Ethics & Public Policy Center

Bernie Sanders Is Probably Just Another One-Hit Wonder

Published in The Washington Post on February 19, 2019


The Democratic presidential jam session gained a new act Tuesday with Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) entry into the race. Despite running second in most early polls, Sanders is likely to find that he can’t recapture the magic once he goes back out on tour.

Sanders’s 2016 debut effort was the definition of catching lightning in a bottle. His fiery progressive populism resonated among the Democratic left and the young, both of whom hungered for a different tune. Hillary Clinton had scared every other significant competitor out of the race but proved to be an especially poor campaigner unable to find a convincing rationale for her candidacy. The combination of these factors caused Sanders to rocket up the charts.

Today, however, Sanders’s songs are not novel. Just as the Beatles begat a host of imitators, it seems that virtually every Democratic contender sings some sort of Bernie-inspired tune. He launches a new single, “Medicare-for-all,” and suddenly most other Democrats are covering it. The hot new artist from the Bronx, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who goes by the stage name “AOC” — launches “The Green New Deal,” and suddenly he’s the one covering someone else’s tune. Progressive politics is hot, and like the disco era in the late 1970s, it seems there’s a new successful act every minute.

We see that bevy of imitators charting in the polls. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has moved into a close third in most polls and has the benefit of being a younger person of color — a fresh act, so to speak. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has her fans and is releasing new, original work of her own, such as a wealth tax and a national child-care plan. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) has brought youth, charisma and even performance art to his progressive act. Bernie no longer has the stage to himself.

History shows this is likely to seriously hurt Sanders. CNN’s Harry Enten has compiled a list of every candidate who finished second in one year’s primaries and chose to run again the next time. He found that only six of those 13 people won the nomination in his next race, and only one of those (John McCain in 2008) became their party’s pick without leading the polls in February of the year before the election. The fact that Sanders runs second now is a strong indicator that he will not be the nominee in 2020.

Sanders seems most similar to two people who fared extremely poorly in their next efforts, Eugene McCarthy and Rick Santorum. McCarthy’s rise to fame was a lot like Sanders’s: He was an obscure senator who challenged a seemingly unbeatable leader (President Lyndon B. Johnson) and attracted young voters and liberals with his anti-Vietnam War stance. His lightning in the bottle forced LBJ to drop out in 1968, but when he tried to attract support on his own in 1972, a younger imitator, Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), attracted his voters with a broader left-wing and anti-war appeal. McCarthy finished fifth.

Santorum’s meteoric rise among Republicans in 2012 was similar. Languishing in the polls as late as January, the former senator from Pennsylvania rocketed to win the Iowa caucuses on the strength of religious conservatives who did not want to nominate Mitt Romney. He rode their backing to finish second, but when he tried again in 2016, religious conservatives looked for the fresh face. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and noted neurosurgeon Ben Carson thrashed Santorum among Iowa’s religious conservatives. The man who won the state in 2012 received less than 1 percent in 2016 and quickly dropped out.

Sanders’s chances are slim even if he regains progressive support from his competitors. While his backers contend that the Democratic establishment rigged the 2016 race in Clinton’s favor, the fact is Sanders lost because he got wiped out among African American voters. This is a long-standing problem for white, progressive challengers to the Democratic establishment. Since 1984, African American Democratic primary voters have either supported a serious African American candidate or the more moderate among the white candidates. Sanders would face the same challenge that doomed him in 2016 and has shown no indication that he has figured out how to meet it.

Politics, like music, is filled with shooting stars and one-hit wonders. Sanders will gamely hit the road and try to get the band back together. But he’s likely to learn that tastes have changed and he hasn’t. After a few concerts that attract ever more “selective” audiences, he will likely drop out and retire, his influence consigned to history and wherever political oldies stations play yesterday’s hits.

Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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