But in a few weeks, Sanders just might slip out of that bind. None of Sanders’s rivals have managed to become the consensus candidate over the course of the campaign, and the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire show a messy, fluid race. This is a good situation for the Vermonter: If he can win the most votes in the first two states, voters in subsequent contests might warmly accept him, sans pivot.
Sanders isn’t built to win a traditional, one-on-one primary matchup with Biden or Warren. Traditional Democratic nominees are typically consensus builders: people who can switch gears easily, wear multiple faces and manage an unruly coalition. Sanders, on the other hand, has exactly one gear: populist political revolution. His loyalists make up a real but not commanding slice of the party, and if he were forced to square off with someone like Warren or Biden who can operate in many different modes and has at least some establishment support, he’d probably lose.
But the 2020 primary isn’t a rerun of Sanders’s run against Hillary Clinton. He has a much clearer path through the chaos of this primary: It’s possible to imagine him combining his supporters with defectors from Warren and winning with a plurality as Biden, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) vie for the problem-solving-moderate mantle. After that, Sanders could get a boost in New Hampshire and hit mid-February with two wins under his belt. If he accomplishes that, he might be able to drive some rivals out of the race and expand his support without changing his positions or moderating his tone.
Obviously this scenario is nowhere close to inevitable — Buttigieg, Warren or Biden could post a strong showing in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada and close off Sanders’s path. Moreover, if Sanders were poised to win the nomination, someone like Barack Obama might step in and try to stop him by reviving one of his competitors with an endorsement.
But Sanders, when armed with momentum, may be more formidable than the Democratic establishment thinks. Seventy-one percent of Democrats view him favorably, a figure on par with Joe Biden’s approval rating. Moreover, per a recent Economist-YouGov poll, only 20 percent of Democratic primary voters would be disappointed if he were the nominee; Biden’s number was actually slightly worse at 24 percent. And more than half of Democrats think Sanders can beat Trump. If Sanders starts racking up wins, rank-and-file Democrats might just go with it.
A Sanders nomination isn’t the most likely scenario — Biden still has a better chance of winning, and both Warren and Buttigieg have viable paths as well. Sanders never had a truly viable plan to beat Clinton in 2016; she had a larger coalition and was able to blunt any attempts to reach liftoff. But the continued chaos of the 2020 field is providing him an opening. In a few weeks, we’ll see if he’s able to take it.