Bernie Sanders is leading. But he’s not winning, and there’s a huge difference.
The far-left Sanders is now the improbable—and to some, alarming—frontrunner in the Democratic presidential contest, with a sizable lead in polls over the moderates Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg. Many forecasters think Sanders will prevail in enough primary states to have an insurmountable lead by mid-March.
But winning the Democratic nomination requires a majority of the votes, and Sanders isn’t close to that. In early voting states he’s won about 25% of the votes, with most of the rest split among five other candidates. That’s roughly the same approval rating Sanders has among Democratic votes nationwide—and it’s not nearly enough to clinch the Democratic nomination.
Candidates tend to consolidate votes as the primaries progress and most of the competition drops out. But with self-funding Mike Bloomberg and at least one other moderate candidate likely to go the distance, Sanders will probably find the path to a majority victory blocked.
That’s why Sanders is now the only candidate arguing that whoever wins a plurality of votes should be the nominee. But there’s another way Democrats could produce a convincing victor, who, by the way, isn’t Sanders: All but one of the moderates could quit, and align themselves behind one remaining candidate.
Sanders looks far less invincible when breaking down the vote for the four to five moderates (including Tom Steyer) and the two leftists, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. In Iowa, the Biden moderates got 54% of the vote while Sanders and Warren got 44%. In New Hampshire, the moderates got 56% while the leftists got just 35%, with several lesser candidates getting a few percentage points. Moderates are winning, overall. They’re just splitting the vote among too many people to allow any single candidate to stand out.
Sanders is also doing worse, so far, than he did in 2016, when he won 49.6% of the vote in Iowa and a stunning 60.4% in New Hampshire. There were fewer candidates overall in the 2016 primaries, but Sanders’ much weaker showing in 2020 suggests there might be a ceiling on his support within the Democratic party. That could portend a disastrous showing if Sanders were to face President Trump in the general election, with many disgusted Democrats possibly staying home and Independents looking for a reason to vote against Trump voting against Sanders instead.
If Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Steyer formed a cartel to nominate just one of them to beat Sanders, who should it be? Process of elimination suggests Bloomberg is better as a funder than a candidate, Biden is too fumbly and old, Steyer too marginal, and Buttigieg too unproven. That leaves Amy Klobuchar, 59, who has a strong resume as a prosecutor and senator from Minnesota. Her Midwestern roots could help with crucial swing states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. As a woman who’s not Hillary Clinton, she might be a persuasive alternative—especially among Independents—to Trump in the general election.
What about Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren? She savaged Mike Bloomberg in the February 19 debate and reminded voters she might do the same to Trump. But Warren occupies a kind of no-person’s land, politically. She supports many of the radical, change-everything policies Sanders does, alienating many moderate Democrats. But she hasn’t really differentiated herself from Sanders, leaving her stuck in his shadow. She won just 9.2% of the vote in New Hampshire, a very poor showing right next to her home state. To left-leaning Democrats, Sanders is the man, and Warren could quit if she underperforms in the crucial Super Tuesday contests on March 3.
Will anything like this happen? Wildly ambitious Democrats giving up their presidential quest for the good of the party and the country? BAHAHAHAHA! Each moderate Dem seems to think he or she must stay in the race till the funding runs out. Obviously some will drop out when that happens, but by then it might be too late.
If the field remains a seven-way race into the Super Tuesday contests in 14 states, Sanders could emerge with an insurmountable lead, simply because more than one-third of all the votes will have been cast by then. If Sanders wins just one-third of the vote on Super Tuesday, he’ll win more than half of the Super Tuesday delegates, making it extremely hard for anybody to catch him.
Several candidates will probably drop out after Super Tuesday, but even if the field winnows to just one moderate, it could be impossible for that person to win a majority vote through the remaining contests. That’s why Sanders argues that whichever Democrat wins the most votes should get the nomination, even if it’s short of a majority.
This mess suggests the Democratic primaries will end without a clear victor, leading to a huge intraparty fight over the summer as moderates try to kneecap Sanders behind the scenes, while Sanders and his prickly legions threaten to bring down the whole party if Sanders doesn’t get his way. If nothing else, the Democratic primary process has become entertaining.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.