Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

Bernie Sanders Has the Momentum

Bernie Sanders has won three out of the first four primary contests. He has the momentum going into Super Tuesday tomorrow — not Joe Biden.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders talks to reporters at the Doubletree Hotel March 2, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

When the Democratic candidates for president held their first debate last June, there were so many people on stage that the event had to be split into two nights. In his post-game analysis in the New York Times, Frank Bruni only mentioned Bernie Sanders in sentences about the “Sanders and Warren” wing of the Democratic party. Bruni clearly thought that the “Sanders and” part was about to become a thing of the past. Warren’s “passion and confidence should petrify Bernie Sanders,” Bruni wrote, “whose song she sings better than he does.”

In September, Nate Silver was arguing that it was misleading to speak of Biden, Sanders, and Warren as the “top three” candidates in the field instead of just talking about Biden and Warren as the “top two.” (His original pick for the pair of candidates most likely to win was Biden and Kamala Harris.) As late as January, Silver was projecting an outright majority in pledged delegates … for Joe Biden.

If someone had told Silver or Bruni any time last year that, although the field would remain fairly crowded, Bernie Sanders would garner the most votes in the first three states and come in second in South Carolina, they would have dismissed it as the fantasy of a deluded Bernie Bro. Even the average Sanders supporter probably would have considered it a bit too optimistic. But that’s exactly what has happened.

Despite this remarkable string of Sanders successes, parts of the mainstream media have been hyping up Joe Biden’s single win as if he were the one to wildly exceed expectations. The New York Times’s headline about Saturday’s South Carolina primary (since changed) spoke of the Biden campaign “vaulting” back to life. Julia Manchester wrote in the Hill about Biden’s “new momentum” going into Super Tuesday.

We can’t test these claims empirically — the gap between South Carolina and tomorrow’s batch of primaries is too short to conduct any new polling. But that doesn’t mean we’re completely in the dark about who has the momentum going forward. We can make some reasonable inferences based on the overall state of the race.

First and most obviously, Bernie Sanders remains the frontrunner by every conventional metric. He’s prevailed in three times as many states as Biden, and he’s leading in the delegate count. The only candidate besides Biden and Bernie with a significant number of delegates is Pete Buttigieg, and since Mayor Pete has dropped out, his twenty-six delegates will only be relevant to the nomination process in the event of a misguided attempt to override the democratic mandate of primary voters in the second round of a brokered convention. While it doesn’t guarantee anything, Bernie’s frontrunner status gives him a tremendous advantage going into Super Tuesday tomorrow.

Second, Sanders is by far the most pro-labor frontrunner in the history of either major party. He’s pledged to be the “organizer in chief,” working to double union membership across the country by the end of his first term. Even though some national unions have either backed his rivals or declined to endorsing anyone, a steady stream of locals have gone ahead and supported Bernie. In Nevada, when the leadership of the crucially important Culinary Union denounced the Sanders campaign based on the flawed argument that Medicare for All would take away their members’ union health plan, the rank and file defied the leadership and helped hand Bernie a stunning double-digit victory.

Some of the states that vote on Super Tuesday have an even higher percentage of unionized workers than Nevada. California, for example, has a union density of 14.7 percent — one of the highest rates in the nation. Crucially, all of the states that vote on Super Tuesday have more union workers than South Carolina.

Third, Sanders is going into Super Tuesday with a tremendous advantage in grassroots organization and, crucially, fundraising. Plutocrats anxious to find a centrist to stop Sanders may be directing more of their cash to Biden, but that would only start showing itself in the race after Super Tuesday — at which point Sanders could already have racked up enough wins to make the money moot.

More could be added to this nuts-and-bolts analysis of Sanders’s horse-race advantages. (For example, the Vermont senator has long done well among Latino voters, who will be important in delegate-rich states like California and Texas.) But the final and most important point is about the ideological dynamics of the race. Even if he isn’t currently at the height of his powers, Biden is a skillful politician with a knack for assuring ordinary people that he’s on their team despite doing the bidding of credit card companies and private prisons. Even so, when it comes to the question of whether South Carolina represented Biden “vaulting back to life” with “new momentum,” we need to ask whose platform is most likely to energize voters going forward.

Every Sanders supporter knows what “Medicare for All” means and why their candidate backs it. They know what the “Green New Deal” is and why it matters. If Biden voters were presented with quotes on health care or environmental policy from Biden and Bloomberg, or Biden and Mayor Pete, and given a political Pepsi Challenge, I’d be amazed if half could attribute the right plan to the right candidate.

In his South Carolina victory speech, Biden only talked about policy in vague generalities. His real focus was Bernie Sanders, who he attacked relentlessly. Biden assured the crowd that he’s a “lifelong Democrat” who won’t “raise taxes” on the middle class, before asserted that “most Americans don’t want a revolution.”

We’ll find out what primary voters in the Super Tuesday states want soon enough. One thing we do know is that Biden isn’t even pretending to offer them a meaningful alternative to Bernie Sanders’s political revolution.