At this point in 2016, Bernie Sanders was competitive in Iowa but had no clear path to the nomination. Four years later, he finds himself in an enviable position: rising in the polls, enjoying the most resources, and facing relatively few attacks from his campaign rivals.
A CNN/SSRS poll on Wednesday found him leading Joe Biden nationwide, 27 percent to 24 percent. In an average of polls, Mr. Biden still leads by about six percentage points, but his advantage over Mr. Sanders has been cut in half over the last three months.
Mr. Sanders’s position may be even better in the early states. The Selzer poll, Iowa’s most highly awaited survey, shows him with a narrow lead in Iowa. Other polls show him gaining, though split on exactly where he stands in a divided field. He also remains well positioned in New Hampshire, giving him a chance to sweep the two early states.
Large elements of the Democratic establishment strongly oppose Mr. Sanders, who is not a Democrat, raising the possibility of a vigorous campaign to stop him if he emerges as a front-runner. But it is clear that if he wins the early states, he will not face the obstacles that made it all but impossible for him to win the nomination in 2016.
Mr. Sanders’s current standing might be surprising considering his circumstances as recently as a few months ago. He had a heart attack in October. He seemed stuck in third place in national polls, with around 15 percent support. Well-known candidates with just 15 percent support do not usually go on to win. A factional rival for support on the left, Elizabeth Warren, had steadily gained in the polls.
But the events of that same period opened a path for Mr. Sanders.
In one sense, Ms. Warren’s rise in the polls might have gone too well. Her standing began to falter around the time she matched Mr. Biden in national polls, which invited scrutiny from the news media and her opponents. Her position on “Medicare for all” funding and her weak standing in hypothetical polling matchups against the president offered avenues for attack. At the same time, Pete Buttigieg surged to the lead in Iowa; he and Ms. Warren promptly clashed, preventing either from solidifying a strong position in the state.
In most elections, conflict between these two idealistic liberal candidates would have been good news for the establishment favorite, Mr. Biden. But he never emerged as a classic establishment front-runner, someone with a daunting number of endorsements and superior resources. He found himself outspent, in some cases by a wide margin, by lesser-known rivals at exactly the point in the race when an establishment front-runner would have been expected to spend lots of money to overpower his rivals.
Mr. Biden’s weak elite support has done more than simply deprive him of the resources to capitalize on his opening in Iowa. It has led many elite supporters to seek an alternative, empowering rivals who have weakened Mr. Biden further. Some have gone to Mr. Buttigieg, who has raised far more money than Mr. Biden.
One elite supporter — Michael Bloomberg — has actually entered the race, and could sap Mr. Biden’s support on Super Tuesday on March 3. Well-timed endorsements at Mr. Biden’s expense could plausibly push another rival, Amy Klobuchar, into contention in Iowa.
Throughout all this, Mr. Sanders has gone relatively unscathed. His position in the polls — just behind the front-runners, without obvious momentum — gave his opponents no incentive to attack. And he received less scrutiny from the news media than he might have otherwise. His supporters were the likeliest to say they had made up their minds, offering even less reason for a rival campaign to attack him. Yet Mr. Sanders outraised all of his opponents, giving him the resources to push ahead while squabbles — such as between Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg — weakened others.
These are the kinds of conditions that often contribute to late movement in primary contests and, indeed, Mr. Sanders has steadily risen in national and early state polls.
His lead in the Ann Selzer/Des Moines Register/CNN poll nearly two weeks ago marked the moment when these conditions no longer clearly held. But his opponents largely declined to attack Mr. Sanders at the most recent debate. Ms. Warren’s allegation that Mr. Sanders told her that she couldn’t win the general election because she was a woman was not pursued vigorously at the debate or thereafter.
With just under two weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, it remains unclear whether Mr. Sanders or anyone else has a meaningful lead in the state. But Mr. Sanders faces fewer obstacles than he did in 2016. Hillary Clinton was a juggernaut who consistently held around 50 percent support in national polls throughout the race and an overwhelming lead among black voters.
This time, it’s conceivable that Mr. Sanders will face a split field after Iowa and New Hampshire, with as many as four rivals positioned to claim a strong showing in the two early states and with Mr. Bloomberg spending hundreds of millions of dollars on his own behalf.
Mr. Sanders’s position among nonwhite voters is also better today than it was in 2016. Polls suggest he is leading among Hispanic voters, who will play a meaningful role in Texas and California on Super Tuesday.
He still trails Mr. Biden among black voters, but he is far more competitive among them than he was four years ago. A recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll gave Mr. Biden a lead of 48 percent to 20 percent lead among black voters, less than Mrs. Clinton’s commanding 80-20 advantage.
The Sanders gains are driven by strength among younger black voters, who back him by 12 points. Over all, his weakness among black voters is an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one.
At this point, his main weakness is arguably among white voters, at least as judged against his performance in 2016 or the performances of prior outsider, ideologically consistent candidates. In 2016, he won New Hampshire by a wide margin and essentially fought Mrs. Clinton to a draw in Iowa while badly trailing in national polls.
Of course, he could still lose both states. But if he wins, he will face far greater scrutiny. As Ms. Warren can attest, front-runner status brings a different kind of treatment from the news media and rival campaigns, which can halt or reverse a candidate’s gains. The breadth of the opposition to Mr. Sanders among Democratic elites increases the likelihood of a vigorous attempt to halt his momentum.
There is no reason to assume that he can build a winning coalition in the face of heightened scrutiny or a concerted effort to stop his campaign, even if he wins Iowa.
But as the recent polling shows, there’s also no reason to assume he can’t.