One of the great and simultaneously terrible stories of American politics is that of the political comeback. Abraham Lincoln lost a race for the United States Senate only to be elected president two years later. Richard Nixon lost in the 1960 presidential election, then won the election of 1972. Ted Kennedy, who had planned to run for president in 1972 until the infamous Chappaquiddick incident, made a comeback in 1980 to challenge President Jimmy Carter from the left in the Democratic Primary. Then-Senator Kennedy had the greatest showing of any primary challenge to an incumbent president, and even though he lost, he would go on to serve in the Senate for another thirty years.
Our current president, Joe Biden, might be the most interesting comeback story of all time. Joe got embarrassed twice in presidential primaries, once in 1988, when his campaign was brought down by allegations of plagiarizing a speech, and again in 2008, when then-Senator Biden received less than one percent in the Iowa Caucuses. In 2020, he entered the race as a front-runner, but by the end of the first debate, he was polling in third place to Senator Sanders and Senator Kamala Harris. Biden did shockingly bad in Iowa and New Hampshire, not even cracking the top three in either state. And yet he would go on to win the Democratic nomination, with a lot of help from the party elite of course. In the general election, Biden would win with the most votes of any candidate in the history of the United States.
All of that to say, anybody can make a comeback. And if slime like Nixon, or mediocre politicians like Biden can rise from defeat to become president, then one must ask the question: Why can’t Bernie make a comeback?
Bernie Sanders, based on every poll out there, is currently the most popular elected official in the country. In fact, according to YouGov, Senator Sanders is the fourth most popular politician in the country including retired politicians. The YouGov tracker has Bernie’s approval rating only behind former President Barack Obama, former President Jimmy Carter, and former California Governor Arnold Shwarzenegger. His popularity trumps that of President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and every other Democrat or Republican in the country. Another poll, with data collected by USA Today from August, confirms this fact, with Bernie Sanders being the only politician of the 23 listed (including Pres. Biden, VP Harris, former Pres. Trump, and former VP Pence) that had a net positive approval rating.
Of course, to become president, one must first win their party’s primary election. Bernie has tried this on two occasions, losing both times. However, his losses are nothing to scoff at, like President Biden’s loss in 2008. In 2016, Bernie Sanders was a nobody, only known to the people of Vermont and hardcore progressive activists. He was challenging the anointed successor to then-President Obama, Hillary Clinton. And in a primary battle between a no-name and one of the most well-known politicians in the country, a primary that was filled with corruption, Bernie Sanders got 43% of the popular vote and won 23 out of 57 total contests. So naturally, with such an amazing showing in the primary mixed with Democratic defeat in the 2016 general election, Bernie would run again in 2020. And this time, while significantly more known, he still would not enter the race as the front-runner.
Bernie would do well enough in the debates to steal front-runner status from Joe Biden, only to be hit with a heart attack in October of 2019. But even this would not stop the Vermont senator in the pursuit of his goal, and by the time that voting started, Bernie would retake front-runner status. He won Iowa. He won New Hampshire. He won Nevada. And so naturally, with the future being that of a President Bernie Sanders, the entire Democratic Party establishment, with the help of millions of dollars in dark money, would put everything into making sure Joe Biden won South Carolina, which he did. Even then, Bernie was still in the race. Polling from about a week prior to Super Tuesday showed that Bernie was set to score big wins in the delegate-rich states of Texas and California. Senator Sanders was also expected to perform well in Colorado, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, and Vermont. However, less than 48 hours before these crucial contests, Senator Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg would drop out of the primary and endorse Joe Biden, possibly at the behest of former President Barack Obama. This, along with Biden’s momentum from South Carolina, resulted in a worse-than-expected showing for Senator Sanders, which included an upset loss in Texas. Still, Bernie wasn’t officially out of the race. Over the next few weeks, fears about COVID-19 would spread. Bernie wanted voters to be cautious and he even recommended that some contests be delayed. Despite his protest, contests would continue through March, with Bernie continuing to have worse showings. Eventually, Bernie decided to drop out from the race on April 8th and endorsed Joe Biden.
So, why would 2024 be any different?
The country right now is seeing a shift in the organized labor movement that hasn’t been seen in decades. From Starbucks baristas to railway workers to academic workers, people are increasingly standing up to their employers. Who better to be president at this time than the champion of the worker, Senator Bernie Sanders, whose platform of increased wages, free and higher quality healthcare, and increased workers rights would be welcomed by this labor movement. The uptick in organized labor is not all that Bernie would have going for him if he were to run. The left, broadly, has become far more organized than it was in 2016 or 2020. A lot of current DSA members probably did not know what DSA was in 2016, and most DSA members were probably not as locked into politics until 2020. With DSA chapters running candidates all over the country at every level from school board to Senate, it is a safe assumption that the organizing capacity has broadly improved over the past few years. This can be seen in a large increase in the number of DSA endorsed elected officials over the past few years.
But what about Biden?
What about Biden? Until just a few weeks ago, he was the least popular president over the last several decades entering a midterm election. And even with his recent uptick in favorability, a CNBC poll published on December 9th showed that a majority of Democrats didn’t even want Biden to run for re-election. Joe Biden has been ineffective at implementing his agenda, with major policies like his Build Back Better plan and $15 minimum wage being killed on the Senate floor.
Even if Biden ignores the pleas for him not to run again, Bernie should still go for it. While his age should not be ignored, considering both his medical issues during the last campaign and the fact that he would be 91 years old at the end of a second term as president, it should not disqualify him. Unlike other politicians who have lost some mental capacity due to old age, Senator Sanders still appears mentally capable of running the country. Also, Bernie is already likely to run for Senate again in 2024, which would lock him in for six years. If he were to run for president, at the most he would only be locked in for eight, and that of course ignores the fact that he could benefit from committing to run for just one term.
Quite simply, Bernie has nothing to lose by running, but the American public has everything to gain.