Two disclaimers before we start:
1. Yes, something could happen to Bernie Sanders, from a health problem to an accident to Chris Matthews biting Bernie’s neck on live TV in the midst of a spiraling rage, leading to an infection that forces him to drop out. In that sense, sure, you can make up a story that works. That’s not what I’m talking about.
2. If he loses tonight in New Hampshire, none of this applies. Print out this story, burn it, and swallow the ashes, because it will the ultimate “this didn’t age well” take, and I don’t want it on my record.
But in a universe where Bernie Sanders wins in New Hampshire, I think we can officially ask the question: Is it possible for him to lose the primary? It may seem early to declare the man invincible, but the trajectory of the last three weeks alone has been remarkable—not so much for Bernie’s rise, which has been slow and gradual and even predictable over the last three months concurrent to the Warren fade, but for the sheer speed at which Joe Biden has plummeted. Nothing happened on the primary calendar that we didn’t expect, but a day before Iowa, it was like the nation collectively realized that nobody wanted to vote for Biden, and his support dropped off a cliff. That cast the race in a whole new light, and while the pundit world has settled on a paradigm in which the nomination is now “wide open,” it seems to me that in fact, the door is rapidly closing, and that Bernie Sanders is the overwhelming favorite.
Of course, it’s no secret that Paste Politics is a progressive outlet, so we have to be on guard for wishful thinking disguised as analysis. In order to fight past my biases, I want to examine the ways Bernie could still lose, from the surpassingly unlikely to the vaguely realistic, in order to see what I might be missing. Let’s go through them one by one, starting with…
This is the idea that somebody we haven’t heard from yet is going to enter the race late and sweep to a dramatic victory. But who could that be? The only names I’ve heard bandied about are John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, both of whom seem like laughable “saviors.” I think Barack Obama could have a realistic shot, but that would be illegal. Beyond him, what’s left? Nothing but the usual party elites, most of whom have lost presidential elections in the past. The biggest problem here is that there are no empty ideological lanes left to fill; from the center-right to the progressive left, there’s a man or woman for every worldview, which means that there’s no secret clamoring base waiting for their spokesperson to emerge. Which in turn means that any potential dark horse would have to run on personality and fame, and I can’t for the life of me fathom who has the charisma to elicit anything but a groan if they joined the fray. Clinton and Kerry certainly can’t hack it, which leaves, essentially, nobody. (For comedy’s sake, though, I hope there are some grifters out there whispering into Howard Dean’s ear that his time has come.)
Despite everything that’s happened since Iowa, I still consider Biden to be the most likely challenger to Sanders, and a month ago I would have told you that he was the frontrunner. Not the prohibitive frontrunner, but a pretty rock-solid no. 1 backed by the usual firewall of southern states and black voters. Now, he’s not even leading nationally in the latest poll, and he’s hemorrhaging black support, to the point that he’s now close to even with Sanders and Bloomberg in that metric (and of course, Sanders has long led with younger black voters and younger minority voters generally). In the space of a week, he’s gone from the favorite to someone who will almost definitely lose New Hampshire and Nevada, perhaps embarrassingly, and go to South Carolina needing a huge win just to stay viable. If you ask 538, he’s projected to lose there…along with almost all the Super Tuesday states. A betting man would be hard-pressed to make a case that Biden will even be around on Super Tuesday, unless it’s out of sheer stubbornness. There’s a reason he’s now fourth on the betting markets.
It’s tempting for those who don’t want Sanders to win, since Warren is theoretically the only one who can take a chunk out of his unshakeable progressive base, but…it’s not happening. As much as some may want to believe she’s being unfairly erased by the media, the Iowa caucuses proved that she appeals to a very limited demographic of educated people who live in cities, and she hasn’t been able to expand beyond that base. It’s basically what you’d expect from an Ivy League professor, and while she had her moment last October when she rose above Sanders and came close to challenging Biden, that moment is over. Actual results are coming in now, and like Biden, she can’t fake it anymore. There’s no more room for dramatic shifts in fortune for a candidate the electorate already knows, and she’s been thoroughly outmaneuvered in the progressive lane by Sanders. The big money was already starting to dry up in the fourth quarter last year, and it’s going to get worse. She tried a last-ditch one-on-one fight with Sanders, but that didn’t work either, and now it’s a matter of when, not if, her candidacy withers until she’s forced to drop out.
I’ll say this: If out-of-touch newspaper editors made up a majority of the voting public, or if they could impose their will on us, Amy would be the one. Instead, she’ll remain as the candidate who has a decent debate showing once in a while, gets no subsequent bounce, and makes terrible jokes on repeat in an effort to cast herself as a regular ole gal and not somebody who treats her staff like Nero treated the Christians.
Right now, Mayor Pete looks like the best bet among candidates who are contesting the first four states, and even in the worst-case scenario in Iowa, where a recanvass puts him in second place behind Sanders in state delegates (Sanders has already won the popular vote), he still did very well for a small-city mayor who entered the primary with limited experience and no name recognition. Personally, I loathe Buttigieg’s mode of liberal-pleasing politics and consider him a human platitude generator and bad Obama impersonator who believes in nothing but personal ambition and a dystopian technocracy, but even I have to admit he’s campaigned well in Iowa and New Hampshire under the tutelage of the ruthless operator Lis Smith. That said, there are two big problems. The first is that he’s failed to make any inroads with the black or Latino community, and that’s about to punish him mightily once we leave the Early White States. Second, unless he can pull off a stunning win in New Hampshire Tuesday, he hasn’t generated enough momentum period to carry over into the broader primary. In states where he hasn’t spent the last year engaged in a nonstop charm offensive, he’s polling like you’d expect Pete Buttigieg to poll.
Sure, in a world where the race was reduced to just him vs. just Bernie, you could maybe make an argument that he’d get all the anti-progressive votes, but that is not the world we live in. Not only does he have the likes of Biden and Klobuchar to fend off, but there’s also the next man our list…
Here he is, the current darling of the anti-Bernie center-right. Sure, he might be a rotten, cruel oligarch with conservative sympathies whose legacy of racist policing lives on in New York City in the lives it ruined, but that hasn’t stopped him from assuming an almost monumental presence in the Democratic primary. Iowa helped him, the wisdom goes—the rank incompetence and stupidity of the caucuses could drive the Democratic voters into the arms of a super-wealthy daddy figure who can fight Trump on his own rich-guy terms. We know he’s going to throw up to a billion dollars at this race, we know he’s desperate to stop Bernie, we know he’s bought the best and brightest of the campaign world, and we know you can’t go ten seconds on the Internet or TV without seeing one of his ads. This combination of dark horsey-ness, money, and a strongman persona are meant to make him a viable opponent to Bernie Sanders, and in fact he has gained traction in recent national polls, sitting in fourth place with double digit support.
Now, I can see the logic. I really can! But my problem is that I see Bloomberg as the candidate who is easy to support and/or magnify before anybody actually has to vote for him. From a distance, he does a decent shadow impression of a looming juggernaut. Up close, though? Up close, he’s going to be the former Republican whose policies should be offensive to anyone with a liberal bone in her body (I wish everyone would read Nathan Robinson’s excoriation that is so good I’m going to link it again). Up close, he’s going to be competing with all the other centrists who haven’t dropped out by Super Tuesday, and peeling off exactly zero Bernie supporters since their agendas are so wildly different. Up close, his personality is going to look pompous and annoying. Up close, he’s going to have to play the role of the billionaire who is trying to buy the election against a guy who makes it his business to emphasize the corruption of billionaires who buy elections.
Can this possibly work? It seems far-fetched, and nobody yet has been able to explain exactly where his constituency lies. He’s tried to position himself as the “guy who hates inequality,” but it will be an easy case to make that he’s actually the poster child for inequality. Bloomberg is the ultimate in wishful thinking, at least from where I sit. Still, he seems like the best last hope for those who want to convince themselves that Bernie can be stopped.
In this scenario, Bernie Sanders wins a plurality of delegates but doesn’t get to the 50% mark and heads into the convention in Milwaukee in uncertain waters. There, the Democratic strategists unite to screw him over on the second or third or fourth ballot with the help of the superdelegates. Anyone who has watched the way the DNC has treated Sanders for the last five years knows this is plausible, at least in the broad strokes version. But when the time actually comes, there’s something big they’d have to contend with: Any nominee that emerges after Sanders won the most votes is a nominee that could kiss the support of Bernie’s army goodbye. By engaging in this kind of backroom dealing, the Democrats would essentially be handing Trump the election. They might be okay with that—cynical as it sounds, it’s hard to ignore the idea that these people would rather keep their power and suffer through more Trump than watch their party get blown to smithereens by Bernie and the progressives. When pushes comes to shove, though, I think they’ll lack the courage. It’s one thing to cling to power in private, but doing so in public runs the risk of destroying the party for good.
And remember, the wise men of the media floated this possibility endlessly in 2016 about the Republicans, and in doing so forgot one thing: As the primary goes on, the frontrunner gains momentum, people drop out, and it becomes easier, not harder, to pass the 50% threshold. Even putting the motives of the Democrats aside, it won’t be easy to keep Sanders below 50% once he has a head of steam.
Last, this probably deserves its own category. It’s the idea, not super common at the moment, that soon it will be a one-on-one situation which, as mentioned before, theoretically puts Sanders at a disadvantage against one candidate who can rally everyone who’s afraid of the socialist.
I can imagine a lot of these candidates dropping out, and in fact I think Warren and Biden are the two most likely to quit before Super Tuesday. But there is so much ego in this race—there is always so much ego—and the idea that there’s going to be a come-to-Jesus moment where all the Democrats agree to put their weight behind one candidate in a concerted effort to stop Sanders is just laughable. Biden hates Pete, Pete hates Biden, Klobuchar hates Pete, and they all, at least in the abstract, hate Bloomberg. They are not coming together!
I hesitate to mention Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the same sentence, since it might give morons like Chuck Todd tacit permission to start talking about brown shirts again, but the fact is that when it comes to comparing the 2020 Democratic primary to the 2016 Republican version, history rhymes. One populist candidate sits below a majority but holds a commanding plurality, the establishment can’t stop fighting among themselves, and the populist gradually gains more and more support even as the pundit class insists that nothing is decided.
Well, something has been decided. If Sanders wins New Hampshire, he’ll come out with undeniable momentum, and it doesn’t matter who wants to admit it or not. Surely there are scenarios that I can’t envision, and ones that are impossible to envision, that might stall him out. But it’s hard to see them, and if the next three weeks go as the last three have gone, this race could be over—and Bernie’s nomination could be fait accompli—far earlier than anyone expects.