The 2020 Democratic primary has the potential to look like the 2016 Republican primary. An outsider (though, Sanders has been in Congress for a very long time) candidate maintains a steady presence in a race while different moderate candidates jockeying for position enable plurality wins to become victories. Trump was successful at this game of whac-a-establishment in 2016: remember that the race had four people each pulling double digits in races until the second Super Tuesday (March 15, 2016). Aside from the Colorado and Wyoming caucuses which are special cases, Kasich was still getting double digit votes until April 26. He continued to do so aside from Indiana and West Virginia until the end. It wasn’t until Trump won New York on April 19th that he secured his first outright majority in a state contest. (He did win the Northern Mariana Islands on March 15; but that was still after 32 contests). Many Republican states were and are winner-take-all which greatly increased the value of these plurality wins.
Sanders’ is well positioned to play whac-a-moderate (apologies to terming Warren as a comparative “moderate”) until the very end, too. Sanders support in Iowa was halved from 2016 and it seems likely that he will not approach his 2016 60% victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday. It also seems unlikely that Sanders will gain more than his 2016 vote percentage in Nevada (47%). Perhaps, if he’s lucky, he’ll pull more than 25% in South Carolina and finally do better in a state than he did when he first started running for president 4 years ago. However, during this time, Biden, Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar will not only be competing to divide the not-Sanders faction (which was 75% of Iowans) but also competing for the remaining dollars that are required to push their campaign organizations into a remotely competitive position for Super Tuesday.
Except, there are two candidates who don’t have to worry about money (Bloomberg and Steyer) both of whom have also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into advertising and staff in Super Tuesday states in an effort to pick up not-Sanders voters. The irony of the whac-a-moderate strategy is that Sanders’ continued momentum makes in more likely that one of two billionaires end up being the party nominee. A counterfactual might be to consider Warren in this race without Sanders – she would be able to energize the left without alienating the middle (of the Democratic Party which is still farther to the left than it has been in my lifetime).
The deeper irony is that the whac-a-moderate strategy in the Democratic party is more difficult given (relatively) proportional allocation of delegates [these rules vary a lot]. The likelihood that no candidate receives enough pledged delegates to receive the nomination on the first ballot is higher the longer Sanders plays whac-a-moderate. On the second ballot, of course, all bets are off and unpledged delegates can also vote. Given the continued criticism of the DNC by the Sanders campaign and vitriol toward the national organization from supporters, it seems unlikely that a brokered convention would produce a Sanders nomination.
Presumably the Sanders campaign can look into this crystal ball and see this result. The candidate’s rhetoric is about ‘Us’ but there is an implicit judgement of those who do not support Sanders as ‘Them’ (see many of the comments in response to Loomis’ post) . The campaign could attempt to match its message to the non-faithful; indeed, Trump has done this and not been punished and I imagine Sanders’ faithful could rationalize some rhetorical shifts. But right now the game plan is different – rather than convincing existing voters, the Sanders campaign is betting on new voters who buy the message. In other words: the campaign continues to believe that it has enough quarters to win the game.
The trouble is that Democratic version of whac-a-moderate is, well, more democratic and simply harder to win.