Of the two candidates who ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2016, one of them has declared unequivocally that she won’t run for President while the other has declared that he will run for President. So naturally the dynamics of the race will more directly impact Bernie Sanders than they will Hillary Clinton. But their fates are seemingly tied together because of the events of 2016 even as the country looks ahead to 2020.
At the present time, Bernie Sanders is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. His polling is better, his fundraising is better, and he has a much more solid base of support than any of the other declared candidates. That said, there is probably a constituency as large or larger that doesn’t want Sanders to be the nominee. They just haven’t coalesced around a candidate yet.
As far as I can tell, there are three fully-baked candidacies in this primary process: hardcore Bernie partisans, pissed-off Hillary partisans, and people who think Sanders is too divisive to be an effective nominee. I would put myself in the third camp and point to the fact that I have the (potentially dubious) distinction of having cast a vote for both candidates in 2016.
Bernie’s tone and rhetoric inspire the kind of fierce loyalty that can be a help or a hindrance. So far it’s been a huge boon to his fundraising, and his name ID certainly doesn’t need the boost. His supporters are fully-baked, which gives him a rock solid base of support but raises questions about how high his potential ceiling is. He’s already demonstrated attempts to expand his electorate, but will they be successful? A recent poll had his net favorability at minus-7, only two points better than Trump and trailing the whole Democratic field except Tulsi Gabbard. In a wide open contest like this one, that hard base of support might provide a plurality strong enough for Sanders to win or at least knock out some of the lesser competition.
The problem is that there are a lot of Hillary Clinton partisans (not people that voted for her, but the ardent partisan supporters) who neither forgive nor forget the antics of 2016. Sanders - in my view - was a perfectly fine competitor who limited his attacks to substantive policy. The same cannot be said of his partisan base. It’s not his fault that he was unable to control them, but it does speak to the kinds of people who make up that base. While everyone seems to agree that re-litigating the 2016 primary is a bad idea in theory, plenty of people are willing to do it in practice. The recriminations have already begun, and to see the Sanders supporters cheer on the hate from ex-Clinton staffers, to wear it as a badge of honor, speaks to something more fundamental in what we’re going to witness. While Clinton has made clear her intentions not to run, her hardest base of supporters will stop at nothing to deny Bernie the nomination this time.
Which leaves the third constituency: people like me. I had issues with Clinton in the primary, I backed Sanders because I thought he had a better chance at winning and because I wanted the party to shift to the left of where it was under Obama (still my favorite President). I admit I said some regrettable things about Clinton in the throes of making a case against her. When it became clear that she would be the nominee, I shifted gears and worked to elect her. As the primary continued, the anger and the vitriol of the Sanders crowd - the allegations of “rigging” by the DNC, etc - became utterly distasteful to me. Were these the people I’d thrown in with? The more they hated Clinton over things that were frankly trivial and not substantive, the more of a Clinton partisan I became. Because that level of toxicity was bad for the party and could depress turnout in the general election. My ultimate goal was to push the platform left and then actually elect someone tasked with carrying out that platform.
So now you have the two fully baked constituencies: the Bernie-or-nobody crowd and the anybody-but-Bernie crowd. But the third constituency is the one that could prove lethal to Sanders’ chances: people who view the hyper-partisan support (support that active encourages people to antagonize them) and the hyper-partisan opposition as too divisive to let this person be the nominee. I’m always inclined to make the process argument when it comes to politics, and so far there is only one candidate who engenders the level of animus on behalf of voters that Bernie Sanders does. Whether or not you agree with his policies, the politics of putting forward a candidate with so much utter dislike in the party are bad. And the harder his partisans lash out and fight, the more undecideds will likely rally around the candidate receiving the hatred.
I don’t see the path for Bernie Sanders to become the nominee. People who love him are entitled to that belief. People that blame him for Clinton’s loss are equally entitled to that belief. I believe most of the electorate will far somewhere in between those partisans. While everyone publicly states that they don’t want to re-litigate the 2016 primary, two groups are sharpening their knives to do exactly that. And I feel the third group could seek to avoid all of those problematic discussions by denying the nomination to the person who necessitates them.