However, that's only one of the things we might mean when we say "the Barack Obama of 2016." We might also mean that Sanders is like Barack Obama in that he too will ultimately prevail against Hillary Clinton. Sanders fans like to conflate the two, as though being the Barack Obama in the first sense means that he'll be Barack Obama in the (much more important) second sense.
He won't be. Bernie Sanders is in the weird position of being both the Barack Obama of 2016 and the Hillary Clinton of 2016. Let's compare.
Strong, visible support
This is the most obvious comparison to a casual observer. Sanders, like Obama, has big events with big crowds and has been smart about how he leverages his support to raise money and to spread the word. It hasn't been the case that his voters are more enthusiastic, but if you go by crowd size and energy alone, Sanders mirrors the sitting president.
Support from young voters and liberals
Sanders consistently gets massive margins of support from young voters and has done better with more liberal Democratic voters. That latter point varies, but the former doesn't.
In 2008, Obama won people under 30 in Iowa by 33 points over John Edwards. He won "very liberal" voters by 16 over Clinton. This year, Sanders won liberals by 19 in the state -- and young people by 70 points.
Support from black voters
Sanders support from black voters is like Clinton's in 2008, which is to say that it is bad.
This graph shows how Clinton has turned around her fortunes with black voters over the last eight years -- thanks in part to facing someone who isn't Barack Obama.
Comparing Sanders to the 2008 candidates, he's no Obama either.
More success in caucus voting
Sanders, like Obama, has done much better than Clinton in caucuses. Last week, he dominated in the three caucuses in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. Clinton keeps doing badly in them.
Leading in the popular vote
Obama's ability to win caucuses meant he was winning states where turnout was lower. In the final tally, compiled at U.S. Election Atlas, Clinton got a slightly larger proportion of the popular vote even though she trailed in the delegate count.
This year, the pattern is similar. Sanders is winning states, but Clinton is winning more states and bigger ones. Right now, she has 45 percent more votes than Sanders.
In other words, Sanders's 2016 campaign looks more like Obama's here -- but that's not a good thing.
Maintaining a big delegate lead
In 2008, Barack Obama jumped out to a delegate lead and kept winning enough delegates to stay a few steps ahead of Hillary Clinton. This year, Clinton jumped out in front, by an even wider margin.
Meaning that Sanders is in the position that Clinton was in in 2008 -- needing to close the gap but not having any viable way to do so.
Beloved by superdelegates
We tend to overestimate the extent to which Clinton led with superdelegates in 2008, just as we tend to overstate how big her national polling lead was. She had a 2-to-1 lead at one point, but as Obama started winning states, the much-larger pool of uncommitted superdelegates started backing him.
This year, Clinton has 15 superdelegates for every one of Sanders's. In the sense that he trails, he's more like Obama in 2008 than Clinton that year.
But all of this glosses over an important point. The main reason that the analogy of Sanders to Obama falls apart is that the underlying mechanics of the race are different. Sanders is losing, full-stop, and has no viable argument for why the pool of uncommitted superdelegates should switch to him. Clinton argued in 2008 that she was leading in the popular vote and staying close with the delegates. Sanders trails by a wide margin and is much farther back with delegates.
There is no Barack Obama of 2016, really. There is a Hillary Clinton, and that's Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders is the Bernie Sanders of 2016, the guy who dramatically shifted the race to the left and who broke new ground in raising small donations online. But who (almost certainly) didn't end up winning.