Ghosts of 2016 primary haunt Democrats

Democrats are feeling a sense of déjà vu as infighting among presidential candidates intensifies.

And with less than a week until the first 2020 primary debate, the sniping is expected to worsen.

Democrats are concerned they will have another 2016 on their hands, when the primary grew so bitter that some supporters of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders2020 Democrats react to 'send her back' chants at Trump rally Cardi B posts message of support for Ilhan Omar #IStandWithIlhan trends after crowd at Trump rally chants 'send her back' MORE (I-Vt.) intentionally sat on the sidelines instead of supporting the party’s eventual nominee, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton slams Trump rally: 'The time has come again' to fight for democracy Trump blasts minority Democrats, rally crowd chants 'send her back' The Memo: Democrats debate Trump response – 'Being righteous and losing sucks' MORE.

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They are worried that a long, bruising primary season could ultimately benefit President TrumpDonald John TrumpAmash responds to 'Send her back' chants at Trump rally: 'This is how history's worst episodes begin' McConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Trump blasts 'corrupt' Puerto Rico's leaders amid political crisis MORE on Election Day.

"Democrats will beat Donald Trump by making this a referendum on Donald Trump. But if they tear each other apart between now and the convention, they risk depressing their own turnout," said former Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Will Trump's racist tweets backfire? The real estate tycoon meets Iran MORE (N.Y.), who served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for two election cycles. "They’ve got the most polarizing and unpopular Republican president in history, and it’s just political malpractice to be firing at each other instead of targeting him."

Other Democrats say it’s a very real possibility.

"It's the nightmare of nightmares," one Democratic strategist said, summing up a potential scenario where the bickering leads to irreparable damage to the nominee. "I know everyone says, 'Oh, it's good for the party' and 'It's good for the eventual nominee.' But I worry about the consequences down the line."

This past week, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Biden2020 Democrats react to 'send her back' chants at Trump rally Can Biden's canceled cancer initiative be salvaged? Biden's health care gaffe shows he's not ready for prime time MORE was ripped apart by his Democratic rivals, particularly Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony Booker2020 Democrats react to 'send her back' chants at Trump rally The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations MORE (N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi Harris2020 Democrats react to 'send her back' chants at Trump rally Biden's health care gaffe shows he's not ready for prime time The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP MORE (Calif.), for touting his previous working relationship in the Senate with two segregationist senators.

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Shortly before that, Sanders took aim at his main competitor on the left, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenNew CDC overdose estimates are nothing to celebrate 2020 Democrats react to 'send her back' chants at Trump rally Democratic Houston councilwoman announces Senate bid MORE (D-Mass.). The Sanders jab was significant because he and Warren had vowed to not go after each other in the primary.

"It's like we never learned our lesson," the strategist said.

In 2016, Clinton and Sanders sparred over everything from health care to the auto bailout and guns. Sanders repeatedly highlighted Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and wealthy fundraisers, painting her as out of touch with working-class Democrats as she accepted high dollar speaking fees from investment firms such as Goldman Sachs.

“Do we really feel confident about a candidate who says she will bring change in America when she is so dependent on big money interests?” Sanders asked in a New York debate in the spring of 2016. “I don’t think so.”

As the primary wore on and it looked as though Clinton would win the nomination, Sanders refused to drop out of the race.

The long primary season resulted in Clinton getting hit on two fronts: in the primary and also by Trump. Even as Sanders conceded the primary and endorsed Clinton, campaigning for her in must-win states, his supporters — including many young voters — never went on to support her.

To this day, Clinton allies and supporters maintain that Sanders made a half-hearted attempt to help her in the general election, a sentiment that has put Sanders on the defensive this time around.

“In 2016, the nominee beat the runner-up by 4 million votes. I suspect the 2020 nominee would take that outcome in a heartbeat. But as important is what the rest of the field does to support the nominee after the convention,” said Philippe Reines, a longtime close adviser to Clinton. “The 2016 nominee did not have the benefit of a former rival working as hard for her as she did for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump averages highest approval rating of his presidency in second quarter: Gallup The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations MORE in 2008.”

For now, Biden remains the clear front-runner in the 2020 Democratic race and has set his sights on President Trump, running more of a general election strategy that focuses on electability. Meanwhile, his primary opponents have been seeking to chip away at his lead, coming after him from all sides.

This week, after Biden’s rivals urged him to apologize for positive comments he made about working with segregationist senators, Biden refused to apologize.

“They know better,” he told reporters, according to The Washington Post. “Apologize for what? Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period. Period.”

In recent weeks, Biden has warned that the internal spats among Democrats are not healthy in the long run if they want to defeat Trump. The infighting benefits Trump by “increasing the chances that this fella will win,” he said at a fundraiser in Washington earlier this month.

Democrats lead Trump in recent polls. A Quinnipiac University survey released earlier this month showed six Democrats beating the president in hypothetical match-ups. Biden maintained the biggest lead, besting Trump 53 percent to 40 percent.

But Democrats also warn that the sheer animosity toward Trump won’t help Democrats win.

“Both anger and pride are powerful motivators at the polls, but anger is not enough to beat Trump,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle, a former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party. “We need to embrace our nominee. If candidates become too unappealing during the primary because of sustained, sharp critiques by opponents, then electability, enthusiasm and turnout will suffer.”

But other Democrats didn’t seem as worried that this election will be a repeat of the last one.

“2016 had a lot of unique factors on our side, but most important, everyone underestimated Trump,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale. “It’s normal and healthy to air differences out in a primary so people are informed and can pick the best candidate.”

“It’s also a great test of who can give and take a punch, which is what’s needed to take on Trump,” Vale added. “No matter who wins, everyone is going to get their shit together to make sure Trump doesn’t win again.”