Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) is looking to turn the Democratic primary race into a one-on-one battle with former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE.
New national and early-state polls suggest the two candidates are getting some separation from the rest of the pack, and those polls have coincided with new, pointed attacks from the Sanders campaign on Biden.
Team Sanders has accused Biden of supporting cuts to Social Security and is questioning his record on race as they seek to cut into his strength with African Americans and older voters.
The Biden campaign is swinging back, releasing new ads accusing Sanders of mischaracterizing his record and making the case that Biden is best positioned to win a head-to-head match-up against President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE.
The volleys come at a pivotal moment, with Sanders growing stronger in polls and challenging Biden’s long-standing lead in national surveys.
A national CNN poll released Wednesday found Sanders at 27 percent support and Biden at 24 percent, marking the first time the poll has found anyone but Biden alone at the top. Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) is running a distant third with 14 percent.
A Biden confidant said the campaign sees Sanders as its biggest rival at the moment, even as polls of Iowa and New Hampshire find a tighter four-candidate race between Biden, Sanders, Warren and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE.
“For now at least it’s trending that way,” said the Biden insider. “It looks like Warren and Pete have peaked.”
After struggling to reach people of color in the 2016 Democratic primary, Sanders has markedly improved his standing among nonwhite voters and is now challenging Biden at the top.
Sanders has built a diverse coalition of high-profile advocates, featuring artists, such as Killer Mike, and lawmakers, such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezAttorney says 75-year-old man shoved by Buffalo police suffered brain injury How language is bringing down Donald Trump Highest-circulation Kentucky newspaper endorses Charles Booker in Senate race MORE (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarHow language is bringing down Donald Trump Biden, Democrats seek to shut down calls to defund police McEnany, Ocasio-Cortez tangle over ‘Biden adviser’ label MORE (D-Minn.), Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalBiden’s right, we need policing reform now – the House should quickly take up his call to action Defense bill turns into proxy battle over Floyd protests Top progressive lawmaker unveils bill requiring national police training standards MORE (D-Wash.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibHow language is bringing down Donald Trump Defunding the police: Put it to a vote McEnany, Ocasio-Cortez tangle over ‘Biden adviser’ label MORE (D-Mich.).
The Sanders campaign has invested heavily in Latino and African American outreach, recognizing it as his most glaring deficiency from 2016.
That effort appears to be paying off. The CNN survey found Sanders winning 30 percent support among nonwhite voters, compared to 27 percent for Biden.
They are also attacking Biden directly.
Sanders’s national campaign co-chairwoman Nina Turner wrote an op-ed last week in South Carolina’s “The State” that Biden “has repeatedly betrayed black voters to side with Republican lawmakers and undermine our progress.”
So far, Biden is retaining his lead.
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Most polls of South Carolina find Biden leading by more than 20 points. The Palmetto State is widely viewed as Biden’s firewall due to his popularity among black voters, who make up more than half of the primary electorate in the state.
The Biden campaign released a statement on Wednesday promoting his strength among black voters and pointing out that 15 members of the Congressional Black Caucus have endorsed him — more than every other candidate in the field combined.
In recent days, Biden has won endorsements from influential black Democrats, including Reps. Frederica WilsonFrederica Patricia WilsonHoyer: Infrastructure package to hit floor this month Democrats seek to tap into fury over George Floyd Democrats call for Congress to take action following death of George Floyd MORE (D-Fla.), Alcee HastingsAlcee (Judge) Lamar HastingsThe Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Johns Hopkins’s Jennifer Nuzzo says America needs public health crisis insurance to pay for COVID-19 victims; Protests, pandemic continue to ravage America Pelosi stands firm amid calls to close Capitol Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden MORE (D-Fla.), Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) and Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.).
The fight for older voters is just as pitched.
The Sanders campaign and left-wing media have been digging up Biden’s decades-old remarks about addressing federal spending through freezes on entitlement programs.
The Biden campaign responded with an online ad accusing the Sanders campaign of unleashing a “barrage” of “dishonest” attacks against Biden.
“Biden’s plan protects Social Security and will increase benefits,” the ad states. “Bernie’s negative attacks won’t change the truth — Joe Biden is still the strongest Democrat to beat Donald Trump.”
Sanders countered with his own ad featuring interview footage of Biden recounting his repeated attempts to “freeze” spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The ad is approaching 1 million views on YouTube.
“We’ve got some bad news for them,” Sanders says in the ad. “We are not going to cut Social Security, we’re going to expand benefits.”
Sanders’s Social Security attacks are designed to reach the older voters who are currently in Biden’s camp.
The CNN national survey found Biden leading Sanders by a margin of 37 percent to 8 percent among people aged 65 and older.
The back-and-forth appeared to get under Biden’s skin on Wednesday, after a reporter for CBS News confronted him about why he had released an attack ad against Sanders, who had earlier apologized for a surrogate calling Biden “corrupt.”
“Why, why, why, why, why, why, why,” Biden shot back. “You’re getting nervous man. Calm down, it’s OK. He apologized for saying I was corrupt. He didn’t say anything about whether or not I was telling the truth about Social Security.”
The Biden confidant said they’re not sweating the attacks on Social Security, believing that a policy fight between the two will play out in Biden’s favor.
“It’s a matter of making the case that our plans are more realistic,” the source said. “Bernie can say all he wants about Social Security. The fact of the matter is, Joe Biden’s plans are the ones based in reality.”
The worry, the confidant acknowledged, is that the 2020 primary race could emulate the 2016 race, which was defined by a brutal slugfest between centrist Democrats and the ascendant left wing of the party that is advocating for radical change.
“We’ve seen this before. We could fall into the same trap this time,” the source said. “I don’t think Bernie himself will get aggressive. But his supporters and surrogates are out to burn down the barn.”
Sanders personally apologized to Biden this week after a surrogate ran an op-ed warning that Biden “has a big corruption problem and it makes him a weak candidate.”
“To avoid the same 2016 tumult, the onus will be on Sanders to tamp down the rhetoric and sentiment among his supporters about policy purity tests,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle.
The other worry in the Biden camp, according to one longtime Democratic donor, is that while Biden is arguing that he’s the most electable against Trump, the Sanders campaign has more grassroots energy and excitement.
Sanders has been warning on the campaign trail that the party must not nominate someone who does not energize the liberal base.
“The problem is, I like the guy. [Biden] has a lot of soul and compassion, but he’s not that good of a candidate,” the donor said.
Democrats say the Biden-Sanders fight is a preview of the coming showdown between the left and the center, as both sides press their case in the stretch run to the caucuses.
“Are Democratic voters looking for steady and safe or are they looking to completely turn the system upside down?” asked Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman. “That’s the central question and we just have no idea at this point.”