In a long-distance footrace, hovering around second or third place can be a sweet spot. The frontrunner becomes a highly visible target and must fend off challengers through constant exertion. Meanwhile, the strong, steady competitor who hangs back can reserve energy and then, in the final stretch of the race, mount a dangerous strike with an unexpected burst of might.
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ surge in the Democratic primary might just be that kind of strike. After having spent most of the past year chugging along in second or third place in national polls and struggling to stand out in key primary states, Real Clear Politics polling averages show Sanders’ popularity swelling in both national and critical state polls. Meanwhile, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s hot streak has begun to dissipate and Sen. Elizabeth Warren is still struggling to regain the momentum she had in October. Over the past month or so, Sanders has leaped ahead in the rankings in New Hampshire, Iowa, and most recently, South Carolina. A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows Sanders just two points behind Biden among Democratic voters nationwide. The poll also found that Sanders leads the race among nonwhite voters, an indispensable demographic for winning the Democratic nomination, that Biden has long been assumed to have a lock on.
This rise, which is taking place just months after Sanders experienced what could have been a campaign-ending heart attack, is the kind of trend that thrills horserace pundits and election correspondents. It’s an obvious basis for a comeback kid story, a narrative that tends to fuel analysis after analysis about how a formidable candidate was underestimated.
And yet that isn’t happening. Scan politics coverage at the New York Times for the past week, and you’ll find no headlines on the dynamic—and barely any reporting on Sanders at all. The Washington Post similarly has no headlines on it, and overall has significantly more coverage of Warren and Buttigieg. Politico and Axios, Washington’s most hyperactive evangelists of election micro-narratives, have not shown interest in the Sanders’ spike. (Politico has one long-form article this week discussing what a Sanders presidency would look like, but the article has to convince the reader that such a prospect isn’t far-fetched.) In cable news coverage last week, Sanders was tied with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg—a man averaging 5 percent in national polls—for fourth in coverage, according to the New York Times’ attention tracker. It’s clear that there isn't major press buzz over Sanders the way there has been when Warren or Buttigieg showed promise earlier in the race. On Wednesday, Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, wrote that the absence of press coverage that treats Sanders as viable is “one of the weirder features of the race.”
I’d say we can file this under “shocking but not surprising.” Sanders has long been treated by mainstream media as an unimportant or uniquely unviable 2020 candidate regardless of what the numbers say and despite a remarkable, strong primary performance in 2016. But the continued negligence of Sanders even as his poll numbers pick up is particularly galling — and suggests that he faces an unfair handicap as the primaries draw near. Even as Sanders demonstrates that he has a growing level of popularity among key Democratic constituencies, he’s likely to continue to be deemed “unelectable” by a punditocracy that’s either skeptical of or hostile to the notion of a socialist running for the White House.
Sanders has been treated as a second-class candidate since his first presidential run in 2015. Margaret Sullivan, then the New York Times’ public editor, admitted that the Times had been “regrettably dismissive, even mocking” of Sanders’ White House bid during the primary season, and pointed out how Trump, by contrast, received wall-to-wall coverage. As The Intercept has pointed out, Clinton got twice as much coverage on TV networks during the primaries as Sanders. A 2016 study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center found that Clinton garnered triple the amount of overall news coverage that Sanders did.
This dynamic has re-emerged in 2019. Throughout this race, even after Sanders has shown himself to be a serious contender, the media has either given Sanders less coverage than he deserves given his polling numbers, or dealt him disproportionate criticism. In These Times conducted an analysis of presidential race coverage on MSNBC in August and September, and found that in its coverage of Biden, Warren, and Sanders, it was Sanders who received the least coverage and the most negative coverage. (During this time period, Biden was an unsteady frontrunner and Sanders and Warren were neck and neck in national polls until the last two weeks of September, but Sanders was continually shunned during electability-centered discussions.) Katie Halper reported in June for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting that MSNBC frequently and inexplicably ranks Sanders lower than he actually stands in infographics or makes basic polling reporting errors which are “always to his detriment, and never with any official correction.”
This is not just a cable news problem. Vox has pointed out that Sanders has been unfairly painted by major newspapers as a politician uninterested in retail politics. In Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson dissected a PBS NewsHour campaign trail segment in December in which correspondent Yamiche Alcindor discusses major candidates and obscurities such as Steve Bullock and Joe Sestak, without mentioning Sanders once. In another June report for FAIR, Halper pointed out that the New York Times correspondent covering Sanders, Sydney Embers, has criticized him relentlessly and failed to disclose the corporate and lobbying affiliations of sources she includes as critics of Sanders.
So what explains the disproportionate criticism and erasure of Sanders? Some of it is banal and structural—Sanders has been caught in a plateau for much of the race and the media’s bias in favor of newness and a compelling narrative framework has not served Sanders well.
But it’s clear also that in the eyes of many analysts that there is something fundamentally improbable about a disheveled and cantankerous socialist winning the nomination and then winning the White House. “This is America! How could that happen?!” they grumble to themselves without noting how the country has shifted to the left. That perception of unelectability has a self-fulfilling nature to it—if journalists think a candidate is far-fetched and dismiss them, then the public is more likely to swing that way as well.
But to dismiss Sanders is to turn a blind eye to a remarkable campaign. Sanders has remained popular despite the fact that much of his competition adopted the left-wing policies he made viable through his 2016 run, like Medicare for All. And he commands a huge following even after Warren’s rise as a more establishment-friendly alternative to him. As a new CNN poll indicates, compared to all his rivals Sanders is perceived as uniquely trustworthy, empathetic, and in tune with the issues that matter most by voters nationally.
It’s time for the media to stop projecting electability claims onto candidates based on their personal feelings or establishment wisdom. The only thing that will reveal the electability of a candidate is if they can actually get elected. And that’s up to voters.