Magazine March 9, 2020, Issue

Can Bernie Sanders Be Stopped?

(Roman Genn)
He could follow a Trump-like path to the Democratic presidential nomination

Durham, N.H.

When he takes the stage, the first thing the anti-establishment presidential candidate does is boast about the size of his huge, adoring crowd. 

“In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of people here tonight,” he tells a packed arena on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. “In fact, there are three times more people here tonight than at any other . . . campaign rally in New Hampshire.” 

There is an almost palpable energy in the arena that tells you this isn’t merely a campaign, it’s a movement.

The anti-establishment candidate is mocked by late-night comedians for his manner of speaking and outer-borough New York accent, but the more you listen, the more you realize he is his party’s most effective (and, yes, demagogic) communicator. His speech is direct, blunt, clear. You don’t need a college degree to understand it. 

His support in the primary is not yet close to a majority, but he’s consolidating his wing of the party—while the establishment fractures—and that’s enough to win the most votes in a multicandidate field.

The similarities between the Bernie 2020 and Trump 2016 campaigns are indeed uncanny. The anti-establishment front-runner in both cycles even benefited from a Friday-night ABC debate in Manchester, N.H., that took place a few days before the primary: His rivals mostly ignored him and attacked the candidate who had momentum coming out of Iowa. (Although Amy Klobuchar didn’t send Pete Buttigieg tumbling down in New Hampshire in 2020 the way that Chris Christie did Marco Rubio in 2016, she did halt Buttigieg’s momentum while—again, unlike Christie—helping herself.)

I find myself now wondering which Senate Democrat will play the part of Utah Republican Mike Lee, desperately trying to forge a Klobuchar-Warren unity ticket the way Lee tried to broker a Cruz-Rubio partnership before it was too late. You can see it now: Some in the press will begin talking about a “Soul Sisters” 2020 ticket—à la “Los Hermanos Cubanos” in 2016—just before the dream is dashed.

Is it already too late? Can Sanders be stopped? 

Following his victory in New Hampshire, the political-statistics website FiveThirtyEight estimated that Sanders had a 36 percent chance of winning an outright majority of delegates to take the Democratic nomination—nearly three times that of any other individual candidate in the race. FiveThirtyEight also estimated that there was a 38 percent chance of no candidate winning a majority of delegates, and that scenario still presents Sanders with an excellent opportunity to become the nominee. It’s going to be very difficult to deny the nomination to any candidate with a significant plurality of delegates and total votes.

With Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden, and Michael Bloomberg threatening to divide the anti-Sanders vote—just as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich divided the anti-Trump vote in 2016—Sanders could very well follow Trump’s path to the nomination. 

Yet for all the similarities between Sanders 2020 and Trump 2016, there are some important differences. And those differences help shed light on how and why Sanders could be denied his party’s presidential nomination. Here are five.

1. New Hampshire. Trump won New Hampshire by 20 points in 2016; Sanders won New Hampshire by 1.3 points in 2020. The margin of victory says something about the front-runner’s overall strength in the primary—Sanders starts out significantly weaker than Trump—and also the degree to which voters are fractured among the front-runner’s rivals. Trump won 35.2 percent in New Hampshire in 2016, while the next four candidates were bunched between 10.5 percent and 15.7 percent. The top three Democratic candidates in New Hampshire in 2020 were fairly close: Sanders won 25.7 percent, Buttigieg 24.4, and Klobuchar 19.8, with all the other candidates in the single digits. This is perhaps a sign that Democrats could consolidate around an anti-Sanders candidate earlier in the primary than anti-Trump Republicans settled on Cruz in 2016.

2. Momentum and demographics. After Trump won the New Hampshire primary, he went on to carry Nevada by 22 points and South Carolina by ten points. Three double-digit victories in a row gave him a full head of steam going into Super Tuesday, when he came in first in seven out of eleven states.

Sanders’s weaknesses among certain demographic groups in the Democratic primary could prevent him from building up the momentum needed to win the nomination. The Vermont socialist performs very poorly among African-American voters (who account for two-thirds of South Carolina Democratic-primary voters), and the first poll of South Carolina voters conducted after Sanders’s victory in New Hampshire showed Biden holding an eight-point lead over Sanders (28 percent to 20 percent).

Sanders is incredibly weak among elderly voters: He typically polls in the single digits among Democrats over the age of 65. A survey of voters in Florida’s Democratic primary (which takes place on March 17) that was conducted after Sanders’s New Hampshire win showed him polling at an anemic 10 percent, with Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden vying for first place at 27 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

In 2016, Sanders lost the South Carolina primary to Hillary Clinton by a whopping 48 points after scoring a 22-point victory in New Hampshire. Democrats vote in the first-in-the-South primary just three days before Super Tuesday, and a poor performance there could blunt Sanders’s momentum. 

3. The rules. The Democratic presidential nominee, just like the Republican nominee, will be the man or woman who can cobble together a simple majority of delegates at his party’s convention. But the parties have different rules for awarding delegates. Republican primary contests start out awarding delegates on a proportional basis but allow later states to award delegates on a winner-take-all basis: The candidate with the most votes gets all the delegates. In the Democratic primary, delegates are rewarded proportionally in all of the states’ contests among candidates who clear a threshold of 15 percent.

As mentioned above, it seems quite likely that a Democratic candidate lacking a majority of delegates heading into the Democratic National Convention would still win the nomination if he or she had a solid plurality of the vote. But likely does not mean certain. If Sanders wins more votes than any other candidate but has only 35 percent of delegates, the 65 percent of non-Sanders delegates could certainly deny him the nomination, though how realistic and controversial that move would be would probably depend on how close the runner-up was in delegates and votes.

The Democratic Party’s consistent rule of proportional representation also denies Bernie Sanders a powerful argument that benefited Trump down the homestretch in 2016: that it had become “mathematically impossible” for any other candidate to win a majority of delegates and avoid a contested convention. If Democrats come to see a contested convention as inevitable, there won’t be such a strong incentive to rally behind the front-runner.

4. The media. Donald Trump has a famously hostile relationship with the mainstream media, but a better word to describe their relationship during the Republican primary was “symbiotic”: Trump was good for TV ratings; TV ratings were good for Trump. The former TV star has dominated the political conversation in America for nearly five years. Sanders lacks such star power, and the media are mightily interested in the potential rise of Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, or Amy Klobuchar.

Trump also benefited from media bias during the 2016 primary: Jonathan Chait, the kind of liberal writer from whom mainstream TV producers and hosts take their cues, published an article in New York magazine a few days after the 2016 Iowa caucuses: “Why Liberals Should Support a Trump Republican Nomination.” Many thought Trump would be easy to beat in November 2016. This time around, many are worried a Sanders nomination would be suicidal. “Running Bernie Sanders against Trump Would Be an Act of Insanity,” read the headline of a piece by Chait in late January 2020.

The night after the New Hampshire Democratic debate, Chris Matthews mused about whether Sanders was sympathetic toward Communist dictator Fidel Castro. “I have my own views of the word ‘socialist,’ and I’d be glad to share them with you in private,” Matthews said. “I believe if Castro and the Reds had won the Cold War, there would have been executions in Central Park, and I might have been one of the ones getting executed. And certain other people would be there cheering, okay?”

Matthews continued, “What does [Sanders] think of Castro? That’s a good question, what’s he think of Fidelismo?”

That same night, Matthews let MSNBC viewers know that Amy Klobuchar’s candidacy was sending a thrill up his leg. If the liberal and mainstream media see an opportunity to boost a potentially stronger alternative to Sanders, they will take it. 

5. The agenda. The final words spoken by Bernie Sanders at his election-eve rally in New Hampshire were: “Let’s win this thing! Let’s transform America!” 

It’s hard to think of a sharper contrast in political slogans than the one between “Let’s transform America!” and “Make America great again.” The latter is broadly within the American tradition (it was in fact copied from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 slogan “Let’s make America great again”). For all the controversy that Trump stirred up in 2016—for all the criticism of his character and temperament—he was not promising a radical transformation of the American economy. He broke with his party on entitlement reform, for example, by abandoning a controversial but sound plan to reform Medicare for Americans under the age of 55. Sanders, by contrast, is the only remaining Democrat in the race firmly committed to Medicare for All and its politically toxic plan to eliminate private insurance for more than 180 million Americans. Sanders wants to gut spending on the military while increasing funding for domestic programs by some $97 trillion over the next decade.

Sanders’s pledge to “transform America” with a radical economic agenda may win him a plurality of Democrats, but it is causing a lot of angst among those in the party who are concerned most with beating Trump in 2020. If Democrats opposed to Sanders don’t unite around one alternative early enough, they are going to fail, and the socialist from Vermont will be the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nominee.

This article appears as “Can He Be Stopped?” in the March 9, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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