In the pre-Super Tuesday primaries, which have left us with 2 extremely old white guys as the only viable candidates, we’ve learned a couple of things. First, Bernie remains a strong favorite to be the nominee. And second, his path to the nomination and/or a general election victory is not going to be the fantasy where he mobilizes huge numbers or nonvoters or young voters to the polls. As Osita Nwannevu argues, Bernie’s path to victory is now…conventional:
Although the year is young, the 2020 race looks less like a revolution than a conventional election. But Sanders is moving ahead anyway, in completely ordinary fashion—a steady accretion of delegates by plurality that began with simple, statistically boring performances in Iowa and New Hampshire. This is how the nomination is often won. But the expectation that Sanders would win overwhelmingly if he were to win at all has made it difficult for pundits to see his unremarkable but very real rise coming and is now fueling concerns that other candidates in his statistical position—both within the primary and in the early general election polling—likely wouldn’t face. Sanders’s true challenge now is securing the majority of delegates needed to grant him the nomination without a fuss at the convention. But even if Sanders were to come to Milwaukee with a mere plurality, delegates would face a significant amount of pressure to hand him the nomination anyway, given that Sanders is already doing well—and is poised to do even better once other candidates drop out—with ordinary Democrats who don’t consider themselves revolutionaries but like him about as much or more than the other candidates.
If Sanders does secure the nomination, we could well see a similarly boring but still ultimately successful general election campaign that accomplishes exactly what any other Democratic candidate would work to accomplish—trying to win over some Obama-Trump voters in key swing states and bumping up minority turnout a bit. Not an epochal shift in American electoral politics but the very same simple victory the rest of the Democratic contenders are seeking. All told, those who believe Sanders’s nomination might bring about something more dramatic could very well be wrong about what his candidacy could realistically achieve. But any win is ultimately a win, and there remains no particular reason to believe a victory for Sanders is beyond reach.
This isn’t surprising, since the idea that Sanders could bring large numbers of non-voters off the sidelines by offering New Deal liberalism with the “socialist” label was never really political analysis, but wishful thinking cooked up by American lefties who hate mainstream Democrats far more than they hate Republicans and like the idea of being able to bypass the former altogether.
South Carolina underscores the limitations of this approach. There was finally a high-turnout primary, but it was the result not of Bernie but of Jim Clyburn’s ability to mobilize the Democratic base in his state. For Biden, the problem going forward is that this isn’t something that can be necessarily replicated going forward in a lot of other states. For Bernie, it’s a concern that despite running for president constantly for 5 years, and knowing that he was killed in 2016 by an inability to attract African-American support in the South, he was unable to get Clyburn’s support or even persuade him to remain neutral, even though Biden’s shaky performances have given him unusually weak elite support for a candidate running as the safe establishment choice.
Assuming Sanders wins the nomination, this is still important going forward. He can win the White House, but both for getting there and for accomplishing things if he does win “bend the knee shitlibs” is not an approach that’s going to work. Beating Trump is going to require normie Democrats voting for him in large numbers, not an imaginary squadron of nonvoters who secretly crave socialism. Both in terms of legislative outputs and effective use of the executive branch, he’s going to need buy-in from a lot of mainstream Democrats. None of this is impossible — he’s in a good position to win because most ordinary Democrats like him! But hopefully yesterday’s results will point him in the right direction, which is away from his Extremely Online crew. He doesn’t need to change his ideas; he just needs to welcome allies.