There are a lot of influential people who think that nominating Bernie Sanders to face Donald Trump would be tantamount to hand-delivering reelection to the president. I don’t agree, though I am also unconvinced by the Sanders campaign’s claims that he is uniquely electable. Still, there’s no question political and substantive concerns about the insurgent progressive’s message and agenda are widespread among Democrats considered to represent the party Establishment, as well as voters terrified of playing into a Trumpian “sure I’m a vicious bully but he’ll wreck the economy” comparative message.
Sanders may be on the brink of assuming a commanding position in the presidential nominating process. He currently leads in Iowa in the RealClearPolitics polling averages, and leads by an even larger margin in New Hampshire, a state he won easily in 2016. If he wins both, he would join a small group of presidential candidates in either party to have pulled off that feat in a competitive cycle (Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, and Republican Gerald Ford in 1976). All of them, of course, won their party’s presidential nomination. And there’s reason to think an Iowa/New Hampshire “bounce” could also lift to him a win in the Nevada caucuses, where he has been steadily running second and can count on a lift from Latino voters. So those who fear a Sanders nomination may have to come to grips with this near-term possibility:
Now what that actually means, of course, depends in no small part on what happens to the rest of the field even as Bernie romps. It’s unclear Pete Buttigieg can go on much longer if he loses in Iowa and in New Hampshire, which have been his best two states all along. To the extent Sanders and Warren are drawing from a pool of voters that significantly overlaps, losing to Bernie thrice could be deeply problematic for her. And right now Amy Klobuchar is looking down the barrel of a devastatingly poor showing in her best state, Iowa, so in an early Bernie sweep environment, it’s unlikely she’ll be around.
Then there’s Joe Biden, the one candidate who has a “fire wall” state, South Carolina, where his lead is so overwhelming and structurally sound that even losses in the first three states might not croak his candidacy —particularly if the only other survivor is Sanders. Yes, it’s possible the Palmetto State could be carried by Sanders, which would logically wrap up the nomination for him, if you can imagine him putting together the requisite number of white moderates and African-Americans there. More likely it will remain Biden country, assuming the former veep’s support doesn’t totally collapse in the first three states.
So in that scenario, the two late-septuagenarian white men representing very different ideological wings of the Democratic Party and two very different demographic groupings could have an epic clash in the 14 states holding primaries on Super Tuesday (March 3) and the additional ten states voting in the ensuing two weeks. The calendar offers ripe targets for both of them, and tons of delegates (2,186 pledged delegates on those three Tuesdays, well over half the total).
But there’s a complication beyond the possibility that one of the candidates serving as roadkill in the first four states will find a way to survive into the meat of the schedule. Athwart the road to the nomination trod by Sanders and Biden would stand Michael Bloomberg and his endless billions of dollars.
In the process of spending unprecedented amounts (over a quarter of a billion already, just on ads, with huge staff investments as well) in the Super Tuesday and later states, Bloomberg has steadily raised his name ID and support level in national polls, and there’s no particular reason to doubt he will continue to spend and climb as the field gets winnowed in the early states. You’d think that Bloomberg, the consummate centrist and Wall Street veteran, would be the ideal foil for — and in some parts of the electorate, alternative to — Sanders, and a mano a mano with Bernie might actually be Bloomberg’s only plausible path to the nomination. It’s unclear if he will choose to play that role, but it’s likely he’s not going to just throw away everything’s he’s already bought in the name of party unity.
A murkier scenario would transpire if there are three old white men — Biden, Sanders, and Bloomberg — more or less beginning at a revised starting point on March 3. This could well be Sanders’s ideal scenario, facing a billionaire and the epitome of the Democratic Establishment in a landscape where these opponents will inevitably compete for votes. And it would also create a dilemma for those who will already be searching for Anybody-But-Bernie. Do they want to consolidate support behind one candidate, or hope that two can do more damage to Sanders than one?
However it plays out, there is a robust history of late-primary “buyer’s remorse” candidacies aimed at a front-runner elites don’t like, whether it’s on ideological or electability grounds. The thing is, they never seem to actually work. Just in the modern, primary-based era, there was an Anybody-But-McGovern movement in 1972 and an Anybody-But-Carter movement in 1980. Frank Church and Jerry Brown beat Jimmy Carter in a number of late 1976 primaries; Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart had late winning streaks in 1980 and 1984, respectively. Even one of those dual Iowa–New Hampshire winners, John Kerry, got a bit of a scare from John Edwards, who famously warned the front-runner, “Objects in your mirror may be closer than they appear” after winning an upset in Wisconsin. It took Republicans a while to accept Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Donald Trump in 2016.
So an Anybody-But-Bernie movement this year could wear out its viability, and certainly its usefulness, if it begins to make a Sanders electability challenge a self-fulfilling prophecy.