Bernie Sanders is underperforming in 2020 polls.
It is, of course, far too early for 2020 presidential polling to have much predictive value. Nomination polls especially can be impossible to interpret, since many significant candidates are unknown to most voters right now, and in some cases might not be seen as likely candidates yet.
Every once in a while, however, we can learn a little bit from these too-early polls.
Axios and SurveyMonkey did a 2020 nomination poll recently that showed Joe Biden on top with 22 percent, followed by basically a three-way tie between Sanders (17 percent), Elizabeth Warren (16) and Oprah Winfrey (16). All other candidates were well behind them.
This basically confirms my guess (not a prediction, just a guess) that Sanders 2020 most resembles Gene McCarthy’s 1972 campaign.
McCarthy was the darling of liberals in the 1968 primaries, which he entered to protest the Vietnam War, though given the rules at the time, winning primaries wasn’t enough to win the nomination, and McCarthy didn’t win that many primaries anyway.
When he ran again in 1972, however, it turned out he had retained almost none of his 1968 supporters, and antiwar Democrats wound up nominating George McGovern.
A fair interpretation was that McCarthy was not nearly as popular as he had seemed in 1968; he was just the obvious choice for one fairly large group of Democrats given the field of candidates.
Sanders certainly has some very strong supporters. And he’s generally well-liked among Democratic voters.
So if he’s still running by the primaries and caucuses in 2020, it’s possible that he’ll start with something close to the 43 percent or so of the vote he earned in the 2016 primaries.
But it’s also quite possible that most of those supporters were a combination of liberals who wanted to send a message to the party and Democrats who for whatever reason just didn’t like Hillary Clinton and were voting for any name available on the ballot.
(We know that at least some Sanders voters were conservative Democrats who didn’t plan to vote for the party in November.)
Polls such as this one aren’t definitive. But it certainly doesn’t support the idea that most of the Sanders vote came from solid supporters.
If anything, one would expect early polls to overstate the strength of a well-known candidate like Sanders. (To be fair, he’s matched up here with a recent vice president and Oprah, so name recognition isn’t exactly helping him against them.)
I also wouldn’t entirely dismiss the importance of early polls in this particular case.
Sanders had little support among party actors in 2016, but many of them are pragmatists and would be inclined to be more open to supporting him this time around if they were convinced voters were excited at the prospect of a second Sanders campaign.
A poll that shows him a weak, tied-for-second candidate isn’t going to move them in that direction. Nor is a poll like this one – with a weak leader unlikely to run anyway and three runners-up who don’t appear all that strong – apt to dissuade anyone from jumping into the contest.
There’s a long way to go, but as far as I can tell, the Democratic nomination is about as open as it can be right now.
And while it’s certainly possible Sanders would win, and while he’s made himself an important party leader, I’d be putting my money elsewhere if I were betting on it.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.