The 2020 Democratic primaries have touched on only a few states so far, but it’s already clear that they have the same problem this time that they had four years ago: Bernie Sanders.

Yet again, Sanders is threatening to derail the candidate preferred by the party establishment and insiders, former Vice President Joe Biden.

That’s not the real problem with Sanders’ campaign so far for Democrats, though. The real problem for Democrats is not that Sanders has overtaken Biden’s position as the presumed front-runner, but that he’s not doing a much better job of being the front-runner than Biden did. If Sanders were blowing out the rest of the field, rather than just sinking Biden, it would give the party time to coalesce around him and come to terms with the idea of him as the nominee.

Rather than building on his strength from four years ago, Sanders’ support has eroded dramatically. While it might be presumed that’s solely because of the larger, more competitive field of candidates, that’s only a partial explanation.

Four years ago, Sanders was the only viable alternative to a widely disliked front-runner, and voters were able to look past what they disliked about him. Now, with so many other options available, they’re re-examining everything about him and discovering there’s a lot to dislike.

So, yes, Sanders’ support isn’t as high last time because there’s more competition, but the competition is also doing better because of his inherent flaws as a candidate.


That includes not only his left-wing policy positions, which obviously didn’t appeal to a large swath of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, but also that he – like Biden – is a career politician from a small state with no broader demographic appeal.

Sanders’ campaign isn’t exactly collapsing, though – at least, not yet. He did manage to get the most votes in the first two states, even if they were narrow victories and the rules in Iowa didn’t end up awarding him the most delegates. (Results from the Nevada caucuses were not available at press time.) Unfortunately for Democrats, the narrowness of those victories has meant that the field really hasn’t been winnowed at all thus far – only a few lesser-known candidates quit after the New Hampshire primary. That means that right now the picture is simply muddled, and shows little signs of clarifying any time soon.

The size of the field may not be good for Sanders, but it’s not a huge help to his opponents, either. None of them has yet been able to take full advantage – while South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been on the rise, so has Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. If they’d been able to combine their votes in New Hampshire, they would have defeated Sanders by an impressive margin. Instead, they’re doing more to hurt each other than they are to topple Sanders. Rather than halting Sanders’ nomination, their continued presence in the race – along with that of Biden – serves only to splinter the center-left vote, letting Sanders continue his string of wins.

Sanders now finds himself in a very peculiar position for any politician: His lack of strength is his greatest strength. If he begins to do too well too soon, it becomes much more likely that his fractured opposition will coalesce behind someone – anyone – in order to stop him. Sanders doesn’t want to suddenly knock Biden completely out of the race. That only opens up the door further for Bloomberg and his billions. A narrow victory for Biden in South Carolina would actually be ideal for Sanders, as it would keep him in the race through Super Tuesday.

To a certain extent, Sanders’ best hope is that he is able to replicate Donald Trump’s experience in the 2016 Republican primaries, when various challengers rose and fell. That’s already happened in this campaign somewhat, as Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have both overtaken Sanders in the polls at various points. Now that national polls are showing him in the lead, though, Sanders wants to make sure his trajectory more closely follows Trump’s than, say, Jeb Bush’s.

The warning, however, for Republicans who may be rooting for Sanders in the hope that he’d be easy pickings in the fall is that many Democrats made the same mistaken assumption about Trump.


Like Trump, Sanders has a dedicated base all over the country, eager to go knocking on doors and making calls for him. Rather than rooting for any particular candidate, Republicans should just hope for a long, drawn-out Democratic primary process.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: jimfossel

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