Imagine the Democratic Party as a Venn Diagram comprised of three circles: liberal, moderate, and conservative. Per Gallup, the liberal cohort is the largest (46%), followed by moderates (35%), with conservatives (17%) rounding out the generic composition of party ideology. Since 2012, the liberal wing has only grown larger as both others have shrunk. This is the basic dynamic entering the 2020 presidential race, and you can see it play out in Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren corralling about 46% of the vote combined.
Now, voter ideology does not conform perfectly to candidate ideology. It would be nice if we lived in a world like that, but our politics is more symbolic than tangible, so many voters support candidates whose policies do not align with their stated beliefs. This is how we arrive at a world where Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren clearly have the most widely popular policies in the primary, and yet…
Many Democrats have combined the trauma of 2016 with the constant drumbeat of “better things aren't possible” from the centrist political press, and have convinced themselves that their ideology is unpopular. While this was undoubtedly true in the wake of George McGovern's humiliation from 1972, it has been over half a century since Democrats ran a staunch liberal at the top of their presidential ticket, and the conventional wisdom about “what the electorate wants” that fossilized around 1992 applies to an electorate that does not exist anymore.
Many of those who spend their days watching cable news have internalized our Very Serious Pundits' assertions that this Democratic primary field is weak and there are no popular candidates who can definitely beat Trump (despite all available national polling showing most Democrats beating Trump head to head, even in deep-red states like Georgia). This century, there has been a supposed “safe” candidate the Democrats have rallied around to try to undercut the contentious primary process (Hillary in 2016, Hillary in 2008, John Kerry in 2004, Al Gore in 2000), and there is clearly no one like that in this race. Joe Biden theoretically should occupy that space, but even before his brain started leaking out his ears, he had a hard time going consecutive sentences without shoving his foot in his mouth. Bernie Sanders could conceivably occupy the “safe white guy” space thanks to his popularity and name recognition, but anyone who has paid even cursory attention to the Democratic Party since 2016 knows that Sanders is a non-starter among the establishment that determines who is and is not “safe.”
According to Democratic primary voters, this field is more than satisfactory. In fact, just 16% of respondents to a Monmouth University poll would like to see someone else in the field, while 74% are happy with the candidates we have to choose from. So let's return to the Venn Diagram of Democratic Primary voters and try to figure out where late entrants like Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick will get their votes from.
We'll start out by ruling out the most obvious and largest cohort of Democratic voters: liberal ones. This Quinnipiac poll from last month reveals that roughly half of Democratic voters believe that Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren have the best policy ideas. Joe Biden comes in third at 15%, “don't know” is fourth at 13%, and Pete Buttigieg is the only other candidate with a significant number in this poll, coming in fifth with 9%. Simply put, those who vote based on liberal ideology are not going to support the architect of New York City's racist and unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policing and a Bain Capital executive, and we have polling to back that assertion up. These folks who comprise roughly half the Democratic electorate are coalescing around the two most liberal Democratic candidates of the under-65 crowd's political lives.
Digging into the numbers further reveals a truly perilous moment for the moderate wing of the party. According to Morning Consult, Biden and Warren supporters' second choice is Bernie, and Sanders, Buttigieg and Kamala Harris voters' backup choice is Elizabeth Warren. No one else overtakes either of them for second among any candidate's supporters. There is this notion among the political and media establishment that if Biden collapses, his more conservative voters will flock to more a conservative candidate, but the fact that Elizabeth Warren's rise is fueled by conservative voters proves the fallacy of assuming that a voter's ideology will automatically match them up with the appropriate candidate. Sanders appealing to a ton of Biden voters is another example of this dynamic.
That's not to say many voters will not follow their ideology, and polls show that the more conservative a Democratic voter is, the more likely they will be dissatisfied with this field. “Don't know” is consistently polling ahead of every candidate not named Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, and that is the constituency that folks like Bloomberg and Patrick are basing their case on, as well as the roughly half of Biden voters who are dissatisfied but begrudgingly go along with him. That said, if you start to think about how Bloomberg and Patrick's success would play out, there is one clear beneficiary to it: Bernie Sanders.
From the moment the 2020 race emerged over the horizon, polls like the one from Morning Consult consistently show that a plurality of Joe Biden’s voters like Bernie Sanders second-best. As of right now, Bernie is just one percentage point ahead of Warren (27% to 26%) amongst Biden voters’ second choices, and Biden is leading with 32% of the Democratic vote. If the former Vice President were to drop out of the race today, both Bernie and Warren would gain roughly 8.5% to their total, placing them just short of 30% total support. Mayor Pete would siphon off 3.5%, which would leave about 80% of Biden’s remaining support up for grabs.
Sounds like a massive opportunity for Bloomberg and Patrick to gain votes, right?
If Mike Bloomberg or Deval Patrick scooped up all of Biden’s support after Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren received votes that Morning Consult says they would, they would sit at about 25% support, behind Bernie and Warren. What Bloomberg and Patrick think they can do is essentially run the table with all the undecideds, and convince a significant chunk of the primary electorate that they are not actually as satisfied with the field as they say that they are. For this gambit to work, Mike Bloomberg or Deval Patrick would need to pitch a perfect game just to catch up to Sanders and Warren, while also hoping that the polling about second-choices is nowhere near as locked in as the consistent trend makes it seem. Not to mention the historical uphill battle they are fighting to become the first president to ever win after jumping in this late to the race.
Based on available polling, it is far, far more likely that Bernie Sanders will benefit more from a Biden collapse than either of the centrists who just entered the race as an indictment of the establishment’s view of Biden. Elizabeth Warren could potentially be the most vulnerable to Bloomberg and Patrick’s entries, given that she has attracted a lot of conservative voters. It seems that the likeliest outcome from a semi-successful Bloomberg and/or Patrick foray into the primary is fragmenting conservative support while consolidating liberals around Sanders. We are currently acting out an ordeal which vividly demonstrates the vast divide between Democratic primary voters and the Democratic political and media establishment who are desperately trying to create a counter-narrative to Sanders and Warren’s appeal—an appeal that has convinced about half of Democratic primary voters of its efficacy.
It is clear as day that those at the top of the party are doing everything they can to halt the leftward movement of the electorate, but this is a historical trend they are pushing back against, and their helplessness in the face of the two largest and most liberal generations ever changing the conversation is highlighted perfectly in the aimless Bloomberg and Patrick candidacies. It is not 1994 anymore, and the electorate is nowhere near as conservative as it was a quarter century ago. The Democratic candidate for president is almost certainly going to be one of Biden, Bernie, Warren, or Buttigieg, and the vast majority of Democratic voters are happy with that. That the Democratic establishment vehemently disagrees with at least three-quarters of their own voters gives you some idea as to how we arrived at our present moment where the broadly unpopular Republican Party still somehow controls most of the power in this country.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.