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The Sanders Story is Sticking

Feb. 12 2020

Who said the road to the Democratic presidential nomination was going to be smooth? No one predicted the veritable bump in the journey that has stalled the final Iowa results. Yet, with the first two states in our rear-view mirror, and a narrow but decisive victory for Bernie Sanders in the Granite State, one thing is all but certain: Sanders heads to Nevada as a formidable front-runner. And his tailwind isn’t just a result of this latest win: it’s the punctuation mark to end a streak of highly effective storytelling.

Over eight events leading up to the Iowa Caucus, our Strategic Storytelling Index (SSI) tracked voter assessments of each candidate’s ability to convey wonder, wisdom and delight. According to our survey data, the Vermont senator has consistently outperformed the other candidates from the moment he entered the race. He continuously showcased superior storytelling skills with high scores across demographic and ideological groups, suggesting his increasingly expansive appeal comes from more than just his policies.

In six debates, Sanders ranked in first-place four times, including at key junctures like the last debate before the Iowa caucus. Just after that final pre-caucus debate, we surveyed Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Sanders scored highest in both places, boding well for him in those early states. While other candidates have had strong moments throughout the campaign, none have maintained the same level as Bernie, who rarely lagged in any of the key storytelling elements of wonder, wisdom, and delight.

Of course, Nevada enjoys a very different demographic makeup than the first two states, meaning anything can happen there…and often does. So it’s worth examining whether there are any soft spots in Sander’s storytelling appeal. Considering his past performances, there are some small areas for improvement. Back in June, Sanders’s campaign announcement video scored third in our index, behind Cory Booker and Joe Biden. Sanders failed to beat his competition on the element of delight and didn’t appeal to older voters as effectively as some of his competitors. Similarly, in the third debate, Sanders underperformed with older voters, and scored lower in the delight and wonder elements relative to the top scorers.

None of this, however, signals a slowing of the Sanders surge in Nevada. That’s not to say the other candidates should give up. Vice president Biden can finally make his case to a more diverse electorate. Senator Elizabeth Warren enjoys a strong base and a top-tier organizing operation – indeed, she may be a dark horse to win over the union voters there. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has two weeks to convince Nevada that his Iowa and New Hampshire finishes can translate to larger, more diverse states. However, to beat Sanders, the other candidates will need to raise their storytelling game.

While there are plenty of primary contests and debates to come, all indications are that Sanders will continue to convey high levels of wonder, wisdom and delight as he explains his key positions on healthcare, the environment and the wealth gap. Which is to say, unless he unexpectedly veers off course, Bernie’s story might stick straight through to the convention.