Before he took second place in Iowa, won his neighboring state of New Hampshire and dominated the Nevada caucuses, Sen. Bernie Sanders wasn’t given much of a shot to win the Democratic nomination by Florida’s political class.
In the Tampa Bay Times regular Florida Insiders poll, Sanders finished a distant third — ex-New York Michael Bloomberg received more votes — with almost half of the 158 respondents convinced the nominee would be former Vice President Joe Biden.
Those predictions could still prove true, but it’s clear that Sanders’ viability was underestimated in the Sunshine State, even by those who work in politics for a living. What did they miss?
The Times circled back to four Democrats in the poll who guessed Sanders would be the nominee. They suggested that two critical factors were overlooked when it came to Sanders: math and the mood of the base.
Two candidates entered the race with enviable name recognition: Sanders and Biden. But while Biden had five or six candidates creeping into his lane to the nomination, Sanders had little competition for the activists and progressives that most often show up in primaries, said Jason Altmire, a former Pennsylvania Congressman who has worked (and played college football) in Florida.
Justin Day, a Democratic fundraiser from Tampa, agreed, comparing the Democratic race to the 2016 Republican primary that allowed an outsider like Donald Trump to emerge from a crowded field of establishment candidates.
“I don’t see Sanders getting a majority of votes any time soon but there are too many other Democrats in the race," said Day. "He has a ceiling of support but he certainly has a base of support that will stick with him through thick and thin. You have all those other Democrats eating into each other’s votes. It didn’t take a lot to realize it was only going to take Sanders getting 20 to 30 percent of the vote to win the primary.”
To that 30 percent — which grew to nearly 47 percent in Nevada — Sanders is the only candidate who “directly confronts a failed status quo in a way no other candidate ever credibly has: building a multiracial coalition around working class issues and values,” said Ryan Ray, an aide to a Tallahassee commissioner who has worked in and covered Democratic politics in Florida.
In progressive circles, there is still a lot of “liberal disappointment” with President Barack Obama from people who think he “won with a mandate but governed from the middle,” said Kartik Krishnaiyer, a Democratic operative in Florida since the early 2000s.
With an unpopular and polarizing president in the White House, many liberals view Sanders’ candidacy as “an opportunity to push a genuine progressive economic message," Krishnaiyer said.
None of the four thought that Sanders’ 60 Minutes performance — in which he suggested Cuba under Fidel Castro wasn’t all bad — had derailed the Vermont senator’s march to the nomination. But they were split on whether it sinks Sanders’ chances in November.
Krishnaiyer conceded Sanders would have a tough time in the parts of Miami-Dade County where anti-socialism sentiments are strongest among Hispanic and Latino voters. But most pundits are overlooking the voters Sanders could attract, he said.
“He has an ability to talk to white people in Polk, Pasco and Volusia counties that have gotten further and further away from Democrats in recent years,” Krishnaiyer said. “Those are working class communities. I think what Sanders can do is connect with white working class people who voted for Obama in 2008 and voted for Mitt Romney and then Trump. That’s where I see his potential.”
The establishment’s fear of the Sanders “phenomenon” is the “same narrow party orthodoxy that has led Democrats to historic lows in statehouses around the country and the very preventable election of Donald Trump," Ray said.
Day isn’t buying it. He said Sanders’ Cuba remarks “almost guarantees he loses Florida.” And Altmire, who has made a post-Congressional career of trying to find middle ground in a polarized country, doesn’t think that people who support Sanders can be swayed on the argument that Sanders can get nominated — but not elected.
“When all the opposition research that hasn’t been used against him comes out in the general election, he’s not going to be electable,” Altmire said. “But that’s not going to change the mind of his supporters.”