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Biden's Strong Support In Crowded Democratic Field Could Hurt Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking at a campaign rally in Montpelier. People hold Bernie signs behind where he stands at a podium.
Liam Elder-Connors
Sen. Bernie Sanders, pictured speaking at a campaign rally in Montpelier on Saturday, has seen his poll numbers drop with former Vice President Joe Biden in the Democratic presidential race.

Former Vice President Joe Biden's entry in the Democratic presidential race has upended that contest, and it appears that the candidate most affected by Biden's decision could be Sen. Bernie Sanders.

With a Bruce Springsteen song blaring over a loudspeaker, Biden raced up the stairs to a large outdoor stage at a recent campaign rally in Pittsburgh. Biden's message to those gathered was clear: Democrats should offer a vision for the country that's very different from that of President Donald Trump.

"We Democrats and we independents who have the same view have to choose hope over fear, unity over division," Biden said, "and maybe most importantly, truth over lies."

A number of political analysts thought Biden's high poll numbers would begin to fall after he formally entered the race, but that hasn't happened. He continues to lead Sanders by double digits.

More from VPR — During 2020 Bid, Sanders Looks To Convine Young Voters To Turn Out In Record Numbers [May 7]

Ted Kohn, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Norwich University, said Biden's strong poll numbers indicate the national Democratic Party might be more moderate than many people thought.

"I was always very skeptical of this notion that somehow the Democratic Party just in the last couple of years had shifted fundamentally to the left," Kohn said, "and so a lot of the demographics are a lot more in Biden's favor than I think a lot of the pundits had been saying, especially after the 2018 midterm elections."

Kohn said he thinks Biden and Sanders are running very different types of campaigns.

"I think Biden's always going to be focused on the general election," Kohn said, "while Bernie Sanders, you know, still has to fight for the progressive mantle of the Democratic Party against people like Elizabeth Warren. ... Joe Biden kind of occupies his own lane at this point."  

"So a lot of the demographics are a lot more in Biden's favor than I think a lot of the pundits had been saying, especially after the 2018 midterm elections." — Ted Kohn, Norwich University

UVM political science professor Ellen Andersen said recent polls indicate the top priority of the vast majority of Democratic voters is beating Trump — and she said that could work in Biden's favor.

"Democrats don't want Trump to remain president, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they want 'Medicare for All,'" Andersen said. "So Biden seems — from some perspective — Biden seems entirely sensible."

Sanders' campaign manager Faiz Shakir said it's very important for Sanders to compare his record with Biden's on a number of key issues.

"It is true though that with the entrance of Joe Biden in particular you, I think, have a little bit more of a clear contrast of records," Shakir said, "and Sen. Sanders is bringing that issue to the fore."

More from VPR — Bernie Sanders Holds First Home State Rally Of Presidential Campaign [May 25]

According to Middlebury College political science professor Matt Dickinson, the Sanders/Biden narrative helps both of them to attract media attention in a crowded field of more than 20 other candidates.

"When you attack Biden, you force the media focus to go on those two candidates — Biden and Sanders — at the expense of the other 21 candidates out there who are seeing the oxygen get sucked out of the room,” Dickinson said.

"Democrats don't want Trump to remain president but it doesn't necessarily mean that they want 'Medicare for All.' So Biden seems — from some perspective — Biden seems entirely sensible." — Ellen Andersen, UVM

So what issues will Sanders highlight to contrast his candidacy to Biden's? Campaign manager Shakir mentioned health care and the war in Iraq.

"Joe Biden was leading that effort and Bernie Sanders was leading the effort to oppose it [the Iraq War]," Shakir said. "And then when you, you know, get into health care, Joe Biden's been on record saying that he does not believe in Medicare for All so that'll be a clear point of contrast."

The focus on these issues might have a familiar ring to it — professor Dickinson said it's a way for Sanders to paint Biden as being "the Hillary Clinton" of 2020

"All the drawbacks that Hillary Clinton had to deal with — she was the establishment candidate, she represented the old guard; she had a voting record, most notably on the war on Iraq but on other issues, that was held against her — Joe Biden falls into the same set of liabilities," Dickinson said. "He has a record to defend."  

As Sanders continues his bid for the presidential nomination against Biden, and the other Democrats in the race, he's embarked on a busy campaign schedule. In the last week Sanders has been in Vermont, New Hampshire and Nevada, and he's planning his second trip to California this weekend.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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