Most corporate media horse race coverage focuses in on traditional metrics; donations, money on hand, endorsements/institutional support, and polling of likely voters. It always worked before 2016, and in an industry where the Chinese adage, “The nail that sticks up, gets hammered down,” is the guiding editorial principal, careerist journos are slow to change their methods even in the face of overwhelming evidence that those methods are outdated and useless in the face of a rising populist wave. It’s a big part of the reason that they never saw Trump coming, and it’s the reason they underestimate the very real possibility that Sanders will take Iowa and New Hampshire. Here’s why:
Sanders probably has anywhere from 3%-10% support that doesn’t show up in polling of “Likely Voters.” That’s because for polling purposes, “Likely Voters,” are defined as those who have voted in the past. That’s fine for measuring the support of Joe Biden, who sure as hell isn’t going to motivate anyone who hasn’t voted before to start voting now, but it’s completely inadequate for measuring the support of populist candidates, whose pitch is essentially, “Yes, you’re right, this whole system is rotten, and if you vote for me, I’m going to take it on.” That appeal is aimed squarely at turning out people who have given up on the political system and therefore don’t generally vote. Because they don’t vote, they’re invisible in most of the polling. That’s why in 2016 Sanders repeatedly outperformed his poll numbers, most notably in Michigan, where polls showed him trailing by 20 points, while he went on to win the state by 1.5%. This reality also flips the “endorsements” metric on its head. For a candidate like Sanders, an endorsement from Nancy Pelosi would be the kiss of death. For his purposes, the more antipathy he receives from the party establishment, the more non-voters and independents he’ll be able to turn out.
In the past, measuring the money race meant measuring corporate donations and the haul from high-dollar fundraisers. Even at the beginning of the 2020 cycle, a lot of corporate media coverage focused in on Harris, Beto, and Buttigeig’s traditional fundraising prowess. That was fine when Democratic party voters were still bowing their heads to party leadership, and, more or less, following their signals about who to support. Until 2016, a primary in which actual voters were allowed to participate was a formality; the “shadow primary” in which big donors, and party big wigs made up their minds about acceptable candidates long before the Iowa caucuses got underway were paramount. This process reached its logical conclusion when, in 2016, party insiders decided they didn’t really need the illusion of a competitive primary, and anointed Hillary Clinton alone to be their candidate, with disastrous results. Sanders changed all that, not only by challenging Clinton without the blessing of ‘The People Who Matter,’ but also by going on to out-raise corporate-funded Clinton with an army of small-dollar donors. To make matters worse, in the course of doing so he was impolitic enough to point out the obvious: corporate donors aren’t writing big checks because of their altruism - they expect a return on investment. As a result, traditionally funded candidates like Biden are between a rock and a hard place. With policies that are far too centrist to inspire much devotion from the kinds of people who would donate online, they’re forced to rely on corporate donors, which in turn opens up an easy and effective line of attack for populists like Sanders. Relying on large donations also puts a candidate at a strategic disadvantage when they’re running against a small-dollar funded candidate. Once a donor has maxed out at $2700 (the legal limit), they can’t give again, while millions of people donating small amounts can just keep on giving. That’s a big part of the reason why Biden’s fundraising numbers have plummeted, even as Sanders’ have held steady. Thus, the important metrics in a post-2016 world aren’t the number of successful Wall Street fundraisers held by a candidate, but the number of individual donors, the overall amount of money raised, and the cash the campaign has on hand. Sanders not only leads in all three of those categories; in the first and arguably most electorally important, he more than doubles his next closest competitor, Elizabeth Warren.
Sanders has so far held the biggest rallies of the campaign, both overall, and specifically in Iowa. Not only does this reinforce the case that there’s a hidden Sanders vote on the ground that doesn’t show up in the polls, but it also demonstrates that Sanders’ base is the most likely to actually put in the effort to vote for their candidate. If you’ll drag yourself to a packed rally and stand on your feet through several hours of speeches, chances are you’ll drag yourself down to the polling station and wait on line when it comes time to vote. This is especially important in a caucus state like Iowa, where voting isn’t a simple matter of pulling a lever, but an all evening affair of not only supporting, but advocating for your candidate. Aside from all that, Sanders hit his target goal of 1M volunteers by the end of February. That number is likely to be considerably higher now. No other candidate has anything even roughly comparable to Sanders’ volunteer operation and that’s going to make a ‘yuuuuge’ difference in GOTV efforts.
The conventional wisdom is that Mayor Pete’s rise in the polls will hurt Biden. That’s true to a degree, but the person with the most to lose from Buttigeig’s recent surge is Elizabeth Warren. Although Sanders and Warren are usually lumped together in the public mind, they’re actually drawing from very different pools of voters. Sanders’ voters are more diverse, more working class and younger, while Warren and Buttigeig are most popular with college-educated whites. Consequently, a lot of Warren’s base are open to considering Mayor Pete, while Sanders voters soundly reject him. This dynamic can only help Sanders and hurt Warren going into Iowa. To make matters worse for Warren, with Deval Patrick running, some of her neighboring-state-advantage in New Hampshire will be blunted. Patrick’s entry is also bad news for Biden, given the former’s close relationship with Obama, and the widely held belief that he got in the race with Obama’s blessing. That’s going to peel away some of the establishment Democrats for whom an Obama endorsement is something akin to a Papal Bull. With an already shaky, low-enthusiasm campaign, and Patrick’s support coming largely at his expense, its hard to imagine a scenario where Biden takes either of the first two states. With Warren wounded and Biden bleeding, Sanders probably comes out on top.
There are other, less tangible factors that I haven’t explored, like the fact that the Democratic party electorate seems to be growing more disenchanted with its leadership every day, and the way that the more that leadership panics at the prospect of even a Warren victory, much less a Sanders one, the more strategic blunders they seem to be making, like throwing yet more candidates at the problem. It’s really like watching a long-despised aristocracy that’s been far too removed from the public for far too long to understand its mood, trying to justify its own existence, but having no idea of how not to add fuel to the fire with their every utterance. The parade of billionaires, including soon to be candidate Bloomberg, going on TV of late to argue the virtues of unrestrained capitalism, feels something like watching Louis XIV argue the case for the Divine Right of Kings, circa 1788. All this will benefit the Sanders campaign greatly, at which point, if you think the establishment is freaking out now, you ain’t seen nothing yet.