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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 SandersPBS White House reporter Yamiche Alcindor to moderate 'Washington Week' Pressure builds for Biden to back vaccine patent waivers Democrats confront difficult prospects for midterms MORE (I-Vt.) intentionally sat on the sidelines instead of supporting the party’s eventual nominee, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights Hillary Clinton: Biden less 'constrained' than Clinton and Obama due to prior administration Biden's unavoidable foreign policy crisis MORE.

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They are worried that a long, bruising primary season could ultimately benefit President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump's Facebook ban to stay in place, board rules Trump allies launching nonprofit focused on voter fraud DOJ asks for outside lawyer to review Giuliani evidence 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. IsraelOpposition to refugees echoes one of America's most shameful moments White House races clock to beat GOP attacks Overnight Defense: Biden's stalled Pentagon nominee gets major support | Blinken presses China on North Korea ahead of meeting | Army will not return medals to soldier Trump pardoned 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 BidenCensus results show White House doubling down on failure Poll: Americans back new spending, tax hikes on wealthy, but remain wary of economic impact True immigration reform requires compromise from both sides of the aisle MORE was ripped apart by his Democratic rivals, particularly Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerNever underestimate Joe Biden Police reform talks ramp up amid pressure from Biden, families Victims' relatives hold Capitol Hill meetings to push police reform MORE (N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisAlabama museum unveils restored Greyhound bus for Freedom Rides' 60th anniversary Never underestimate Joe Biden Prosecuting the Flint water case 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 WarrenSchumer works to balance a divided caucus's demands DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates Warren book reflects on losing 2020 bid: 'Painful' 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 ObamaGender politics hound GOP in Cheney drama Never underestimate Joe Biden Afghanistan withdrawal: Trump fumbles, Biden scores 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.”