by Alex Knepper
Right now, no candidate in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has a plausible path to winning a majority of delegates. Assuming the clear winner of a plurality vote is the person to beat going into a brokered convention, however, it’s unquestionably Bernie Sanders’s shoes you’d like to be in — because right now the Democratic ‘establishment’, just like the Republicans after their crowded 2016 New Hampshire primary, is staring down the barrel of a gun.
If we can step back in time for a moment, let us recall how immaculately excellent the 2016 Republican New Hampshire primary results were for Donald Trump. In second place came John Kasich, who did not compete in Iowa, was not competitive in Nevada or South Carolina, and yet by virtue of having come in second place in New Hampshire had a plausible rationale for staying in the race until Super Tuesday, which ordinarily is a time in which the race has been whittled down to two people, three at the most. By failing to place 2nd in New Hampshire, Iowa winner Ted Cruz blew his chance to force Kasich and Rubio from the race. Since the ‘establishment’ also happened to hate Cruz, who was angling to be the Reaganite alternative to Trump’s right-populist posturing, Marco Rubio also had a rationale for staying in the race, having placed a strong third in Iowa. But Rubio’s air balloon was pricked by a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, severely weakening him going into the next contests. Chris Christie placed sixth, eliminating him from contention and earning Trump a much-coveted high-profile center-right endorsement. On Super Tuesday, there were three major candidates splitting the not-Trump vote, allowing him to win state after state with only 25-35% of the vote, which allowed him to cement his existing support and draw increasing numbers of former supporters of the other candidates, ready to choose a nominee, to his side.
Right now, the center-left finds itself in a conundrum just like that.
The obvious center-left winner of Iowa and New Hampshire is Pete Buttigieg. He eked out a delegate win in Iowa and placed a strong second in New Hampshire. But Amy Klobuchar managed to come out of nowhere to win over 20% of the vote in New Hampshire, only a few points behind Buttigieg. Not only will her ascent be the second-biggest story out of New Hampshire, but her intense personal contempt for Pete Buttigieg guarantees she will not cede the center-left mantle to him prior to Super Tuesday. On top of this, Elizabeth Warren’s severe underperformance in New Hampshire all but guarantees that Sanders’s sole competitor for the progressive vote has been knocked out of contention — although it’s unclear whether she would endorse Klobuchar, Sanders, or not endorse at all.
The shocking implosion of former VP Joe Biden — which happened just after everyone was finally starting to accept that he had a firm base of support — in two states he plausibly dreamed of winning just one month ago — means one of two things, depending on what black voters in South Carolina want to do.
I am going to assume that black voters in South Carolina are not going to rally around Buttigieg or Klobuchar, the whitest of the white — fatally white — candidates Iowa and New Hampshire could have chosen. South Carolina’s primary electorate is majority-black, and is increasingly insistent on its right to make a decision independent of Iowa and New Hampshire. But they are strategic about it: it’s one thing to rescue Hillary Clinton after she fought Bernie to a delegate draw after the first three contests. But to come in 4th and 5th in the early contests? And when there are other choices? South Carolina may just rescue Biden; Southern black voters’ near-unanimous support for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016 demonstrates the depth of their loyalty to Barack Obama and his top associates.
But if South Carolina does not rescue Biden, the likely beneficiaries of this trend are Tom Steyer — and then, Michael Bloomberg.
Just like in 2016, it will be fashionable among pundits to try to combine the numbers of all the remaining not-Bernie candidates and declare that this combined total overwhelms Bernie’s numbers. But that means nothing if the center-left remains hopelessly divided. In 2016, the Republican ‘establishment’ found out the hard way that sometimes the clock just runs out. Just like there’s no magic moment in which so-called ‘low-information’ voters ‘finally start to pay attention’ — they never do, and they vote anyway, one reason why it’s so hard to beat a presidential candidate who starts the race with 100% name ID — there’s also no magic moment delivered by History in which invisible forces align to compel unity among those opposed to a populist insurgent.
Who among the Democratic Party’s heavyweights will want to endorse in this primary chaos? Few sitting senators or governors have endorsed. Would Obama dare to try to rally black voters around Buttigieg? Would he even want to, even if he thought it would work? Would Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren team up to endorse Amy Klobuchar? Maybe Hillary wouldn’t want to let Bernie Sanders, of all people, win the nomination if she could have any say in it. Oprah certainly won’t be speaking up.
In an environment like this, Bernie could yet win primary after primary — and certainly low-turnout caucus after low-turnout caucus — with only 25-30% of the vote, just like Donald Trump in 2016 (sans caucuses), which would hand him a convincing delegate plurality — though a relatively proportional one, since the Democrats, unlike the Republicans, do not hold ‘winner-take-all’ contests.
While this would not guarantee him the nomination, you’d still rather be in the plurality-vote winner’s shoes than anyone else’s. And besides: it’s going to look pretty bad to deny the nomination to the guy who came in first in most states — the most likely result of a brokered convention with Sanders in first place and Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Bloomberg, and/or Biden having a substantive number of delegates would be a Sanders-Klobuchar ticket, endorsed by the also-rans.
There are warning signs for Sanders, to be sure. In Iowa and New Hampshire, at least, it looks as though he failed to bring out new voters or younger voters, which also fatally undermined his quest to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. His coalition is comprised almost entirely of under-50s, and in an underwhelming primary contest, these relatively unreliable voters are not a firm foundation on which to build a national campaign. To put it bluntly: old people vote, and the older you are, the more reliable a voter you are.
If the center-left does unify on Super Tuesday or beyond, I think Michael Bloomberg is actually the most likely alternative to emerge against Sanders. He has unique strengths against Trump, being what Trump merely pretends to be — a billionaire and a highly competent executive with experience winning in New York’s toughest domains. He also seems particularly strong where Klobuchar and Buttigieg are weak: as a major executive, and as someone Trump fears and respects.
Prior to Bloomberg, we had reason to believe that only Biden really put fear into Trump’s heart. But Bloomberg clearly gets under Trump’s skin. A lot of Democrats will also be relieved by Bloomberg’s willingness to spend billions on the race — freeing up both time and money for down-ballot candidates. Those who fear above all else a Trump re-election might see in Bloomberg a near-guarantee of respite from the madness. So far, however, Bloomberg has largely been allowed to define himself to his audience, and we don’t know what opposition research is waiting to be dumped. However, this is also an advantage: he continues to be allowed to define himself to Super Tuesday voters while the other candidates act like he doesn’t exist or can’t possibly be real. But while Michael Bloomberg would be an extremely implausible candidate against someone like Marco Rubio or John Kasich, against Donald Trump he presents an appealing opportunity for Democrats to put someone up against him who punches above Trump’s weight when it comes to money, business, and media. The video of Bloomberg responding to a reporter asking if voters really want a fight between two New York billionaires by asking ‘Who is the other billionaire?’ with a straight face shows why he could be a serious contender. That, and the full-time, generously-compensated staff of 2,500 — which will only grow — and the unlimited stockpile of cash to spend for the general election.
Even against only Michael Bloomberg, Sanders is likely to put up a serious fight for the nomination, and in many ways Sanders would love to run one-on-one against a billionaire sweeping in to buy the nomination at the last second, in many ways an even more perfect foil for his message than Hillary Clinton, if that can be imagined. Bernie’s edge in caucus states that reward the activist base would likely be nullified by Bloomberg’s sophisticated, unlimited-cash-fueled campaign, though — as well as in states with larger numbers of voters without college degrees, who appear to be more susceptible to carpet-bombings of advertising.
Ironically, given the rap on his campaign as being driven by nearly-all-white support — which was true in 2016 but not this time around — Bernie will be more likely to appeal to black voters than Buttigieg or Klobuchar, two candidates who might just be — I repeat — fatally white in a highly diverse contemporary Democratic Party battling an emergency of a president who is not only a clown and a con man, but a racist. But more black voters, whose voting behavior is seldom what white leftists think it should be, might find themselves more comfortable with a New York City mayor than Buttigieg or Klobuchar.
The center-left badly needs to unify by Super Tuesday. They are not on track to do it. But they have a way out. If they can’t or won’t unify by Super Tuesday, their likely fate is a 2020 ticket led by Bernie Sanders.