2020 Vision Tuesday: Sanders is recovering from his heart attack, but his campaign may not

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 118 days until the Iowa caucuses and 392 days until the 2020 election.

Last week Bernie Sanders abruptly canceled his upcoming events and postponed an Iowa ad buy after experiencing “some chest discomfort” at a Las Vegas rally and undergoing a procedure — the insertion of two stents — to treat partial blockage of his coronary arteries. Three days later, under persistent questioning from the press, Sanders’s campaign disclosed that he’d had a heart attack. He hasn’t returned to the trail since.

It’s likely just a matter of time before the candidate resurfaces. Staffers insist he will compete in next Tuesday’s Democratic debate, and Sanders told his people on a Monday conference call that he feels “more strongly about the need for a political revolution today than I did when I began this campaign.” The same day, he was seen taking a walk with his wife.

The real question is whether his campaign can recover.

In the days following Sanders’s hospitalization, pundits have obsessed over a single theme, claiming, as CNN’s Chris Cillizza recently put it, that the episode “thrusts a tough issue to the front of the 2020 presidential race: How old is too old to be president?”

“Is Age Only a Number, Even When You’re Running for President?” asked the New York Times, noting that if elected, Sanders, now 78, would be the oldest president in U.S. history by a large margin, as would Joe Biden (77 in November).

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Photo: Mark Makela/Reuters)

(Ronald Reagan, who holds that distinction now, was 77 when he left the presidency at the end of his second term.)

It’s certainly not helpful to have the entire media reminding voters that you’re a senior citizen, especially at a time when only 3 percent of Democrats tell pollsters that the optimal age for a president is someone in their 70s. Any vulnerability that makes a candidate appear less likely to defeat Donald Trump — priority No. 1 for Democrats, according to every poll ever — is liable to do some damage.

The bigger problem for Sanders, however, is that he didn’t enter this crisis from a position of strength. In fact, even before his heart attack it was already getting hard to see how he could win the Democratic nomination.

Consider the national polling. Prior to Biden’s official campaign launch, about a quarter of Democratic primary voters backed Sanders, considerably below the 43 percent of the vote he won in the two-person 2016 Democratic primary contest. But that was to be expected in a much bigger field. The next closest candidate was Kamala Harris, down around 8 percent.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is home in Vermont after being treated for a heart attack in Las Vegas. (Photo: Steven Senne/AP)

Then, in April, Biden announced. Almost immediately, the former vice president shot up above 40 percent. Sanders plummeted to 14. The way the Democratic primary works, a candidate needs to capture at least 15 percent of the vote to secure any delegates; above that threshold, delegate allocation is proportional. Sanders would claw his way back above 15 percent from time to time, but he never again cracked 20; his base, in other words, was shrinking, not growing. Even when Biden’s initial bounce dissipated, Sanders didn’t tick up in the polls. Meanwhile, every time another candidate had a “moment” — think Harris attacking Biden over busing and segregation during the first round of Democratic debates — Sanders would slip back below 15 percent.

Which brings us to Bernie’s latest headache: Elizabeth Warren. Since June the Massachusetts senator has been the only candidate to rise steadily in the polls. At first her gains didn’t seem to come at Sanders’s expense, even though the two candidates overlap ideologically. But in recent weeks that appears to have changed. In late September, Warren stood at 21.5 percent, on average; Sanders trailed her by 4. Today she’s basically tied with Biden at 26 percent, and Sanders has fallen to 14.

The national polls have yet to register any kind of heart-attack-related decline for Sanders. So far, the only one conducted after the news broke shows him holding steady. But holding steady isn’t good enough; for him to capture the nomination, Sanders’s numbers have to improve. In Iowa — the first caucus state and one he almost won in 2016 — he’s a distant third behind Warren and Biden; in New Hampshire — the first primary state and a next-door neighbor to his home in Vermont — he’s just as far behind the frontrunners.

And so that’s the challenge ahead for Sanders: to figure out, post-heart attack, how to do better than he was doing before it. Some have told him to slow down and emphasize his personal story; staffers have said he will use his health scare to focus attention on Medicare for All. Last week the senator revealed the biggest quarterly fundraising haul of the Democratic primary to date: $25.3 million. Earlier this week he released a plan to rid U.S. elections of corporate money. When Sanders returns to the trail, he will continue to have the money, the ideas and the hardcore fanbase he needs to sustain his campaign. But unless something changes, he won’t have what it takes to win.

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