The primary process for choosing a presidential candidate in the US can be inordinately long drawn and unwieldy. There is no dearth of narcissistic politicians who fancy their chances, and as in the 2016 Republican primary, this year's Democratic primary started off with an unwieldy gaggle of candidates. (The first debate, held way back in June last year, had a whopping 20—I kid you not—candidates.)
Here we are in February, and the slate of candidates is still far too big. In the recent debate in Charleston, South Carolina, seven candidates battled it out on February 25.
However, a clear trend is beginning to emerge. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has won the most votes in the first three states: Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. While these victories are a minuscule part of the process, it drives the media narrative.
Sanders is beginning to rule the roost.
Earlier, former Vice President Joe Biden had thrown in his hat into the race somewhat late in the game. His main argument was "electability," a euphemism for avoiding someone too liberal or leftist.
In the beginning, Biden led in opinion polls. He is a nice enough guy, but an extraordinarily lacklustre candidate who seems out of touch with the current Democratic zeitgeist—whichis assertively progressive. He is from an older era of smoke-filled rooms where party bigwigs anointed successors and political connections counted. His claims of bipartisan camaraderie seem particularly tone-deaf and naïve in an age of shrill partisanship; his policy stands and overall demeanour seem oddly vacuous. All of this translated into a precipitous performance in the first two primaries.
The undisputed, if unlikely, frontrunner in a fragmented primary electorate is Sanders, a proud, unabashed "democratic socialist." Sanders has two things going for him. For decades, he has braved the opprobrium of conventional wisdom and railed against the gross inequality of American society. The second, related to the first, is a solid base of devoted supporters he has drawn following his robust campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2016.
Sanders has gone after billionaire fat cats who control the Democratic Party's purse strings and, by extension, the party itself. He has proudly eschewed a staple in American national politics: expensive fundraisers. Instead, he has built a formidable engine of fundraising from grassroots supporters—in effect democratising one of the most plutocratic aspects of American politics.
Yet ideologue that he is, his support, while passionate, was limited in the beginning. Luckily for him, a bunch of centre-left candidates are jostling like crabs in a bucket, pulling each other down. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar are peeling away possible votes from Biden. Billionaire Mike Bloomberg, a former New York mayor and a late entrant into the race, is throwing around hundreds of millions of dollars like confetti.
Then there is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is actually closer to Sanders ideologically than the centre left. She created waves initially, but has seen her support falter.
After close wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sander's decisive victory in Nevada has cemented his front-runner position. He has also silenced his critics with an overwhelming 46 percent vote, followed by a modest 20 percent by Biden. His grassroots campaigning has built a diverse supporter base, with massive Latino support for Tio (Uncle) Bernie.
Sanders is already rising in national polls, and he has overtaken Biden. The next round of elections will be critical. South Carolina hosts its primary on February 29. Then there is Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states representing 40 percent of the US population select their nominees. Biden could win South Carolina, but Super Tuesday might not be all that super for him. Polls show Sanders in a commanding position. The election analysis website Five Thirty-Five estimates that Sanders is expected to sweep Super Tuesday states with 587 delegates (42 percent), followed by Biden (22 percent) and Warren (10 percent). (The site adds a caveat that the race could change.)
This makes Sanders' position particularly strong. Not only are his competitors well behind, but several may win enough delegates to remain in the battle, continuing to fragment anti-Sanders votes.
Party honchos are agonising over the possibility of a Bernie nomination. Some of it is ideological prejudice, but some of it is also genuine fear that a candidate that veers too much to the left will antagonise too many voters to win in such an evenly divided general electorate.
Some of their arguments have merit. US presidential elections are fought on a state-by-state basis, and analysts say Democrats will have to win three states out of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida. Analysts say Sanders' stand against fracking dooms him in Pennsylvania and previous praise for Fidel Castro's Cuba will sink him in Florida.
Local sensitivities matter. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz discovered it the hard way when he tried to wean Iowa farmers off ethanol subsidies during his presidential campaign in 2016. It went down like a lead balloon, and sank his campaign with it.
On the national level, Sanders' backing for Medicare for All, which will abolish private insurance, is giving establishment Democrats nightmares. Polls show Obamacare is popular and healthcare is a winning issue for Democrats, but voters are wary about Sanders' position.
Some of Sanders' critics clearly have an axe to grind. Andrew Sullivan's argument in New York magazine raising the spectre of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's disastrous defeat in recent UK politics is patently false: The problem for Labour wasn't Corbyn, it was Brexit, which divided the party right in the middle with young, urban supporters against it while rural and working-class supporters backing it.
Among members of Congress, there is a curious divergence. Several Democratic House members in more conservative constituencies are distancing themselves from Sanders, but Politico reported that Democratic senators seem okay with a possible Sanders candidacy. David Wasserman, a veteran Congressional district analyst, thinks even House Democrats have little to fear about a Sanders candidacy.
Political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, an election forecaster who shot into the limelight with her uncannily accurate prediction of the Democratic victory in the 2018 House elections, has already stuck her neck out and predicted a Democratic victory in the 2020 US presidential elections.
It is driven, she says, by a phenomenon political scientists call "negative partisanship." In a supreme twist of irony, it is Trump himself who will help Democrats win the presidency.
"The complacent voting ranks of 2016 who believed (at the energetic prompting of polls and pundit forecasts) that Donald Trump could never be president have been replaced by the terrified electorate of 2020," Bitecofer writes in The New Republic. "These voters know all too well the hazards of granting great power to a figure like Trump and view the president as a Terminator-like political figure who simply can't be stopped." She adds: "Trump has a basic math problem. As the electorate is currently constituted, there are more potential Democratic voters out there than there are Republican, and not just in California. There are more in the Midwest and in the Sun Belt. There are so many more in Virginia and Colorado that both states have moved off the swing state map….
"The 2020 election will be a battle of the bases, with nothing less than the country's survival as a functional democracy on the ballot."
So, will Sanders have the last laugh after all?
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a digital daily for South Asians in the United States.