Bernie Sanders Meets His Biggest Threat

Sanders’s biggest obstacle is not any one of his opponents but a party establishment that remains nervous about his potential nomination.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Senator Bernie Sanders knew he wasn’t going to win South Carolina, and he knew he didn’t need to win South Carolina. So by the time polls closed today, he was long gone.

As the Democratic front-runner, he had that luxury.

“You can’t win ’em all,” Sanders told a rally in Virginia tonight before congratulating former Vice President Joe Biden on his first primary win.

The real march to the party’s presidential nomination begins on Tuesday, when 14 states vote. More than one-third of the delegates who will convene at the national convention in Milwaukee this summer are at stake Tuesday. The biggest prizes include California, Texas, and Virginia, where Sanders had already flown to tonight in a bid to make sure that his blowout loss to Biden was merely a hiccup, and nothing more.

Sanders remains well positioned in the Super Tuesday states, and unlike Biden, he has the money to capitalize on his narrow victory in New Hampshire and his much larger caucus win in Nevada last week. He also is benefiting from early voting: More than 2 million people have already cast ballots in Democratic primaries in Super Tuesday states, potentially limiting the bounce that Biden will pick up from South Carolina. Nowhere is that more significant than in California, where Democrats have been voting for nearly a month and where polls show that Sanders is leading by as many as 20 points. The senator from Vermont is also up, though by a narrower margin, in Texas, and victories in those two states, along with strong results elsewhere, could ensure that Sanders emerges from Tuesday with a significant lead in overall delegates.

A split among the moderate candidates—Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg—is also helping Sanders maintain his perch atop the field. Although Sanders is likely to cross the 15 percent threshold needed to collect delegates in virtually every contest on Tuesday, none of his opponents can say the same—at least according to the polls. Biden is strong in Virginia, North Carolina, and across the South, but weaker elsewhere. Klobuchar is battling to win her home state of Minnesota, while Senator Elizabeth Warren is looking to win in Massachusetts and rack up some delegates in California.

Then there is Bloomberg, the billionaire who has warned that Sanders cannot defeat President Donald Trump but whose candidacy may be helping the democratic socialist win the Democratic nomination. Bloomberg has shown strength in Texas and North Carolina, but his weak debate performances have stalled his rise in the polls. In a late bid to recapture support, the former mayor has purchased three minutes of national airtime on CBS and NBC tomorrow night to deliver a presidential-style address on the coronavirus.

Indeed, Sanders’s biggest threat is not any one of his opponents but a party establishment that remains nervous about his potential nomination. Within minutes of the polls closing in South Carolina tonight, pressure was building for some of the lagging candidates to drop out and rally behind Biden. “I’m hoping some of the candidates tomorrow get out,” former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a previous chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said on CNN as he endorsed the former vice president.

Sanders, however, would rather most of his rivals stay in for now—even if that means he takes a few losses on Super Tuesday. “A lot of states out there,” he said tonight. “That will not be the only defeat.”

In a sign of the increasing urgency of the calendar, Sanders devoted part of his speech to imploring young people to vote and to rebutting critiques of his electability in a race against Trump. Sanders needs a larger turnout among young voters to hold off his rivals and convince Democratic skeptics that he can win in the fall.

His double-digit defeat in South Carolina was a shellacking. If his landslide in Nevada suggested that Sanders had made deep inroads among the Latino community, the result in South Carolina is a reminder that he has a much tougher challenge in winning over African Americans, and particularly older voters.

More important, however, Sanders must hope that South Carolina is not the first sign of a broader national reconsideration of his candidacy. The answer to that question could be clear by Tuesday night.