The Sanders factor: Establishment Democrats are beginning to panic

Once again this year, we are hearing talk of a “hidden majority” that can only be mobilized by a candidate who offers a radical agenda. “It worked for Trump,” some Bernie Sanders supporters argue. But Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE didn’t get a majority or even a plurality of the national vote in 2016 (46 percent for Trump, 48 percent for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote MORE).

Trump won by the rules — specifically, the electoral college rules.

He won narrow plurality victories in states he needed to win, like Pennsylvania and Michigan, while a lot of Clinton votes were “wasted” in blue states like California, which she carried by more than 4 million votes (61.5 percent).


The Republican Party establishment tried to stop Trump in 2016, but he had an army of supporters who rallied to his call and overwhelmed his Republican opponents. That army was — and still is — Trump’s “base.” The conservative favorite in 2016, the hapless Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet 228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate MORE (R-Texas), could not compete with a popular television celebrity like Trump.

Does Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Angst grips America's most liberal city Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE (I-Vt.) have an army? You bet he does. It’s an internet army, dominated by young web-savvy voters. Young voters have never materialized as a major force in elections because their turnout is usually low. However, in Iowa this year there are signs that young Sanders supporters are being rallied by social media to attend the caucuses, whereas seniors, who turn out regularly for primaries and tend to favor former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE, are less likely to attend caucuses.

Sanders also stands a good chance of winning the New Hampshire primary, but for a different reason. To New Hampshire voters, Sanders is a local. Vermont is a neighboring state and the longtime senator is well-known and well-liked by his neighbors. Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 New Hampshire Democratic primary with more than 60 percent of the vote.

If Sanders sweeps Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic Party establishment is likely to go into full-scale panic. Democratic elected officials are already expressing concern about their ability to survive with a self-proclaimed socialist at the top of the ticket. A “Stop Sanders” movement is likely to emerge. The question is, will it get any further than the “Never Trump” movement did in 2016?

Some Democratic strategists believe they have a failsafe: superdelegates. Those are some 766 national committee members, elected officials and party luminaries who can cast ballots at the Democratic National Convention (about 16 percent of the total ballots).  Superdelegates represent the “Democratic establishment” Sanders rails against. In 2016, the superdelegates favored Hillary Clinton over Sanders by better than ten to one.


In 2018, under pressure from Sanders supporters, the Democratic National Committee changed the rules to ban superdelegates from voting on the first convention ballot. Only pledged delegates — those chosen by “the people” in primaries and caucuses — get to vote on the first ballot. If no candidate wins a majority on the first ballot, superdelegates can vote on the second ballot. No nomination has gone to a second ballot since 1952.

It could happen this year.

With some 12 candidates in the race, there is a serious possibility that no candidate will win a first-ballot majority of pledged delegates. One of Sanders’ advantages in the race is that he dominates the liberal wing of the party while his more moderate opponents remain divided among several contenders (principally Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergWHO leader issues warning on 'harmful' e-cigarettes Six months in, two challenges could define Biden's presidency Why Democrats' .5 trillion reconciliation bill is a losing game MORE, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegSunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Chasten Buttigieg: DC 'almost unaffordable' JD Vance takes aim at culture wars, childless politicians MORE and Minnesota Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Democrats urge tech CEOs to combat Spanish disinformation | Amazon fined 6M by EU regulators Democrats urge tech CEOs to combat Spanish disinformation Bill would honor Ginsburg, O'Connor with statues at Capitol MORE). Happiness in politics is a divided opposition.

It would be crazy for anxious Democrats to rely on superdelegates to save them. Imagine what would happen if Sanders won the largest number of primary votes but the superdelegates decide he’s too risky and throw their support behind a more moderate alternative who got fewer popular votes. The process would immediately be tainted as undemocratic. It would split the party wide open. The nomination would not be worth much. In reality, the superdelegates have no choice but to validate the popular vote.

The only path open to Democrats who are worried about a Sanders candidacy is to rally behind another candidate, an alternative to Sanders who can rally popular support by running as someone more likely to get elected. Exactly what conservatives tried and failed to do in the 2016 Republican race. It’s the same lesson: You can’t win a horse race without a horse.


But which horse? The obvious choice is Joe Biden, but he may not be so attractive if he does poorly in the early contests this month. If Biden falters, Michael Bloomberg may look like the best choice for anti-Sanders Democrats. But Bloomberg could be the perfect foil for Sanders. He’s a multibillionaire, rated the 9th wealthiest person in the world. And where did he make his fortune? Wall Street.

The risk of backlash for an anti-Sanders Democrat is real. A Democratic super-PAC was about to run an anti-Sanders attack ad in Iowa, but Sanders beat them to the punch. He posted a video to his supporters arguing that “the big money interests . . . are now running ads against us in Iowa. The billionaire class is getting nervous.”

As a result, the Sanders campaign raised over a million dollars in one day.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).