In 2016, insurgent candidates roiled the nomination process of both major parties. Donald Trump, running as a populist, won 44 percent of the primary vote against a divided field and won the GOP nomination. Bernie Sanders, running as an unabashed socialist, also won 44 percent in the Democratic race against Hillary Clinton, despite her success in using the Democratic National Committee to kneecap Sanders. But because Sanders faced only one opponent, he lost.
This year, Sanders is back, and the old saw that one way to win your party’s nomination is to have run for it before may apply. (See Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton).
In 2019, Sanders raised an eye-popping $100 million. The grassroots he cultivated in Iowa and New Hampshire four years ago have vaulted him into first place in both states in the RealClearPolitics average of all polls.
Sanders also has the backing of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and is the only candidate offering a full-throated defense of Medicare for All, now that Elizabeth Warren has admitted she wouldn’t push for it during the first two years of her presidency. For a 78-year-old who suffered a heart attack last fall and has always insisted on serving in Congress as an independent, he displays an astounding resilience that rivals that of Trump.
Sanders supporters insist that the only way to beat someone like Trump is with someone who shares with him his authenticity, his disdain for protocol, and, like him, offers a radical break from past policies. Only that will energize a disillusioned, nonvoting army of left-wingers that mirrors the blue-collar voters in the Midwest who turned out for Trump and delivered him the presidency.
Nonsense, says the Democratic-party establishment. Jim Messina, President Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, says that if he were working for Trump, he would “very much” want Sanders as an opponent. “He can say, ‘I’m a business guy, the economy’s good, and this guy’s a socialist,’” Messina explained to Politico.
“The wrong person at the top of the ticket — and I’m not saying who that is — there would be down-ballot carnage all across the country, and I think that people are starting to recognize it,” adds Representative Cedric Richmond, a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus and a national co-chair of the Biden campaign.
A variation of the Sanders campaign was just tried in Britain, where Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ran on an unabashedly left-wing manifesto that included government-funded middle-class benefits ranging from free broadband to subsidized commuter-train tickets. Corbyn, a 70-year-old whose scratchy personality resembles that of Sanders, did well with young voters, winning 55 percent of voters under age 30, compared with only 22 percent for the opposition Conservatives. But among older voters he bombed, winning only 35 percent of those between ages 40 and 50. Among voters over 70, his party won a ghastly 14 percent.
But what counts in becoming a party leader or nominee is not how you do with voters in general but with your party’s base. Corbyn had a fanatical following within the “loony Left” portions of his party, and that enabled him to become leader in a party-membership election in 2015.
Similarly, Sanders has a fan base with college students, public-sector union members, and aging hippies. In 2016, that coalition was enough to win him 50 percent of the Iowa-caucus vote against Hillary Clinton. He has retained about half of that running in Iowa’s current multi-candidate field.
The caucus mechanics of Iowa, a state where less than 1 percent of Americans live, are brutal. If a candidate wins there, he becomes an automatic favorite to win New Hampshire’s primary eight days later and then to have a good chance of using that momentum to capture the nomination.
Nate Silver, the political analyst at FiveThirtyEight, has developed a model of the Democratic race that forecasts that, should Joe Biden win Iowa, he has an 80 percent chance of becoming the nominee. But he might not come out on top of the current nearly four-way tie that polls show in that state. (He is currently running third, behind Pete Buttigieg.) Under a scenario where Biden loses Iowa, Silver gives Biden only a 20 percent chance of a delegate majority, with Sanders’s odds of becoming the nominee going up to 40 percent.
That prospect sends shivers down the spine of establishment Democrats. “We all know the opposition research that Trump could throw against Bernie,” one Democratic pollster told me. “It runs from his rigid left-wing voting record to the fact that he was so delusional as to honeymoon in the Soviet Union in the year before the Berlin Wall fell and when it was obvious the system was evil.”
Establishment Democrats believe that they still have a good chance to stop Bernie even if he does win Iowa. They say the party might come together under an Anybody But Bernie candidate. They also point out that under Silver’s model scenario where Bernie wins Iowa, there would be a decent chance that no one would come to the convention with a majority of delegates. In that event, on the second ballot, a group of party elders, or superdelegates, would be allowed to vote, and Bernie would likely be their last choice.
“The GOP establishment couldn’t stop Trump from winning the nomination in 2016, but they have different rules,” a former aide to President Obama told me in an interview. “We would be able to stop Bernie, but then we might have a different problem: convincing his angry supporters not to stay home in the race against Trump.”