Can Bernie Sanders Avoid A Sophomore Slump In 2020?

Progressives who backed the Vermont senator in the 2016 presidential race have lots more options this time -- like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who's inching up in polls.

BERLIN, N.H. ― After several fairly routine questions about health care and the environment at a town hall here in the northernmost city in New Hampshire, a frustrated Bernie Sanders supporter stood up and demanded to know why the Vermont senator had not yet taken a more aggressive posture toward his Democratic presidential rivals.

“Your opponents, to be blunt, have stolen all your ideas,” the man complained. “Why are you not calling them out for taking your ideas?”

Sanders declined to take the bait. The 2020 candidate, wrapping up a two-day swing through the northern part of the Granite State, a rugged, rural area that stretches up to Canada, relished the fact that several of his competitors have also backed populist proposals like “Medicare for All” and a $15 minimum wage. 

“I’m not going to call them out. I’m proud of it!” Sanders responded, garnering applause. “People can decide for themselves, and what the primary process is about is what candidate do you trust the most? And that’s what you have to decide.” 

Four years ago, New Hampshire voters put Sanders on the national map and catapulted him into a heated primary contest against the establishment favorite, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Now the senator has to repeat his strong performance in the first-in-the-nation primary, eight days after the Iowa caucuses, if he has any chance of making it to the convention next summer.

Unlike in 2016, however, Sanders is facing several well-funded opponents who are battling with him for front-runner status in the early nominating states ― some of whom are running for president for the first time. (Former Vice President Joe Biden is currently leading the polls.) The progressive firebrand who took the left by storm several years ago still has his loyal supporters, of course, but he no longer has the “it” factor of four years ago. He’s still railing against the political establishment and the “corporate media,” but his radical ideas on job security, health care and education don’t seem so radical anymore, at least among a significant chunk of the Democratic Party ― something he acknowledged this week on the campaign trail.

Though it’s still relatively early in the race, the possibility of a sophomore slump has left some supporters worried.

“I think Americans have very short attention spans, so to speak,” said Jim Rouillard, a retiree from Wolfeboro. “Wanting the new flavor all the time, you know? Whereas Bernie has changed very little. I’m disappointed that he’s not the front-runner as I felt he was [in 2016].”

Sen. Bernie Sanders holds a town hall in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, on Monday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders holds a town hall in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, on Monday.

Sanders has gotten off to an impressive start, though. He’s raised more money and has more donors than any other candidate in the Democratic primary. Unlike other candidates who have relied on high-dollar fundraisers, his strength lies in a steady stream of contributions from small donors across the country, ensuring he’ll likely stick around for a while. 

During the second presidential debate in Detroit, Sanders fended off criticism by bottom-tier candidates, such as former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, who hammered him over the potential cost of his universal health care plan. The performance earned him the biggest post-debate polling bump, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.

Sanders’ campaign highlighted those points in a call with reporters on Monday, pushing back on the notion, fueled by some recent polling data, that his bid for the presidency had begun to flounder. A Monmouth University poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa released last week, for example, showed Sanders slipping into fourth place in the Hawkeye State.

“We’re sort of in the phase called the ‘Bernie write-off,’” senior campaign adviser Jeff Weaver said on the call before his team disputed the poll. “There seems to be a direct correlation between the media coverage of the polls and Bernie Sanders’s standing in those polls.”

In New Hampshire, a state Sanders won by 22 percentage points in 2016, he is currently trailing Biden by 4 points, according to a Suffolk University/Boston Globe survey released earlier this month. Warren, meanwhile, is close behind him in third place. However, 58% of those surveyed said that they may yet change their minds before the primary, suggesting the state is still up for grabs.

At four Q&A events in the state on Monday and Tuesday, Sanders spoke in front of hundreds of supporters, many of whom thanked him for jumping into the race once again. Some expressed concerns about the Democratic National Committee putting its thumb on the scale against him, a source of bitterness among his most ardent backers that remains from 2016.

But Sanders seemed more interested in doubling down on a strategy that has worked well for him: attacking the media and the political establishment. Again and again on the stump this week, the senator took digs at news organizations for their coverage ― or perceived non-coverage ― of various issues, such as income inequality. He even suggested at one point that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, negatively influenced coverage of his campaign by the newspaper.

“Maybe we helped raise the minimum wage at Amazon to $15 as well. Maybe that’s why The Washington Post is not endeared with me, I don’t know,” Sanders said at a town hall in Wolfeboro on Monday.

The unsubstantiated charge invited comparisons to President Donald Trump, who often rails against the media over perceived negative coverage of his administration, and he even drew a rebuke from the Post’s executive editor.

Sanders’ media-bashing stems from his belief that the press didn’t take him seriously and did not give him fair coverage during the 2016 campaign. This time around, however, the media could play the role of a villain in his campaign even more than four years ago, given the efforts the DNC has made to appear neutral in the primary and the diminished role of superdelegates.

“I think his message is being essentially filtered out by a hostile media,” said Michael Bloomer, a New Hampshire native who studies at Stanford, echoing the candidate at a town hall in Wolfeboro. “Like, I don’t know how you can watch that debate where you have [CNN host] Jake Tapper just shouting, ‘Thank you, senator. Thank you, senator. Now, Mr. Delaney, can you tell us about how Mr. Sanders wants to raise taxes.’ I mean they were totally setting him up.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) holds a Q&A event in Littleton, New Hampshire.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) holds a Q&A event in Littleton, New Hampshire.

But other supporters say they’ve become disillusioned by Sanders’ style and are turning to something fresh.

“He cut a swath in 2016, he changed the language, he changed people’s thinking, he opened up excitement,” said Carlotta Hayes, a yoga teacher who worked on Sanders’ last presidential bid but now helps run Marianne Williamson’s presidential campaign office in downtown Concord, New Hampshire.

“I think this thing,” she added, mimicking the Vermont senator’s characteristic finger-pointing, “is good for so long. It’s a one tone emotion. Marianne has a range of speaking that’s very compelling. It’s sincere.”

The biggest threat to Sanders’ candidacy may be Warren, the other progressive star in the race who has slowly inched forward in the polls thanks to a pair of good debate performances and a flood of policy proposals.

Both candidates drew among the largest crowds of all the field at this year’s Iowa State Fair over the weekend, a mandatory stop for presidential candidates looking to connect with caucus-goers, even though they have distinctly different styles when engaging voters. For example, while Warren enjoys taking selfies with supporters after campaign events, the characteristically prickly Sanders clearly does not. He did so at just one stop in New Hampshire on Tuesday, rarely saying more than one or two words to supporters in line waiting to pose for a photo.

With Biden in the lead, the informal non-aggression pact between Sanders and Warren, who are friends, has held steady. But it’s not clear for how long nor who will benefit if it ultimately breaks out into an all-out war.  

“When you have Bernie having just talked about it for so long, that to me suggests that this is something he is just fundamentally committed to. I’m not saying Warren won’t support people to have health care, but it might just mean it’s not her priority when she’s in office,” Jeremy Mele, a Maine native who works as a library aide, said at his Wolfeboro rally on Monday.

Warren also made a stop in northern New Hampshire on Wednesday, taking questions at a town hall in Franconia, which counts a little over 1,000 residents. The senator from Massachusetts drew about 700 attendees to an event overlooking the state’s picturesque White Mountains ― a bigger crowd than at either event for Sanders earlier in the week. She pitched her plan to make sure every U.S. home has a fiber broadband connection at an affordable cost, an issue that resonated with voters in the audience.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigns in Franconia, New Hampshire, on Wednesday.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigns in Franconia, New Hampshire, on Wednesday.

Neil Brody, a real estate company owner from Bethlehem, New Hampshire, said he preferred Warren to Sanders, whom he backed in the 2016 election, because she is “a little more energetic.”

“She comes off a little more younger. She’s better at explaining things. She tells a better story. Bernie just says it,” Brody explained after her event on Wednesday.

Winning over rural parts of the state like Franconia will be crucial to Warren’s chances of catching up to Biden and Sanders, but it won’t be easy, according to Grafton County Democratic Party Chair Sarah Daniels-Campbell.

“You have people that have moved to other candidates, but I think he still has an enormous base in this part of New Hampshire,” Daniels-Campbell said. 

The two progressive standard-bearers are taking a wide stance around each other as they campaign for the Democratic nomination, distinguishing themselves stylistically and leaving it to voters to decide for themselves whom to support. But that could change, especially if Sanders’ base of support erodes significantly in a state that played such a big role in his political fortunes.

Sanders declined another opportunity to attack Warren at a town hall in North Conway earlier in the week, for example, after a voter asked the presidential contender why New Hampshire should support him over his Senate colleague. 

“Elizabeth is a friend of mine, and you will make that decision yourself,” the senator stressed as he quickly moved on to another question.