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Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders watch as primary election results are shown on television during a Super Tuesday rally in Essex Junction, Vermont, on March 3, 2020.
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Why Sanders didn’t replicate Trump’s upset primary victory

Both were outsiders challenging party establishments. But only one of them won.

For a few brief weeks in February 2020, it looked to many as if Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign would follow the path of Donald Trump’s.

Sanders, an outsider candidate disliked by the party establishment, was leading national polls with around 30 percent of his party’s electorate — just like Trump. Sanders performed strongly in the early states, and the rest of the crowded field seemed hopelessly divided.

But while Trump parlayed those early victories into an overall triumph in the GOP nomination contest, Sanders did not. Instead, Joe Biden surged, winning South Carolina, most states after that, and a near-insurmountable delegate lead. American politics has since been consumed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has made even holding more in-person primaries controversial and dangerous, but Sanders essentially lost the race before that happened.

So why did Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party succeed, while Sanders’s hostile takeover of the Democratic Party failed? Sanders seemed like he was running away with the nomination in February. Was he doomed by events and chance — or was his path to the nomination less plausible than it briefly seemed?

When a campaign loses, finger-pointing about tactical and strategic missteps always ensues — and that process has already started for Sanders’s team. Some are claiming Sanders blew it, though there are different diagnoses of what he did wrong: for instance, his failing to win over black voters, neglecting to mend fences with the party establishment, or declining to go negative enough against Biden.

But, of course, there were larger differences between the situation Sanders faced and the one Trump faced. Biden, though he often seemed like a weak candidate, had advantages that none of Trump’s rivals enjoyed. Democratic elites belatedly but effectively threw their support behind Biden, while the GOP establishment failed to do the same for one of Trump’s rivals.

Trump also overwhelmingly dominated in media coverage to a degree that Sanders never did. And, if you’re a believer in “momentum,” the fact that Trump won the final primary before Super Tuesday and Sanders didn’t may loom large. The debate over which of these factors was most decisive will clearly continue for some time, but here’s an initial rundown of some possibilities.

Trump built a national lead before the early states. Sanders didn’t.

Before getting into what happened in the crucial early-state month of February 2020, we should discuss what happened before then — because Sanders’s position in the race was very different from Trump’s.

Going into their respective races, Trump was a political neophyte but a national celebrity, while Sanders was the runner-up from the Democrats’ previous contest.

Donald Trump shakes hands and signs autographs with his supporters after speaking at a campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio, on November 23, 2015.
Ty Wright/Getty Images

But Trump managed to surge to first place in national polls quickly after he entered the race in the summer of 2015 — and he retained that lead ever after, leading up to the early-state contests. Sanders, in contrast, was in second place behind Joe Biden for most of 2019, and briefly fell to third behind Elizabeth Warren as well.

Both Sanders and Trump faced a crowded field of more than a dozen candidates. But within that field, Trump’s share of support in polls improved for most of 2015 and early 2016. He went from leading with 18 percent nationally in the summer to 36 percent in the month before Iowa.

Sanders, on the other hand, was stagnant for much of 2019. He polled between 15 and 19 percent nationally through the second half that year. He did surge in January 2020, but not all that much — he improved to 22 percent before Iowa. And there are a few apparent reasons for these differing trajectories:

  • Media coverage: Trump received an extraordinary amount of media coverage, because he constantly delivered an array of provocations and outrageous statements that drew ratings and clicks. Sanders, of course, did no such thing, and got no such coverage. Indeed, the most Democratic-leaning major cable news channel, MSNBC, seemed notably hostile to Sanders (though, of course, much of Trump’s coverage was hostile as well).
  • The electorate’s priorities: Trump potently exploited the issue of immigration and delivered a sharp critique of the GOP establishment, and Republican voters proved receptive to this message. But in 2020, many Democratic voters have seemed most concerned about “electability” — who can beat Trump — and, as Sanders recently admitted, he hasn’t won that argument. (Trump, for his part, won the electability argument in 2016, convincing GOP voters he was a “winner.”)
  • Strength of the opposition: Trump faced several prominent Republican politicians who were viewed either as stalwarts or rising stars in the party — Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker. But even before Trump entered the race, none of them had broken away in national polls. In 2020, things looked quite different — Biden led early on and for most of the race. Though many political insiders had doubts about his candidacy, Biden’s stature as a former vice president made him a top choice for voters throughout the year.

Of course, there is no national primary. But all these numbers show that the pre-Iowa phase of the campaign went much better for Trump than it did for Sanders. That means that while Trump won early states, he was trying to consolidate and build on a national advantage he’d had for some time.

Sanders, meanwhile, was trying to grab a new national lead with his early-state victories — a lead that, once he got, he’d have to protect. And that’s a more difficult challenge.

Trump won the last early state before Super Tuesday. Sanders didn’t.

Once early-state voting began, both Trump and Sanders performed quite well — each had a claim to victory in three of the first four states. Trump lost Iowa but won New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, while Sanders essentially tied for first in Iowa, won New Hampshire, and won Nevada.

It was after this point that Trump managed to transition from plurality wins in early states to a dominant national performance on Super Tuesday. And it seemed for a while as if Sanders might follow the same path. But he didn’t. Instead, Sanders lost the final early state, South Carolina, big to Joe Biden. And the national race turned on a dime, to Biden’s advantage, right before Super Tuesday.

Sen. Bernie Sanders in Manchester, New Hampshire, on February 11, 2020.
Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Sanders lost big among black voters: The main reason Sanders lost South Carolina is that he overwhelmingly lost among black voters, who make up a majority of the state’s Democratic electorate. (According to exit poll estimates, 61 percent of South Carolina black voters went for Biden, while 17 percent backed Sanders.)

Trump had his strengths and weaknesses among various subsets of Republican voters (he tended to do worse among more frequent churchgoers, for instance). But there was no similarly important demographic of GOP voters that utterly rejected him. The only real comparison is Mormons, who make up a sizable part of the electorate in a few states.

Sanders, in contrast, performed very poorly among black voters during his 2016 run and didn’t improve much this time. It’s why he lost South Carolina (Biden led polls there all along), and it’s part of the story about why Sanders lost nationally, too.

Late events benefited Biden: However, one complication to the argument that Sanders was always doomed in South Carolina is that polls in the state did get quite tight in mid-February, following the national trend as Biden performed poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden’s lead over Sanders dropped to just 2 points in the RealClearPolitics average. But he ended up winning the state in a 28-point landslide.

What changed? A confluence of events in the days before South Carolina voted — for instance, Biden’s second-place finish in Nevada (which showed the limits of Pete Buttigieg’s and Amy Klobuchar’s appeal), and Rep. Jim Clyburn’s key endorsement (giving Biden some establishment backing) — likely played some role.

Late deciders had cold feet about Sanders all along: It could also be seen as early as the New Hampshire results that late-deciding primary voters tended not to back Sanders — he underperformed his polls there, suggesting undecided Democratic voters tended to have doubts about nominating a democratic socialist. In New Hampshire, those late deciders were split between Buttigieg and Klobuchar, so Sanders still won. However, in South Carolina, late deciders overwhelmingly went to Biden. And that trend would repeat itself afterward.

In the end, enough Democratic voters wanted to stop Sanders

The other major question: Why did Democratic voters across the country flock to Biden so quickly after the South Carolina results and before Super Tuesday — while, in 2016, Trump held on to his own lead throughout February and March?

The calendar, momentum, and media coverage: Perhaps things are as simple as that Biden and Trump each won the last contest before Super Tuesday, so they each got “momentum” going into Super Tuesday. That is, the media covered them as winners, and voters began to see them that way too, leading to increased support. Sanders’s previous bounce in national polls may have been following the same basic dynamic — he surged because he won in early states, and his surge evaporated once he lost.

For Republicans in 2016, meanwhile, Trump was the only candidate who had won convincingly anywhere, and he headed into Super Tuesday with three consecutive victories. The rest of the field remained muddled and divided.

Key endorsements: The three days between South Carolina and Super Tuesday were also filled with a slew of new endorsements for Biden — most notably, from Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who both quit the race. So though top Democrats were rather slow to back Biden, this last-minute intervention may have helped send voters the signal that their leaders thought he was the best shot.

Nothing really comparable happened for any of Trump’s rivals before Super Tuesday. Some party elites had fantasized about something similar happening for Marco Rubio, but it didn’t transpire. It may simply have been easier for Democrats to coordinate around backing a former vice president who had led polls through all 2019 than it was for Republicans to agree en masse to elevate a young senator who never polled all that well.

California Sen. Kamala Harris hugs Joe Biden after she endorsed him at a campaign rally in Detroit, Michigan, on March 9, 2020.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

Voters responded to Biden: But voters are not zombies following the cues of their leaders. To flock to Biden, they have to want a candidate like Biden — and, it turned out, they did.

As mentioned above, Sanders’s failure to make progress among black voters was a big part of Biden’s win — but the phenomenon of voters swinging away from Sanders extended to white Democrats too. So not only did Biden win landslides in Southern states with sizable black populations on Super Tuesday, but he also beat Sanders in whiter states like Maine, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. And he followed that up with wins in Michigan, Missouri, Idaho, and Washington the following week, and all three states that voted the week after that.

Sanders’s scenario for winning big on Super Tuesday was through a quirk of sorts all along — he was hoping to rack up delegates with plurality victories, while the vote remained split among his opponents.

But in the end, unlike with Trump and Republicans in 2016, there were enough Democratic voters who wanted to stop Sanders. They tended to be older voters, who were seeking a safer choice to defeat Trump. And after a chaotic February, the choice evidently became clear to them: It was Joe Biden. And they had the numbers.

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