A few weeks ago, the mainstream media narrative about Bernie Sanders ran like this: Sanders appeals to a very limited audience in the Democratic Party and therefore cannot win the nomination. In the early caucus and primary states he leads the pack nowhere. Mayor Pete Buttigieg could win Iowa, and Elizabeth Warren may take New Hampshire, but Joe Biden will win all the rest. So little attention was being paid to the Vermont Senator that Sanders’ supporters began to talk about a “Bernie Blackout”.
Fast forward to the first weeks of January 2020 and everything has changed.
The mainstream media is full of articles about Sanders and the increasing likelihood that he will win two or even three of the first four states to vote. There is even some discussion of who he might pick for Vice President (most are betting on Elizabeth Warren), and speculation about his cabinet (current and former leaders of the teachers, nurses and communications workers unions are being mentioned).
What Sanders will do in his first 100 days in office – indeed, what he’ll do on day one – are now the subject of serious media speculation.
What changed? Why has the prospect of a Sanders presidency suddently begun to appear realistic?
There are two reasons for this, I think.
First of all, the new opinion polls coming out are very encouraging for Sanders’ supporters.
First of all, the “gold standard” Des Moines Register poll which asks Iowa voters how they will cast their ballots in the first state to vote now shows Sanders – for the very time – with a clear lead. Buttigieg, who had been doing well, has floundered and lost support. As Iowa is a caucus state, meaning voters have to show up for a meeting, well-organised, grassroots campaigns with genuine enthusiasm do well here. In 2016, the then-unknown Sanders shocked the Democratic Party establishment by coming within a hair’s breadth of Hillary Clinton. (He went on to decisively beat her a week later in New Hampshire.)
Meanwhile, the RealClearPolitics average of polls now shows Sanders with a clear lead over all the other candidates in the New Hampshire primary.
In other words, it looks increasingly likely that Sanders will win the first two states to vote, which will create a new media narrative – and increase Sanders’ chances in the next two states, Nevada and South Carolina. Sanders polls close behind Biden in Nevada, a state with a powerful trade union movement and many Latino voters, which works to Sanders’ benefit.
The other thing that’s awakened media interest in Bernie Sanders is that journalists have suddenly remembered how Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016. Up against a large field of well-known establishment politicians – including one who was the son and brother of Republican presidents – he ran an unorthodox campaign that managed to defeat not only each of his individual rivals, but also attempts at a more general “Stop Trump” effort.
People who thing that the Democratic Party machine – elements of which really detest Sanders and are keen to see him defeated – will have any better luck may be deluding themselves. At the moment, if someone like Hillary Clinton were to come out with a strong attack on Sanders, it would likely strengthen his chances.
None of this means that Sanders is going to be the next President of the United States. What it does mean is that there is a clear path to victory.
When Sanders was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he hung a photo of Eugene V. Debs, the great American Socialist leader of the early 20th century, in city hall. As a U.S. Senator, he proudly displays a plaque about Debs in his office. The possibility of a portrait of Debs in the Oval Office has long been unimaginable.
But it now may become a reality.
• Eric Lee is the organiser of “London for Bernie”, and writes this column in a personal capacity.