Bernie Sanders may be poised to walk away with the Democratic nomination for president, but you would hardly know it from the way his competitors acted in Wednesday night's Las Vegas debate. Sanders, who all measures indicate will win big in Saturday's Nevada caucuses, also is looking pretty good on the national front. Multiple new polls released earlier this week showed Sanders now commanding a double-digit lead over his rivals, securing his status as the Democratic frontrunner.
In less than two weeks, Super Tuesday will tell us a lot more about the shape of this race. For now, however, Sanders is the person to beat. The question is: do any of the other Democrats know it?
That didn't seem the case on Wednesday night — nor has it for much of the campaign season. While the moderates tried to take each other out, Sanders emerged virtually unscathed. Sure, there were a few blows directed at him, just enough to earn some headlines about Sanders being "attacked" in the debate, but this has been greatly overstated. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg launched a series of effective punches against the Vermont senator, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar landed a strong jab at Sanders' Medicare-for-all proposal. Yet these brief moments highlighted how much Sanders largely remained outside the fray.
Instead, the debate field concentrated their energies on the new guy in the race, Mike Bloomberg and his bags of billions he wants to use to buy himself the White House. With an unrelenting media blitz helping him gain ground in key states, Bloomberg shouldn't go unnoticed, and his troubling political and personal record ought to be exposed. But, for once, Bloomberg's billions won't be able to buy him what he wants, and the over-attention given to the former mayor is misplaced.
"I'd like to talk about who we're running against," Elizabeth Warren said before dropping a nuclear bomb on Bloomberg's head. Overall, Warren is rightly being praised for a stellar performance at Wednesday's debate. Still, her scattershot approach to attacking her competitors seems especially questionable when Warren is choosing to direct most of her fire at the weakest fighters. Bernie Sanders is the man she needs to take out if she stands any chance at winning the nomination.
That's true for everyone left in the race. And for many, especially Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Joe Biden, key policy differences with the socialist candidate should be ripe for exploiting. Instead, they've often seemed more interested in going after Sanders' supporters than his proposals. But if you think going after Bernie's backers makes for good political strategy, just ask Hillary Clinton if she'd like to take back her "deplorables" comment from 2016.
2016 may offer other important lessons for those who don't want Sanders in the White House, especially those running against him. That year, while Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and the rest of the crowded GOP field spent time cutting each other off at the knees, Donald Trump marched to victory, facing little blowback for his incoherent proposals and his unconscionable personality. The Republican candidates that year dangerously miscalculated their strategy, wrongly assuming Trump would eventually flame out and they could capture his followers if they hadn't gone after him. All of them counted on winning a one-on-one race against Trump. That plan is what helped give us President Trump.
That's not an exact parallel to the circumstances nor the calculations of the 2020 Democratic race, of course. And whatever you think about his politics, Bernie Sanders is no Donald Trump — far from it. Additionally, most of the Democratic contenders are probably more comfortable with Sanders' policies, even if they don't embrace his socialist identity, than the other Republican candidates were with Trump's mishmash political philosophy during the 2016 race.
Still, 2016 provides a clear warning about what it means to let the frontrunner go unchallenged. Since Iowa and New Hampshire, political commentators keep noting that moderates hold a combined majority of Democratic support. Yet the delegate math paints a very different picture about what any of them need to do to capture the nomination.
What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, so the saying goes. Should Sanders pick up a big win in Nevada on Saturday, though, he'll happily take that momentum with him to the primaries that follow. Certainly, many of the upcoming states don't look like the most hospitable terrain for Sanders. But if the other candidates don't do anything about him soon, Sanders is likely to run the table with ease while the rest of them are still bickering over a seat at the penny slots.
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