 23 percent of those who are Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents — but only 19 percent among those currently registered. The Sanders team has recently launched a Twitch channel and is planning to expand “Bernie TV” — a series of online videos and programming — in hopes of reaching some of those voters.
Matt Bruenig, a Sanders backer and the founder of the left-wing think tank People’s Policy Project, called it a “blessing and a curse” that many of Sanders’ opponents profess support for policies such as Medicare for All. He said Sanders needs to differentiate himself from his imitators in the months ahead.
“To perform the way he wants to perform, he’s going to have to get that across,” Bruenig said, explaining he ought “to make sure that people understand that he’s the guy who’s been serious about this.”
But for now, he added, Sanders needs to “chill out, hold onto your base, and wait for the field to clear.”