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Biden vs. Sanders: Democrats’ front-runners strengthen their positions

Essential Politics
(Los Angeles Times)

Ardent supporters of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders don’t agree on much, but do concur on one prediction — the other guy would lose to President Trump.

Democrats had better hope that they’re not both right.

As the primary campaign passes the one-year mark and moves into the final stretch before voting begins early next month, the two septuagenarians appear to be strengthening their positions as their leading rivals fire away at one another.

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But although each has proved to be a far more durable candidate than many people predicted, neither has answered the central question about his campaign. Here’s a look at where the race stands as the candidates turn to the finish.

Sanders: Ardent, but limited, support

On Thursday, Sanders once again demonstrated his most powerful political asset — the huge army of supporters who back him and fuel his campaign.

As the fourth-quarter fundraising period ended, the Vermont senator reported that he had received donations from more than 1.8 million people so far in his campaign. He raised $34.5 million in the final three months of the year, an increase of almost $12 million from the third quarter, from a donor pool that included about 300,000 new contributors.

Sanders did not disclose how much cash his campaign has on hand. But the fact that so many of his donors give small amounts and are able to contribute over and over each month without hitting the $2,800 federal donation limit virtually guarantees him the resources to continue his campaign as long as he wants, much as he did in 2016, as Seema Mehta reported.

That ardent support, especially from younger voters, is Sanders’ political superpower. The question for him, just as it was in the last campaign, is whether he can expand beyond that core. So far, he hasn’t shown that he can.

The profile of a Sanders voter hasn’t changed much since the campaign against Hillary Clinton four year ago. He does best with the young, the politically disaffected and those on the party’s left.

That’s been enough to get him to just under 20% of the vote in national polls — an average that has barely budged for months and which wasn’t enough to get him over the top in 2016.

Moreover, Sanders’ profile as the tribune of the party’s left deeply worries more moderate Democrats, who fear he would scare off centrist voters.

He’s been hurt by a raft of recent polls showing him losing to — and Biden beating — Trump in hypothetical matchups in key states including Wisconsin, Florida and Virginia.

Biden stabilizes, but can he inspire?

Those polls — and others like them — have been at the center of Biden’s pitch to Democrats for months: Some other candidate may have your heart, but in your head, you know Biden can win, his campaign argues.

For much of the summer and into the early fall, however, Biden repeatedly undermined that pitch. His lackluster debate performances and tepid campaign events raised doubts about whether he had the energy or nimbleness to wage a successful campaign against Trump.

By November, those doubts had become widespread enough that they provided an excuse for Michael Bloomberg to indulge himself and jump into the race.

The former New York City mayor’s strategy of skipping the earliest primaries depends on Biden doing badly enough in those contests that Bloomberg can pitch himself to moderate voters as their only hope in the March 3 primaries in California and more than a dozen other states.

But, despite many predictions that his campaign was headed inexorably downward, Biden has stabilized. In recent weeks, he won compliments for his performance at the December debate. He has seemed more confident in campaign appearances, and the $22.7 million he raised in the fourth quarter showed a big improvement over his third-quarter fundraising. His support has ticked back upward a bit in several national polls.

And even at his low points, Biden, like Sanders, retained a strong core of support — in his case, mostly older voters, including a majority of African Americans and a large share of blue-collar Democrats. Those aren’t voters likely to be easy targets for a billionaire candidate like Bloomberg, despite the millions he’s spending on television ads.

The unanswered question for Biden is the mirror image of the one Sanders faces: If he becomes the nominee, can he inspire a large turnout of younger voters of the sort that played a key role in Democratic victories in the 2018 midterm elections?

Biden has a clearer path to the nomination than Sanders — he starts with a larger base, doesn’t face the same level of antipathy from the party’s establishment, and appeals to the many Democrats who put defeating Trump ahead of all other priorities in this election year.

His strong support from African American voters makes him a favorite in many primaries, especially in the South, much as Clinton was in 2016. But a truly bad outcome in Iowa — coming in a poor third or worse, for example — would reignite all the worries about him. He may not need to win the Feb. 3 caucus, but he needs to do well enough to claim a victory of sorts.

Who gets the third ticket?

For the last several months, a large number of voters, especially college-educated whites, who were unenthusiastic about both Biden and Sanders have cycled through a series of other candidates to latch onto.

Sen. Kamala Harris had her moment but was unable to sustain it.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts gained support steadily through the summer and early fall, but stumbled badly after coming under attack from her rivals and has been trying to regain her momentum, as Janet Hook wrote last month. Warren raised just over $21 million in the fourth quarter, a decline from the previous three months but still enough to keep her campaign healthy through Iowa.

Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., had a spike in support during the fall, which was enough to generate $24.7 million in donations in the fourth quarter — a total second only to Sanders’. But he, too, has slipped in polls more recently.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has languished toward the back of the pack all year, but her supporters hope that she’s about to become hot at just the right time, especially in Iowa, where her appeal as a fellow Midwesterner should help the most. The $11.4 million she raised in the final three months of the year is more than double what she collected in the third quarter.

Andrew Yang also raised an impressive amount — $16.5 million — although he’s not shown that he can attract voters to match his donor numbers.

Other candidates, including Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, who dropped out of the race this week, have failed to catch fire.

Strategists for many of the candidates have said for months that there were three tickets out of Iowa, which holds the first contest of the nominating season on Feb. 3. If Biden and Sanders take two of those, which seems probable, Iowa could drive most of the others out of the race.

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War with Iran?

U.S. elections don’t usually turn on foreign policy issues — even ones that grab huge headlines. But Trump’s decision to authorize a military strike to kill Qassem Suleimani, one of the most senior officials in the Iranian government, added yet another unpredictable element to the election year.

The decision to kill Suleimani amounted to a huge gamble for Trump, as Tracy Wilkinson, Chris Megerian and Melissa Etehad wrote. The president has indulged in fiery rhetoric but generally stayed away from military actions that might draw the U.S. into new wars, especially in the Mideast.

Administration officials appear to be assuming that Iran will shy away from a direct fight with the U.S. and will retaliate in only a limited way. Many outside analysts doubt that will be the case.

As Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, the attack will dominate debate on Capitol Hill at least in the short term, and may complicate the decision on when to schedule a Senate trial of Trump’s impeachment.

In the longer run, the political impact is likely to depend on events that haven’t happened yet.

In this politically polarized era, one of the few things that partisans on both sides agree on is opposition to Iran. In their statements criticizing Trump’s decision, Democrats were notably careful to label Suleimani as an enemy who deserved his fate.

At the same time, as Trump knows, the American public has grown weary of endless wars in the Mideast. Trump campaigned on his opposition to such wars — insisting that he opposed the Iraq war when it started, although no evidence has ever surfaced to back up that claim.

Until this week, he has consistently tried to avoid acts that might enmesh the U.S. more deeply in fighting in the region. Trump has hoped to run for reelection touting economic prosperity at home and an end to wars overseas. The killing of Suleimani could make that latter claim impossible to fulfill.

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