Hoo boy: Bernie slides to single digits in Iowa, behind Biden, Harris, and Warren

Recently he had a bad national poll and I remember saying that, as discouraging as that was for him, it remains the case that we don’t have national primaries. We have state primaries, and a good show in the early states will turn a candidate into a national contender overnight. That’s good news for Bernie since he did famously well in the early states in 2016, virtually tying Hillary in the Iowa caucuses and then crushing her in Vermont’s neighboring state of New Hampshire. As long as Sanders is competitive in those states, he has a chance to build momentum quickly early next year.

But what if he isn’t competitive in those states? What’s the path back into the top tier for Bernie if, after giving him a good look in two separate presidential primaries, Democrats begin moving towards other candidates? What does a known quantity as well-known as Sanders say or do to get a third look from them?

Might be time for the tankies at the DSA to start shifting from actual victory speeches to “all the other candidates have adopted Bernie’s health-care platform so that’s sort of like winning” moral-victory speeches.

In a new Suffolk University/USA TODAY Poll, Biden continues to lead the field, backed by 24% of those who say they are likely to attend the Democratic caucuses in Iowa that open the presidential contests next year. But Harris has jumped to second place, at 16%, leapfrogging over Sanders, whose support sagged to single digits. At 9%, he finished fourth, behind Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 13%…

For Sanders, who lost the 2016 Iowa caucuses to Hillary Clinton by less than a percentage point, the new poll also had warning flags. His support was seven points lower than in the Iowa Poll taken in June, when he had finished second to Biden. When first and second choices were combined, Sanders finished fifth — trailing Biden, Harris, and Warren by double digits, and Buttigieg by five points.

This is the first poll of Iowa this year in which he’s touched single digits. He dipped to 10 percent in one poll conducted months ago but to this point Sanders has been reliably in the high teens or even low 20s there and all alone in second place. Now this. Fifth place in the first/second combined vote is actually more concerning for him than fourth place overall, I’d argue, since it would seem to foreclose the most obvious remaining path to the nomination for him — hanging around and hoping to inherit the frontrunner’s voters when he or she ultimately stumbles. Biden did stumble at the debate last week, and yet Bernie’s no longer poised to profit. Harris, Warren, and even Buttigieg are ahead of him in line. I don’t know how he cuts that line at this point. Would a great debate moment do it, or is he stuck now crossing his fingers and hoping that like six different candidates all implode, leaving Dems with no option but to choose him?

I think there is something to the “moral victory” argument, though. Bernie benefited in 2016 because he could draw a clear ideological contrast with the neoliberal Clinton. A two-man Biden/Bernie race might conceivably work in Sanders’s favor for the same reason, leaving Bernie to consolidate lefties and young adults. (Although he’d still have a massive problem with black voters.) But now that Warren and Harris have glommed on to his pet issue, Medicare for All, it’s much harder for him to make the sale. It’s easy with committed socialists: He can simply say that Harris and Warren talk a good game but will buckle and compromise on a less ambitious reform as president. To less ideological voters, though, the fact that Harris and Warren are promising the same thing without being 78 years old and self-identified socialists may be all that’s needed to toss Bernie aside. Most Dems are worried about electability. Only the DSA types seem to think that Sanders’s unabashed socialism is an electoral asset rather than a liability.

Not the only bad news for Bernie today, by the way:

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont raised $18 million in the past three months, his presidential campaign said on Tuesday. The total was another display of his strength with small donors, but it also showed that his fund-raising had slowed since he began his campaign.

Mr. Sanders’s fund-raising total for April through June was roughly equal to what he raised in the first six weeks of his presidential bid, in February and March. It was also significantly less than the $24.8 million that Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., collected in the past three months, an eye-popping sum that the Buttigieg campaign revealed on Monday.

He raised $6 million on day one but just three times that amount over the last three months. To finish far behind Buttigieg seems especially ignominious since Buttigieg consistently polls worse than Sanders. To be sure, Buttigieg is using a weapon that Bernie won’t (or can’t), big-money fundraisers with rich donors, to pad his totals. But a dollar’s a dollar. Trailing candidates like Mayor Pete and Uncle Joe in fundraising will make it that much harder for Sanders to climb back to the top if he slips into the second tier.

By the way, Biden might not be guaranteed a spot in the top tier much longer either if he has another bad debate. More than 40 percent of Dems in this new poll of Iowa said he did worse at the first one than they expected, and he was the second choice of only 11 percent of voters there. It’s not inconceivable that by the end of the summer this will look less like a two-horse race between Biden and Sanders and more like a two-horse race between Harris and Warren, with Harris inheriting much of Biden’s liberal/African-American constituencies and Warren inheriting much of Bernie’s young/progressive bases. I’m still adjusting to the reality that presidential debates might actually be important in deciding the nomination this year. But they might be!

Update: Right on cue, Quinnipiac is out with its first post-debate national poll this afternoon. The good news for Bernie is that he’s still in the thick of things. The bad news is … he’s in fourth place here too.

It’s easy to see how Harris’s and Warren’s support might keep growing. It’s also not hard to see how Biden might rebound: A great debate next time, especially if he gets the better of an exchange with Harris, might do it. What about Bernie, though? Sanders’s debate performances are predictable: He focuses on making the case for his policies, not on attacking others. How does that sort of candidate have a breakout debate moment?