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Is Bernie Sanders Really The Democratic Front-Runner?

It’s never too early to talk about the 2020 general election — right? So in this week’s politics chat, we’re discussing whether Bernie Sanders is already the Democratic front-runner (it’s been on our minds thanks partly to Vox). The transcript below has been lightly edited.

natesilver: (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Hello, chatters. As Harry pointed out on Twitter the other day, we’re roughly as close to the first debates of the 2020 presidential cycle — which will presumably be in late spring or early summer of 2019 — as we are to the first debates of the 2016 cycle. So let’s take a break from health care and “the Russia stuff” to discuss our favorite topic … Bernie Sanders!

clare.malone: (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Who dat?

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I’m sure this will end well for all of us.

natesilver: Last week, Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote a column claiming that Bernie Sanders — Clare, he’s the independent senator from Vermont who ran in the Democratic primary in 2016 and finished second to Hillary Clinton — was the Democrats’ “front-runner” for 2020. I’m sure you’ve all read that column?

harry: I have read that column. It was an enjoyable experience.

natesilver: I’m glad it made you feel warm inside. But here’s a question — and I want people’s SHORT, topline views before we go into the details of Yglesias’s argument. Is Bernie Sanders the Democrats’ front-runner for 2020?

clare.malone: No, not necessarily. There are other people who are garnering similar enthusiasm from a similar base. (Ahem, Elizabeth Warren.)

harry: I think he can win the nomination, but “front-runner” suggests to me an appreciably better chance than any other candidate, as well as having greater than, say, a 15 percent chance at the nomination.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): No. He’s kind of a co-front-runner with Warren and Joe Biden.

clare.malone: Everyone is SO OLD.

natesilver: I say YES.

clare.malone: hah-cha-cha

Why? I.e., why more so than the other two we’ve offered?

natesilver: Well, let me clarify that “front-runner” and “favorite” are not synonyms to me. A “front-runner” is the horse that jumps out to the front of the pack and dictates the action behind him.

harry: Thank you, Noah Webster.

perry: That’s interesting and might actually change my answer in some ways. I think I considered the question as “who is the favorite,” not “front-runner.”

clare.malone: Yeah, I don’t even necessarily agree given Nate’s definition.

natesilver: Like, Elizabeth Warren’s decision to run is probably more influenced by Sanders than the other way around. Which would suggest that Sanders is the front-runner.

clare.malone: So, Sanders has his own political org, Our Revolution. But I’m not sure how influential they’ve actually proved themselves to be so far. And it’s not necessarily like any one candidate has cornered the “resistance” market or harnessed its energy or voice in any particular way.

I say it’s still open season. I also disagree on the Warren point — she’ll still run if she wants to run.

harry: I’d say Nathaniel’s definition only really works for Warren, if that. I tend to think Sanders has little sway over, say, an Eric Garcetti or a Mitch Landrieu or a Biden.

natesilver: Resistance, schmazistance. Bernie got 13 million votes in 2016. Isn’t he next in line for the Democratic nomination? Like, let’s not be too cute by putting Eric Garcetti in the same boat as BERNIE SANDERS?

harry: Hold on a second there. That’s not what I’m saying at all. You were saying Sanders dictated other people in and out of the race — your definition of a “front-runner.” I’m saying he won’t be dictating most people, including folks like Garcetti or Kamala Harris.

clare.malone: Seconded. I think Sanders is still considered enough of an obstinate outsider by a lot of the party, so certain money people and thought-leader people are likely to back another horse. (Ugh, “thought leader.”)

perry: Clinton got close to like 17 million votes. All of those people had a chance to vote for Sanders. I might suggest that many of them are more likely to vote for Biden (a more center-left Dem) than Sanders (a more left-left Dem).

natesilver: He’d hugely influence the strategy of someone like Harris, wouldn’t he? He’s the elephant in the room.

Harris would have to run around Sanders.

clare.malone: She’s not necessarily Bernie category, though. She’d play more into Clinton supporters while picking up a number of Bernie people, but certainly not all.

harry: The elephant in the room who is polling at less than half of what he got in 2016.

perry: I’m going to concede Nate’s basic point: Sanders starts out with a lot of supporters, donors, popularity, etc. He won 13 million more votes than any of these other people we are talking about.

natesilver: Harry, I see Sanders consistently polling at 20 percent and everyone else in the single digits. Doesn’t that data prove my point?

harry: I see Joe Biden consistently in double digits. Michelle Obama in double digits.

clare.malone: I think the Joe Biden thing is a little odd. I kind of can’t believe it will ultimately last. That’s my gut.

harry: Heck, Elizabeth Warren is double digits too.

clare.malone: Yeah. This is balkanized support.

natesilver: But she has barely more than half of Sanders’s support. And Sanders has run before and won a lot of votes before.

harry: If you’re going to use Sanders’s prior support, then why is he polling at less than half of what he got in 2016? Doesn’t that suggest that a lot of that support was merely anti-Clinton and not pro-Bernie?

natesilver: Because they’re polling a ballot with 14 candidates, whereas it was a two-horse race in 2016. I dare you to look up Sanders’s favorability ratings with Democrats, Harry!

harry: I dare you to look up Trump’s favorability ratings with Republicans even after he entered.

clare.malone: Cool impasse.

natesilver: I’m not sure why you’re being such a hipster about this, Harry. Sanders is really well liked among Democrats. He was second last time. He’s leading in the polls now. Isn’t it obvious that he’s the front-runner?

clare.malone: Can I point out the obvious?

Most people aren’t paying attention to this shit. So can we really call someone a front-runner in July 2017?

perry: I think Clinton was fine to call the front-runner in July 2013. I think I don’t see Sanders in anywhere near as strong of a position as Clinton was in July 2013.

harry: Are we talking about the favorite or the front-runner here, Nate?

clare.malone: Front-runner was the original parameter. But I think the GOP is actually the better comparison here. Because now the Dems are the fractured party.

harry: Clinton was polling in the 60s at this point in the 2016 cycle.

clare.malone: Who was the GOP front-runner in July 2013?

harry: It was a mess on the Republican side.

clare.malone: Right. A scrum.

harry: Everyone between 10 percent and 20 percent.

clare.malone: I think we’re more in that zone.

harry: That’s where I think we are too.

clare.malone: lol, Chris Christie was among the front-runners. Take a moment with that, folks.

perry: To Clare’s question, Rick Santorum was not the GOP front-runner for 2016 in July 2013, even though he had finished second in 2012. Sanders is somewhere between Clinton and Santorum, in terms of front-runner status. But I think closer to Clinton.

natesilver: So, I’m going try to turn from pointing out how wrong all of you guys are to asking some “neutral” questions as your moderator.

First question: Why do you all hate Bernie Sanders so much?

clare.malone: For the traffic.

perry: I think Sanders has some huge strengths. I think by the way you defined “front-runner,” I might call him the front-runner. I just think I would bet the field over Sanders in 2020, and I would have bet Clinton over the field this time in the 2016 cycle.

natesilver: OK, real next question. Yglesias argues that Sanders’s performance is especially impressive in 2016 because “nobody thought he could win” and so he had very little support from the Democratic establishment, including from groups such as unions that might ordinarily be in his camp. As a result, he would be even more formidable in 2020 — perhaps enough to win. Do you buy that or not?

clare.malone: I do not buy that, in part because of the Clinton factor, as Harry mentioned.

A lot of people just had knee-jerk non-support of her, and they drifted over to Sanders. On the establishment question — I think a lot of Democratic Party institutions still dislike him.

perry: I guess I don’t know 1. Was the Sanders vote a Sanders vote or an anti-Clinton vote? And 2. Is there something about Bernie that turns off Latino and in particular black voters, or can he grow in those two groups?

harry: I would say I think that Sanders does have room to grow. I think he could do very well with Latinos. He fought Clinton closely among them in some states.

perry: Yes, he can grow his support. I still think he will have trouble with upper-income and older liberals and blacks, which is why I think you will see lots of people seeing if they can fill those lanes.

clare.malone: I really don’t think we can discount the behind-the-scenes frustration at the Sanders campaign. I think there are a lot in the Dem establishment who want Bernie ideas in a non-Bernie package.

natesilver: That’s an interesting way to put it, Clare. Is that what Democratic voters want, though?

clare.malone: What bloc of Democratic voters are we most unsure of? Black voters who didn’t turn out, maybe? I think that’s why you need a different vessel. Someone who carries less of the historical animus of Sanders and has more appeal to more groups.

natesilver: I suppose what I’m getting at — and this is a rhetorical question, but you can answer it! — is was it actually a disadvantage for Sanders not to have the backing of the Democratic establishment in 2016?

To me, that seemed like one of his biggest advantages — grievances against Democratic elites — so a more establishment-ified version of Sanders might not click.

perry: So, I think that Warren is a more establishment-friendly version of Sanders.

clare.malone: Well, I think more of the Democratic mainstream has digested the Sanders-esque rhetoric post-election.

harry: What Sanders needs to figure out is how to do what he did and not lose black voters by a wide margin. The problem of course is black voters are the base of the Democratic Party — a base that seems OK with establishment candidates.

natesilver: Agree or disagree with the following SAT-style analogy?

Elizabeth Warren : Bernie Sanders :: Rand Paul : Ron Paul.

clare.malone: Agree. I wonder if they still ask SAT questions like that?

harry: Well. Hmm. I don’t remember Warren beating the Senate leader’s preferred choice in a Senate primary like Rand Paul did. But I get what you’re going for.

perry: Not really. I sort of see Warren as a much more establishment-friendly person than either of the Pauls. So I disagree.

clare.malone: I love how everyone in these chats redefines the rules. Remind me to never play parlor games with you guys.

natesilver: I suppose I mean the analogy in this way: Ron Paul, like Bernie, got a lot of credit from voters for perceived authenticity and for really being quite pioneering.

perry: The analogy will work there. Sanders is reportedly mad at Warren for endorsing HRC and not him.

natesilver: One of Yglesias’s points is that “Bernie Sanders has a clear message” — everyone knows what he stands for. Do you agree that everyone knows what Sanders stands for? And how much of an advantage is that?

clare.malone: It’s certainly a big one, particularly since the only thing that most Democrats can seem to come up with is just to rant against Trump.

perry: I think I see Sanders much more through demographics than message. He was really strong among independents who voted in the primary and people under 30, really weak with blacks, weak with self-identified moderates and stronger with liberals.

I think that by 2020, many Dems will be closer on ideology to Sanders than Clinton was. I think you will see more Democratic presidential candidates pushing for single-payer health care, taking on the wealthy and big banks, etc.

harry: I think he has a few clear messages and each can work. There’s the left-wing message. That works. There’s the change message that works with younger voters. I think you’d rather have older voters, however.

clare.malone: Yeah. I think his message appeals to older voters in the upper Midwest, middle-class people who feel disenchanted with the way the economy is going in their neck of the woods, who have sort of adopted an anti-establishmentism but aren’t Trumpian. But in general the Dems have been shifting left for decades, so the Sanders direction makes sense.

natesilver: Harry, why would you rather have older voters? Aren’t there a bunch of people who will be 18 in 2020, who were 14 in 2016, who are also going to be lefty/Sanders voters?

harry: Because older voters turn out reliably.

natesilver: You sound like those U.K. pollsters who didn’t give Jeremy Corbyn a chance.

harry: Hah. No. Look, if the polls show Sanders, it’ll be Sanders, in my mind.

clare.malone: This chat is really the greatest hits, isn’t it?

natesilver: I’m just saying it’s worth pointing out that nobody in “the media” gave Bernie a chance last time — and then he won.

harry: OK. That’s very funny. Nice.

perry: I think he has a great chance.

clare.malone: We’ve lost the original thread: front-runner. I think he has a good chance. I just don’t think it’s fair to say he has the clear better chance over any number of other people right now.

harry: Let me point out one other thing that goes back to Clare’s point. Much was made about the education divide in the GOP primary, but an economic divide certainly existed in the Democratic primary as well. It’s part of the reason Sanders did so well in West Virginia, for example. He connected for whatever reason with those who were less well-off.

natesilver: So let’s get back to the thread. There’s another age-related question I have. Bernie Sanders is 75. He’d be 79 if he were inaugurated as president in 2021. How much does that hurt his front-runner status?

clare.malone: The age question is a real one. I think it’s difficult to get around, no? Christie Aschwanden and I wrote about this vis-a-vis Trump/Clinton, the oldest (first-term) candidates ever.

natesilver: No president has been that old at the end of his term, let alone at the beginning.

perry: I think his age hurts him in part because of the perception of it. I think if he were 62 and had just run the campaign he did, he would be screening out lots of potential rivals. There would be almost no talk of Warren running, for example. Because he is older, I think there is some uncertainty about whether he will run. That creates openings for others.

harry: I think we need to see where his health is in 2019 to make this assessment.

natesilver: So let’s say that Sanders runs in 2019. And he’s in apparently good health. How will the age issue play? Will other Democrats bring it up? Will the media?

clare.malone: Yes, people will bring it up. We’re an ageist society!

natesilver: Is it really ageist, though? I’m someone who thinks the media doesn’t talk enough about the candidates’ mental fitness. (I know there are a lot of people on our staff who disagree.)

perry: I’m not sure. John McCain was on the older end in 2008. His rivals made lots of comments about his years in the Senate; they cast him as an insider. Obama did at times too. But I feel like Bernie has the image of an outsider. And I don’t think direct age comments play well.

clare.malone: I think this is a total question of fitness for office in the long term. People talk about it with judges. Why not with presidents??

harry: I think age is a totally legitimate question. But each person should be viewed individually, not merely dismissed because they are older. If Sanders is in good shape, then who are we to say?

natesilver: What’s the cutoff then, Harry? What if a 92-year-old in apparently good health ran for office? Would you vote for him/her?

harry: I don’t know what the cutoff is, Nathaniel. I think as a society what we view as old continues to change.

clare.malone: But those changes about mental acuity and health are more reasonable to apply to, say, Gen X candidates as they age.

harry: On a related topic, anyone want to comment on this?

clare.malone: Yeahhh. It ain’t good.

natesilver: I was just going to ask about that, Harry. How much of a problem is it for Sanders? For BERNIE Sanders, I should say.

For readers who haven’t read the story: Federal authorities are investigating allegedly inappropriate loans that Bernie Sanders’s wife, Jane Sanders, may have secured while she was president of Burlington College.

harry: If nothing else, it can be one heck of a distraction. It suggests that the Sanders clan may not be immune to dirty politics.

clare.malone: Bank fraud allegations aren’t a stellar thing to have out in the public eye, even if they’re being exaggerated, as Sanders spokesman Jeff Weaver is telling reporters.

perry: I think this is significant. Dems, after Clinton’s constant legal turmoil, I think are going to be somewhat wary of a candidate who might be investigated by the FBI during the campaign. Maybe not the Bernie core, but outside of that.

natesilver: Is it just me, or has there been very little discussion of these charges on Twitter and elsewhere in the media?

clare.malone: You are correct. I think it’s the fact that Trump is just so big right now with the Russia stuff?

natesilver: I think it also illustrates something else, though: Nobody really has an incentive to go after Sanders. Left-leaning Democrats obviously don’t. Establishment Democrats want to bridge the divide with the left. The media has more pressing stories. And Republicans have better things to worry about.

But all of that will change if he’s actually the Democratic front-runner, no?

perry: I think that’s true, but kind of appropriate. 1. I think this Jane Sanders story would be covered more if it were July 2019 and Sanders were running for president. 2. I think the lack of coverage kind of confirms that the media, rightly or wrongly, may not see Sanders as the Democratic front-runner for 2020. I think if Clinton had a controversy like this in July 2013, it would have been covered much more extensively.

natesilver: We should start to wind this up soon. My position is that Sanders is the front-runner for 2020, but not necessarily the favorite — in part because the more of a front-runner he truly is, the more that potential liabilities such as his age and the Jane Sanders investigation will loom over him. Have I convinced any of you about the favorite/front-runner distinction?

clare.malone: No.

natesilver: Haha.

clare.malone: But I enjoyed the exchange of ideas as always, Nate.

I hold fast to the stance that I’m still not sure he’s risen to an appreciable degree above the rest of the 2020 rat pack.

perry: Totally convinced. But I think most people mean favorite when they talk about upcoming campaigns.

natesilver: Are any of you — including you, Harry — willing to go on the record as naming someone who is more likely than Bernie Sanders to win the 2020 Democratic nomination?

clare.malone: Wow, that young buck Mark Zuckerberg is just such a natural with other human beings.

harry: No. There are people I think are equal, like Biden.

perry: No, I would not say any single individual is more likely. So that’s why I would say you and Matt Yglesias have established something important. Bernie is ahead right now.

natesilver: He’s a vulnerable front-runner, not a Clinton-esque front-runner, but also not a Jeb Bush FAKE NEWS front-runner.

perry: Agree.

harry: I go back to what I said at the beginning. Sanders’s big problem is that the other candidates combined have a such a high chance of winning that I cannot consider him a favorite or front-runner.

clare.malone: OK, let’s close this up. Harry and I are right.

natesilver: So to conclude, Harry Enten and Clare Malone think Bernie Sanders is Jeb Bush.

clare.malone: Please clap for that expert conclusion.

harry: I think Nate Silver is Jeb Bush.

clare.malone: Let’s start the Empiricist Party and run Nate in 2020.

perry: What I would say more broadly is that discussion has been clarifying for me. I think I don’t take Sanders that seriously as a 2020 candidate. And after running through this, I think his age is huge, in a way I had not realized. It invites others to run against him. It suggests he may not run himself. And it will be a campaign issue.

natesilver: And let’s end on that note. Thanks, everyone.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.