Now that both Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former Vice President Joe Biden have left New Hampshire with possibly mortal wounds, who would benefit most if they dropped out?
The conventional wisdom holds that a Warren implosion would help her fellow progressive, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., while a Biden implosion would aid the so-called moderates—former mayors Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Mike Bloomberg of New York, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. Yet Sanders may stand to gain from exits by both Warren and Biden.
Warren’s distant fourth-place finish in New Hampshire was obviously a good omen for Sanders. A January Pew poll found that 36% of Warren’s supporters would back Sanders if she were no longer in the race, compared with just 3% going to Bloomberg, 4% going to Klobuchar and 13% going to Buttigieg. As Warren sheds voters, her troubles will likely give Sanders a significant boost.
More surprising, however, is that a Biden collapse could also benefit Sanders. According to Pew, 21% of Biden voters said they would switch allegiance to Sanders if Biden were not in the race—more than would go to any other candidate. Biden, Bloomberg and Klobuchar all ranked in the single digits.
Why would Biden supporters name Sanders as their second choice? Biden attacked Sanders’s socialist proposals as unrealistic and unaffordable. But Biden’s draw for many Democrats was not his moderate ideology; it was his perceived electability. Many Sanders supporters might have backed Biden this time around because their priority was to defeat Trump. They went with their heads and not their hearts. But now that the Biden electability myth has been shattered, some of these voters might decide to go with their hearts after all.
In other words, if Warren and Biden leave the race, or suffer mass defections, it could help Sanders not only to consolidate the progressive vote but also to eat away at some of the more moderate vote.
Several caveats are in order. First, many Biden voters (36%) did not volunteer a second choice, so their votes could be up for grabs. And the poll was taken before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, so voter preferences might change in response to those results. After Klobuchar’s and Buttigieg’s strong performances in New Hampshire, they might get a second look from defecting Warren and Biden voters, as might Bloomberg.
Also, Biden and Warren were the second choice for many of each other’s supporters. According to Pew, 15% of Biden supporters said they would support Warren if Biden got out, and 18% of Warren supporters said they would back Biden if Warren got out. If they both got out, no telling who would pick them up. Finally, other polls have reported slightly different second-choice preferences. Quinnipiac found that while 35% of Warren supporters named Sanders as their second choice, only 13% of Biden supporters did so. Which poll is right? It’s impossible to know for sure. Second choices in this race are fluid.
Many centrist Democrats looked at the New Hampshire returns and consoled themselves that Buttigieg and Klobuchar got a combined 44.2%, a nearly 10-point lead over the Sanders and Warren combined 34.9%, and concluded that all that is needed to stop Sanders is for more moderates to drop out. It’s more complicated. Not all Warren voters go to Sanders. And plenty of voters now supporting moderates may end up supporting Sanders if their first choice leaves the race.
There are reasons for that. First, the moderates in the Democratic race are moderate only when compared with Sanders. This is the most radically left-wing field of Democrats ever to run for president. When the candidates were asked during the most recent Democratic debate if they would be uncomfortable with a socialist leading the Democratic ticket, only Klobuchar and Tom Steyer raised their hands. And the only difference between Medicare-for-all (favored by Sanders and Warren) and “Medicare for all who want it” (also known as the public option, favored by Buttigieg, Bloomberg and Klobuchar) is that the former would eliminate private insurance instantly, while the latter would subject it to a slow, painful death. There really is not moderate lane in this race—only a left lane and a far-left lane.
That means it’s not a big ideological jump for many Democratic voters to embrace Sanders. Indeed, millions of them have done so before. In 2016, Sanders won 12,029,699 votes in the Democratic primaries.
Many of his 2016 supporters are now backing other candidates. These voters have already pulled the lever for Sanders once, so if their current choices stumble, that residual allegiance may draw them back to the democratic socialist from Vermont.
Marc Thiessen writes for The Washington Post. Follow him at @marcthiessen.