Well, now it has happened, and Sanders’s opponents need to figure out what to do. They can’t just let him keep on coasting. The problem is that virtually no attacks on him seem to have stuck — and going at him means potentially alienating his extremely passionate voter base. In the closing days in Nevada, a few of them tried to make the anti-Sanders arguments they probably should have made Wednesday. Pete Buttigieg said at his election night party, “We can prioritize either ideological purity or inclusive victory” — but it was clearly too late for it to register.
So what do they do now? Do they attack him on electability? On being a democratic socialist? On his more extreme positions? On his age and lack of information about his recent heart attack? There are some obvious targets, but none has been the subject of a concerted effort.
They need to figure out how they’re going to stop what’s increasingly looking like a fast-moving train. If they think they can just try to hold him below a delegate majority, take things to the Democratic National Convention and beat him there, then they’re really desperate. But they seem to have very few answers for Sanders right now.
2. What does this mean for Biden?
On one hand, Joe Biden had his best finish in the presidential race — second place — after disappointing fourth- and fifth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively. On the other hand, he was nowhere close to Sanders, and Sanders is hot on his heels in the state Biden is counting on to get him a win and make him a player in this race: South Carolina.
You could see it working both ways. One way is that Sanders’s momentum takes hold and he surpasses Biden in South Carolina, delivering a crippling blow to Biden’s viability, given how much he led there and how important a win in the state would be in the days before Super Tuesday. Another is that perhaps South Carolina voters see Sanders marching toward the nomination and want to keep things interesting by delivering their state for Biden — a role New Hampshire often plays after Iowa.
One thing is clear: Biden really could use a win in South Carolina. We’ll see how Nevada and the debate on Tuesday affect things there.
3. Does anybody drop out?
Six candidates were on the debate stage Wednesday, and eight remain in the race. But starting now, there will be plenty of pressure to drop out.
Part of that is because of a lack of momentum and funding. January fundraising reports showed that some of the candidates were in rough shape even before the voting began this month, and some middling showings from a few of them will probably make it difficult to press on. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), in particular, began the month with less than $3 million in the bank and have yet to place in the top two. Each got a little boost — Klobuchar from a third-place finish in New Hampshire and Warren from a strong debate Wednesday — but it’s going to be tougher and tougher to convince people that they actually have a chance. Businessman Tom Steyer way underperformed in Nevada polls, meanwhile, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) is a virtual nonentity at this point.
The other reason is because of who won in Nevada. There is palpable concern in parts of the Democratic Party that Sanders is about to build that potentially insurmountable delegate lead. And with that come theories about how the party should coalesce behind another candidate — as we saw in 2016 when the GOP establishment fretted about how to stop Donald Trump. The problem is that everyone wants to believe they’re that candidate.
Here’s what we can say now: Klobuchar is quickly entering the “spoiler for Biden and/or Buttigieg” territory. There will also be fights about whether Biden or Buttigieg is more viable, which is a big reason Biden needs a win in South Carolina. Etc., etc.
Meanwhile, Super Tuesday is a little more than a week away, and many of these candidates will want to stick around at least until then. Let the fretting begin.
4. Can Latino voters be Sanders’s silver bullet?
One of the biggest story lines of the 2016 Democratic race was about how Sanders couldn’t win black voters and how that made it virtually impossible for him to win the nomination. Well, he’s doing much better there this time, but it’s another minority-voter bloc that might be his ticket moving forward: Latinos.
In 2016, entrance polls showed Sanders winning 53 percent of the Hispanic vote in Nevada despite losing the state in a relatively close race. But there was some thought that perhaps this overestimated his support among this key demographic. Well, on Saturday, he won 51 percent of the Hispanic vote, while taking a similar share of the overall vote — about 47 percent of delegates, with 96 percent of precincts reporting.
That suggests this is an increasingly important part of his coalition, but it’s hardly the first indicator of that. A poll of the all-important California primary last week showed him taking 53 percent of Latino voters there, a result that would be huge if it pans out and translates to other states. And if he can indeed combine that with rising black support, it will be very difficult to beat him.
Keep an eye on this subplot moving forward.
5. What is Bloomberg’s role in this race?
The former New York mayor wasn’t on the ballot Saturday and won’t be in South Carolina this Saturday either. In the meantime, he needs to hope there is still a place for him in this race.
Part of that relates to what happened over the weekend, with Biden showing something of a pulse on the race. A bigger part of it, though, will be how he performs at Tuesday’s debate in South Carolina. If he can easily clear the low bar he set for himself in Nevada, he can help head off a potentially strong result for Biden in South Carolina and make himself the most obvious Sanders alternative. Or he could do something more in between, Biden could win, and the whole thing could continue to be a muddled mess.
One thing is for sure: The moderate lane of this race has a lot more to figure out than the liberal lane. That one seems settled — in a big way.