Joe Biden entered the 2020 presidential race last week. But before his announcement video even formally went live, the former veep was already rattling other contenders, most notably theretofore-front-runner among those formally declared, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The tell came with emails the Sanders campaign started sending the afternoon before Biden’s entry, April 24, to its list of supporters. I’m not one of them, but as a political operative with a foot in the online space, I like to scrutinize campaigns’ digital operations for hints as to who is over- and underperforming in that area. Generally, Sanders is an overperformer. But it turns out he’s also a bad bluffer who managed to signal real fear, anger and weakness straight out of the gate with his Biden-related emailing.
One of the cardinal rules of politics is that candidates who put out internal polling showing them winning and looking strong are actually considerably weaker than what they want the recipients of that information to believe. Not all campaigns actively lie about what their internals say. Some of them genuinely do believe the data. But the instances of internal polling sent out to supporters or leaked to reporters proving more accurate than what is publicly available or independently conducted are few and far between. This is why it is interesting that hours before Biden formally entered the race, Sanders was sending around to his fundraising list internal polling that purportedly showed him perfectly capable of beating Trump in key Rust Belt states.
According to the April 24 email from campaign manager Faiz Shakir titled “[Poll Update] These states all went for Trump:” Sanders’ polling shows Bernie besting Trump 52 percent to 41 percent in Michigan, 52 percent to 42 percent in Wisconsin and 51 percent to 43 percent in Pennsylvania.
The numbers may or may not be accurate. What’s key here was the choice made to distribute them to this group of recipients. The entire point of doing so was to underline to Sanders supporters a narrative of viability against Trump in the face of a Biden entrance, or put otherwise to allay Sanders supporters’ well-founded fears that only Biden is actually capable of beating Trump in these three key states. Not only is the conventional wisdom that Sanders is way too far outside the mainstream to do so; it is also that Biden is exactly the “Average Joe” who can appeal to voters who went for Trump in 2016, and take the presidency back, specifically by flipping these three states but potentially more, too.
This is a perfectly plausible theory. Let’s not forget, a late March poll from Republican, Marco Rubio-aligned firm Firehouse Strategies and Optimus—i.e., not internal or even Democratic-friendly polling—showed that Biden would beat Trump in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, but that Sanders wouldn’t (both Biden and Sanders would pull just 1 percent less in Michigan than Trump). Biden is widely regarded as having massive strength in Pennsylvania, in particular—a narrative underlined by the wide array of influential Pennsylvania Democratic endorsements of him straight out of the gate. It has been observed and commented on by not-exactly lefty Pennsylvania politics scrutinizer Salena Zito. No wonder Sanders would want to address it, head on, with supporters who were probably also rattled by Biden’s foray into presidential waters.
Shakir followed that email up with another the next day straight-up titled “Joe Biden,” which will also have conveyed to experienced political hands the fear, irritation, and mild anger being experienced by the Sanders campaign. The first sentence read “This campaign was never going to be easy.” A subsequent paragraph contained this line, ahead of an ask for a $3 donation: “That makes today a big day for our campaign — and an important moment to show that we are the ones who can beat Trump and transform this country.”
Just in case the point didn’t get across the first time, Team Sanders sent the same email out again, with a “[BUMP]” in front of the “Joe Biden” part three hours later. Message delivered: Sanders’ people already knew their candidate had lost two titles that had previously made him the big dog in the race: Frontrunner and biggest and best fundraising machine. And it’s a lot less fun, and your prospects a lot less certain, once you’re clearly in second place on both those fronts.
That’s not all Sanders is pissed off and worried about. Within his first 24 hours, Biden had already succeeded in knocking President Trump off his message and putting him on the defensive, by reminding everyone about Trump’s noxious comments about Charlottesville. That’s a major coup that money can’t buy, and which no one in the Democratic field has managed thus far.
Sanders’ only real hope of getting back to top dog status now is to pursue a twofold strategy.
First, he needs knock the crap out of Biden for supposedly being a corporate, establishment, Democrat-In-Name-Only tool—which he and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are already trying mightily and which may or may not succeed (my bet is, it won’t dent Biden sufficiently on its own because few voters actually vote on policy and instead pick their favorite avatar and conform their views to fit what the candidate thinks—and Biden is a pretty likable guy; also few Democratic voters are as liberal as we’d all think from looking at Twitter, and some data shows Sanders might be more of a draw for more conservative voters than Biden would be). That’s been a theme in Sanders’ emailing since Biden’s entry, too.
The second component will be to capitalize on the enthusiasm and energy of the Sanders base to outwork Biden. That’s why it was interesting to receive another email, this one on Friday and signed by Sanders himself, focused on the need to raise more money to “build the organization and staff in states capable of channeling that enthusiasm into votes.” As it stands, Sanders knows he’s behind. This is the hope he can sell to his base as a counter to the well-founded fear of well-financed, much-anticipated competitor walking in and changing literally everything in a matter of hours.
On Saturday, as a sort of counter to Biden jumping in, Sanders held a nationwide series of “Organizing Kickoff” events—and broadcasted news of their high number and high participation rate—to his list. According to Shakir, “more than 60,000 people attended more than 4,700 Organizing Kickoff events all across the country.” The one he showcased right up top was in Seattle. But also earning prominent placement was a picture with this caption “Good crowd in Bucks County, Pennsylvania — a state we are going to win.” Message delivered to the Sandernistas: We know you’re worried about Biden and Pennsylvania. Quit worrying. Double down.
It’s hard to believe this will ultimately work, at least in Pennsylvania, and it’s even harder to believe the Sanders team truly believes it will, either. There is still a pathway for Sanders to win the nomination. But it’s a narrower one today than last week, when Biden was sitting on the sidelines. Biden knows it. Democrats know it. America (mostly) knows it. Perhaps most of all, though, Sanders knows it. The emails tell the story for those who know what it’s like to be inside the belly of the beast, and can read through the bluster and wordsmithing to see what is actually going on.