The Memo

The Memo: Chaos deepens among Democrats after Bloomberg's misfire

The Democratic presidential race is in fresh turmoil after former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg turned in a conspicuously poor performance in his first debate Wednesday evening.

Bloomberg took a hammering in Las Vegas at the hands of his opponents, particularly Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

The negative impact is reverberating among centrists in the Democratic Party.

The party's moderate vote is splintered among several candidates while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a democratic socialist, advances toward the nomination.

Bloomberg's misfire means that dynamic won't change anytime soon.

The centrists contend Sanders is too risky a candidate to run against President Trump in November - an assertion that is, of course, vigorously disputed by his supporters.

In a TV interview earlier this month, James Carville, the former aide to President Clinton, compared Sanders with Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing British Labour Party leader.

Carville said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe": "The only thing between the United States and the abyss is the Democratic Party. That's it. If we go the way of the British Labour Party, if we nominate Jeremy Corbyn, it's going to be the end of days."

Corbyn's party suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party in December.

The problem from the centrists' point of view is that Sanders is the dominant figure on the left, while Bloomberg, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) fight over centrist votes.

Warren is something of a wild card, as she is not as far left as Sanders but not as centrist as the other four.

In an ABC News-Washington Post national poll this week, Sanders, with 32 percent support, had exactly twice the backing of his closest challenger, Biden, at 16 percent. Bloomberg had 14 percent, Warren 12 percent, Buttigieg 8 percent and Klobuchar 7 percent.

Bloomberg's candidacy has been built around vast advertising outlays - he is estimated to have spent around $350 million since beginning his White House bid in late November.

As he rose in the polls, some moderates were persuaded that his resources could make him the dominant standard-bearer for their side against the Sanders faction.

That seems a highly dubious proposition in the wake of his poor debate performance. And some in the Democratic Party, not aligned with any candidate, wonder what happens now.

"There is no question that Bloomberg has done enormous damage to Biden. There has been cannibalization in the non-Bernie lane," said Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the New Democrat Network. "Our primary is more complicated than two lanes, but in the non-Bernie lane, there is a pile-up."

Among the anti-Sanders factions, there is widespread fear that the Vermont Independent could soon jump out to an insurmountable delegate lead.

Sanders finished in a de facto dead-heat with Buttigieg in the chaotic Iowa caucuses and won the second contest, the New Hampshire primary. He is the strong favorite to win Saturday's Nevada caucuses as well.

Even if Sanders does not win the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29 - and he might - he will still go into Super Tuesday, on Mar. 3, in a preeminent position.

On that day, the liberal bastion of California is by far the biggest prize. The Golden State is fertile ground for Sanders, who held an 11-point lead there in the RealClearPolitics polling average as of Thursday evening.

Of course, that is cause for joy for Sanders supporters, who echo the senator's own arguments that he can inspire enthusiasm among people who do not normally vote and thus run up big margins of victory against Trump.

In his first sentence at the debate Wednesday night, Sanders asserted, "In order to beat Donald Trump, we're going to need the largest voter turnout in the history of the United States."

The jury is out on whether Sanders can actually do that. Getting habitual nonvoters to turn out is legendarily difficult and the evidence so far is mixed.

Even Democratic strategists who are unaffiliated with any campaign have some concern about whether Sanders really has the ingredients to make it to the White House.

"Against Trump, he certainly has a chance. But do I think he is the most electable Democrat running? No," said Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, who has worked on several past presidential campaigns.

"Do I think he is going to bring a lot of new voters out? There is no evidence of that from Iowa and New Hampshire."

But that doesn't resolve the key question for Sanders's skeptics: Who can stop him?

Bloomberg is badly wounded after his debate debacle.

Biden is fading fast in polls after very poor results in Iowa (4th place) and New Hampshire (5th place).

Buttigieg has shown no real capacity to win significant nonwhite support, which is a glaring deficiency in a Democratic primary.

And Klobuchar, who outperformed expectations to finish third in New Hampshire, languishes in fifth place in most national polls.

That leaves Warren, who began her campaign very much as a progressive champion but has more recently sought to present herself as a unifying force.

Warren would need to clear a lot of hurdles to come back into real contention - she was third in Iowa, fourth in New Hampshire and is not expected to win in either Nevada or South Carolina.

The overall picture leaves some Democrats, like Rosenberg, worrying about the wounds inflicted in the primary - and casting around in vain for someone who might be able to bind them up.

"The core of the dilemma that Democrats face right now is that neither Bloomberg nor Sanders will have an easy time uniting the party if they win the nomination," he said. "They're not Democrats."

"It's going to take someone of enormous dexterity and skill to bring everybody together."

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.

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