It has taken a single week for Senator Bernie Sanders to achieve a distinction that eluded him for the entirety of his underdog campaign four years ago: The 78-year-old democratic socialist from Vermont is now, at least for the moment, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president.
Sanders’s victory tonight in the New Hampshire primary, combined with his strong finish last week in Iowa and a bounce in national polling, places him firmly at the top of the Democratic field as the nomination race heads to Nevada and South Carolina. He has benefited from a split in the moderate vote, as a late surge from Senator Amy Klobuchar slowed the momentum of Sanders’s closest New Hampshire rival, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s second consecutive lackluster result could threaten his firewall in South Carolina, where Sanders was on the rise and cutting into Biden’s lead among its crucial constituency of African American voters.
But the significance of Sanders’s standing in the race goes far beyond the next round of primaries. In the modern history of American politics, no candidate so firmly planted on the left has been so well positioned to capture the nomination of the Democratic Party. Sanders has won election after election in Vermont as an independent, regularly declining the label of the party he now seeks to lead. His rise to the top of a field filled with more mainstream candidates could point to an important shift in the electorate. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders’s talk of revolution overtook Biden’s pleas for a return to normalcy in the age of Donald Trump, and with his platform representing a kind of untainted progressive purity, the oldest white candidate on the ballot prevailed—albeit narrowly—over a plethora of younger, more diverse options.