Bernie Sanders is for real, his opposition is fractured, and President Trump is delighted to play the Democrats against one another.
While Sanders’ more moderate opponents wring their hands over what to do next, they might consider that Sanders built this brand in part through a series of specific promises: single-payer health care, free college, a Green New Deal, universal child care and much more.
Sanders may not have explained in detail how he’d pay for all this, let alone, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pointed out on Saturday night, how he’d shepherd it through Congress. But Sanders understands the hunger for very specific forms of relief within a significant part of the Democratic electorate, particularly the young who suffered most from the fallout of the Great Recession.
In Mike Bloomberg’s business world, it might be said that Sanders offers a lot of “deliverables”— putting aside whether they can be delivered. Warren’s early “I have a plan for that” appeal made her competitive in this segment of the political marketplace, but she lost much of that edge after wavering on Medicare-for-all. In Nevada, Warren ran fourth, behind Sanders, former vice president Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Sanders’s deliverables mattered in Nevada — and his performance there confirmed that in a multicandidate field, he can keep winning simply by holding enough of the 2016 vote he assembled against Hillary Clinton.
His showing among Latino voters is a good example. Four years ago and again on Saturday, Sanders won about half the ballots cast by Latinos. This time, he outpaced Biden, his nearest competitor, by 3-to-1.
Because so many Latinos think of themselves as moderates or conservatives — roughly 40 percent of them labeled themselves this way in Nevada, according to the Edison Entrance Poll — their strong support for expansive government programs and economic progressivism is often ignored. Sanders never made that mistake. He thus carried even self-described moderate and conservative Latinos by better than 2-to-1.
A key test for Sanders will come on Super Tuesday in Texas, where Latinos rejected him in 2016 for Clinton. But here is the dilemma for the divided moderates: Roughly two-thirds of Nevada caucus-goers said their priority was to find a candidate who could beat Trump, and Sanders received less than a quarter of their preferences. But the rest of that beat-Trump-above-all crowd was relatively evenly scattered across the candidacies of Biden, Buttigieg, and then Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
Sanders is beating them all because they are all beating each other.
After Klobuchar’s late surge in New Hampshire — its main impact was to deprive Buttigieg of a chance of defeating Sanders there — she was pummeled in Nevada. Klobuchar now has no plausible place to go (except as a favorite in her home state), and her continuing in the race would only make her a spoiler.
In the meantime, Biden and Buttigieg each have a significant share of the non-Sanders vote, but neither has been able to secure the rest they need.
Buttigieg ran second to Sanders among white Nevada caucus-goers but received virtually no African American votes and just 1-in-10 Latinos.
Biden defeated Sanders among African American caucus-goers, a sign that he may be able to slow Sanders’s momentum with a victory next Saturday in South Carolina, where black voters constitute a majority of the primary electorate. However, Biden’s profound weakness among the young remains an anchor around his candidacy.
The splintering of the non-Sanders vote may get worse. Warren could not take full advantage of her strong debate performance last week because so many Nevada votes were cast early, so she’ll soldier on. And Bloomberg’s gargantuan spending for March 3’s Super Tuesday primaries guarantees him a share of the middle-ground vote, despite his ineffectual response to Warren’s pummeling.
Unity is nowhere in sight. Sanders’s Friday tweet — “I’ve got news for the Republican establishment. I’ve got news for the Democratic establishment. They can’t stop us” — showed he’s in no mood to pull this fractured party together.
This breach of party solidarity alarmed down-ticket Democrats hoping to keep control of the House and win the Senate — and must have delighted Trump, whose Saturday night tweet announced how he’ll exploit the opposition’s fractiousness, no matter what’s next. He congratulated “Crazy Bernie” on his Nevada victory, adding, “Don’t let them take it away from you!”
Trump would love to tie the entire Democratic Party to “crazy socialism” — but he’d also relish attacking “the Democratic establishment” for denying Sanders the nomination. What petrifies Democrats is that not one of their candidates, whether on the left or in the middle, has found a way out of this box.
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