Why Sanders or Warren Won’t Win the Nomination

In the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) won 43 percent of the national Democratic vote, defeating fmr. State Sec. Hillary Clinton in 23 primary contests. We now know that that wasn’t enough to win the nomination, but many believed that a Sanders campaign for the 2020 nomination would be more successful after Clinton lost the 2016 general election to Pres. Donald Trump. That doesn’t seem to be happening, either. As of Dec. 7, Sanders averages 17 percent in national Democratic primary polls. While impressive for a 14-candidate field, it is significantly behind the front-runner, fmr. Vice Pres. Joe Biden (he’s at 27 percent). 

In fact, Biden has remained the front-runner this entire year, despite reports and expectations of a surge by another candidate: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). It was very recently that she had a real chance of overtaking Biden’s average in the polls, but by December, her numbers were sliding, putting her from a strong second-place to third behind Sanders (again). Despite progressives’ hopes for a Sanders or Warren nomination, either is highly unlikely to happen for the simple reason that both Sanders and Warren are running at the same time (among other reasons). 

FiveThirtyEight recently published an article by Geoffrey Skelley detailing who primary voters’ would pick if they couldn’t choose their preferred candidate. These “second-choice” preferences tell us a lot about who has a good shot at winning the nomination. For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the following averages for each candidate: Biden at 27 percent, Sanders at 17 and Warren at 16. Skelley’s article uses a poll conducted by Morning Consult, published Dec. 1, which found that 26 percent of voters who supported Biden would choose Sanders as a second pick, while 19 percent would choose Warren. If Biden dropped out of the race (all but impossible), that would mean Sanders’ share of the national vote would increase from 17 to 24 percent, and Warren’s would increase from 16 to 21 percent. This would significantly increase the chances that one of the two would become the nominee. Except, that’s just it: this would only occur in a scenario in which Biden dropped out.

Another scenario would be if either Sanders or Warren dropped out, throwing their support behind the other. But if Sanders dropped out, Warren’s share of the vote would increase from 16 to 21 percent, nowhere near enough support to overcome Biden, whose share of the vote in this scenario would also increase, from 27 to 31 percent. And if Warren dropped out, it’s a similar story; Sanders’ share of the vote would increase from 17 to 22 percent while Biden’s would increase from 27 to 30. 

One final scenario will be entertained here to disprove a Sanders or Warren nomination a fourth time. In the event that only Biden and either Sanders or Warren were in the race, Biden would still win. Numerous polls support this theory. One poll by HarrisX published Oct. 6 shows Biden defeating both Sanders and Warren in a head-to-head matchup. Another poll by Echelon Insights published Oct. 25 shows Biden with a  32-point lead over Sanders and a 15-point lead over Warren in similar matchups. Finally, a poll by Swayable published Nov. 18 found Biden defeating Warren, 45 to 34 percent. 

There is a very narrow path to the nomination for Sanders and Warren. I will accede, however, that a lot can change in the political world within a couple of months. If Biden losing Iowa in February stops his momentum, there could be a better shot for the progressive wing of the party to hold off the establishment. But until the poll numbers change, it seems we’re headed for a Biden nomination in 2020.