NEW YORK – At a moment when Americans are feeling more prosperous than they have in years, much of the Democratic Party is intent on electing as president a man who has called for a socialist revolution — and those Democrats who see nominating him as a mistake have no idea how to stop him.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders essentially tied for first place in the Iowa caucuses last week and has now won the New Hampshire primary. Centrist Democrats disagree with much of his agenda and think his nomination would radically reduce the party’s chances of winning the presidential race in November. But the contests so far have done more to consolidate the party’s left wing behind Sanders than to resolve the muddle among those centrists.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sanders’s main rival for left-wing votes, struggled to break into double digits in a neighboring state. Her decision to embrace Medicare for All turned out to be a major miscalculation. Voters in the center have grown more distressed by the proposal as it has gotten more attention, while the voters who like it prefer the true believer, Sanders.
Relatively moderate Democrats are still split among former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
Biden, once the frontrunner, performed disastrously in both of the first two contests — but retains enough support nationally, especially among African-Americans, that he may figure he can stage a comeback in South Carolina. At this point, Democrats who fear a Sanders nomination should be ushering him firmly but kindly to the exits.
Klobuchar has exceeded expectations and may be the most formidable general-election candidate of the field. But she is not well-known nationally and not well-funded either. Even Buttigieg, who has commanded headlines for months, is not polling well nationally. Democrats worry that a youthful small-town mayor is no match for the president of the United States.
Bloomberg has the potential to bring some formerly Republican suburbanites into the Democratic column this fall, and has been gaining in the national polls. But he is still below the crucial 15 percent threshold. In many congressional districts, even placing above that threshold won’t win a candidate any delegates. And Democrats who fear Sanders may balk at backing a billionaire against him, since Sanders could use his wealth as a target.
Four years ago, Sanders won the New Hampshire primary with 60 percent of the vote while, on the Republican side, Donald Trump won a strong plurality. Sanders is well behind his 2016 showing, which is only natural given the larger number of candidates. In crucial respects, his performance this time around has been more like Trump’s in 2016.
Trump had a strong core of support and the gift of a divided opposition. New Hampshire didn’t help the opposition coalesce behind anyone. Republicans who hoped there was time to stop him kept finding it impossible to unite, and while they scattered Trump kept building momentum.
A lot of Democrats, especially in Washington, will be alarmed by the prospect of a Sanders nomination. Democratic delegate-selection rules make it easier for a race to drag on. But the anti-Sanders Democrats, too, may find that it is later than they think.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.