It has always been good advice to “never say never.” We Americans should understand that well because “never” already happened in 2016. And as the 2020 campaign season develops, it may very well happen again: this time an avowed democratic socialist could indeed soar to the Democratic nomination for President. And he could even win in November.
But while Senator Bernie Sanders has won 3 primary/caucus contests already and heads into Super Tuesday with impressive leads in most of the 14 states contested, there are still several hurdles he faces, not the least of which is the strong opposition from the leadership of the Democratic National Committee. It has often been said that when the Democratic Party — always an uneasy coalition of interest groups– forms a firing squad, it does so in a circle. For fifty years — going back to internal party strife during the debate over the Vietnam War — two factions have fought over the heart and soul of the party. Its progressive wing sees itself mainly in the image of a party that delivered civil rights for women, African Americans, and gays, an end to adventurism overseas, and as leading the battle against income inequality. The moderate/establishment centrists have expressed similar but more modulated views but emphasize party unity to widen their appeal to more voters and on winning.
Many times in the past fifty years, these battles could not be resolved, and the fundamental split — each side representing about half of the Democrats’ voters — has several times led to defeat. And today’s Democrats’ disunity has been exacerbated by great demographic changes. Hispanic voters have grown from 4% of the electorate in 1992 to 11%, and two in three of them vote Democrat. African American voters rose from 10% of the total to 12.9% and 13.1% in 2008 and 2012 to elect Barack Obama. Given that more than nine in ten African Americans vote Democrat, this jump was huge for the party. Voters under 35 — more than 60% of whom are nonwhite — lean heavily Democrat. A little slippage in the turnout of each of these groups cost Hillary Clinton the White House in 2016 and could do so again in 2020.
What had made Sanders’ victories and leads to date so impressive, notably his massive win in a diverse state like Nevada is that he appealed, energized, and won among all three of those groups. He won among both whites and nonwhites, young voters, progressives, liberals, and even moderates, too. He also won among the two in three Nevada voters who said their most important motivation is to find someone who can defeat Donald Trump. Sanders also came in close to former Vice President Joe Biden among African American voters, particularly younger voters, a group Biden is counting on February 29 in South Carolina, the must-win state for him.
Sanders faces formidable opposition from within his party. Former nominee Hillary Clinton threw shade on him a few weeks ago by declaring that “no one likes Bernie,” “he has never gotten anything done,” and would be a “disaster” for the party. Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg brought up in the most recent debate that Sanders is “not a real Democrat” and is too extreme. And former New York City Mike Bloomberg said that Sanders would “lose to Trump in a landslide”. The criticism has been even harsher from television’s talking heads and a myriad of party consultants who have claimed that Sanders will lead the party to ruin. This year, the intensity of the struggle between the Democrats’ two factions has reached Armageddon levels. For his part, Sanders argues that the centrists include a “billionaire who is trying to buy the White House” (Bloomberg), a “young man who is a tool of corporate money” (Buttigieg), and someone who is just tired and out of date (Biden). And if anyone of these (or another) centrist were to secure the nomination, it is not clear that Sanders’ endorsement could deliver his supporters to the nominee.
As of now, Bernie Sanders is the clear frontrunner for the nomination. He pretty much owns the left lane of the party and will at least be a finalist at the Democratic National Convention in July. It is the fight for the center lane that has not been decided. Two very different men are vying for that spot. Biden brings years of experience and indeed touts his tenure as Vice President under the Democratic President Barack Obama, a party icon. Bloomberg portrays himself as a very successful businessman, mayor and manager, who has spent his foundation’s money wisely on dealing with social problems. (Buttigieg brought a youthful and refreshing persona. He is smart, moderate, Midwestern in values, and experienced as a mayor of a small city. But moments ago he has officially dropped out of the race.)
We can expect a real war for the nomination, and it will not be pretty. If Sanders outright wins the nomination, do not expect establishment figures and consultants to display support and party unity. The 40 new Democratic members of the House of Representative who won close races in 2018 worry that they will lose their seats with Sanders leading the ticket. If Sanders comes in with the most pledged delegates but not enough to secure the nomination, look for an effort to support a new “unity” candidate — and a walkout and non-support by many of Sanders’ people. This will not bode well for the party in November. Defeating Donald Trump is already not an easy task even without Democrats’ infighting. As of this moment, bolstered by strong support from his base (especially from the failure to remove I’m from office) and a strong economy, the President is enjoying is highest approval ratings, a 55% approval on his handling of the economy, and 45% who say they are satisfied the way things are. And several polls, including Zogby Polls, are showing him with slight but significant increased support among nonwhites and younger voters, presumably among those who are now working at a real job. In key battleground states, he is polling either even or slightly behind leading Democrats for the general election. Democrats need to put their differences behind them to win this one. And they will have to learn to deal with a disruptive figure as much as the Republicans had to deal with theirs.
But Joe Biden has now won so decisively South Carolina that he is now in the leadfor that center lane of the party. There is no recent polling on all of March 3’s Super Tuesday where 1434 delegates at up (1999 are needed for the nomination) in 14 states and American Samoa. But thus far, Sanders has been leading in most of these states—especially delegate rich California and Texas — with Bloomberg ahead in just two — all of this before Sanders’ huge win in Nevada and Bloomberg’s awful first debate and lackluster second debate performances. Bloomberg’s numbers have clearly gone down in recent days and Biden’s will no doubt get a significant bump from his impressive blowout in South Carolina.
But no one of the centrist candidates has yet been able to stake a claim among a wide spectrum of Democratic voters as much as Sanders’. And any attempt to hit him hard may well backfire and aid in Donald Trump in winning the November election.
I am well aware that this analysis has focused entirely on the “men” who are running. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar have been excellent candidates for President. Between them, they have won most of the ten debates held thus far. Warren’s efforts at leading the left lane have been almost totally derailed by Sanders, who has been running non-stop for the Presidency since 2015 and has built a 50-state network of volunteers and activists that is intensely loyal. She has yet to place above third place in any of the three contests thus far and her prospects for winning any of the Super Tuesday states look very dim. Aside from the fact that she was the frontrunner for a few months in 2019 her candidacy this year will probably be best known for her withering pounding of Bloomberg in both the Nevada and South Carolina debates. For a moment, Klobuchar turned a brilliant debate performance in New Hampshire into a serious challenge in that state. But her campaign had no organization until the last minute in Nevada and she is little to no support among nonwhite voters who will be increasingly important in the upcoming states.
Sanders looks for big wins in Calilfornia and Texas – the delegate rich states—on Super Tuesday. But most pundits will be looking for how well Biden performs, how many delegates he wins to stay in contention, whether or not Bloomberg fortune can stop his free fall, and which candidates will be forced to drop out. We will all be a lot smarter on Wednesday morning.