LAST TIME around, Bernie Sanders performed strongly in Iowa and New Hampshire, then lost the Nevada caucuses—and with them his momentum, never to regain it. On February 22nd he entered the caucuses with the same record—and won a thumping victory. With half the votes in, the senator from Vermont was on 46%. His closest challengers, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, were on 20% and 15% respectively. America’s best-known socialist is now the clear favourite to secure the Democratic nomination and take on Donald Trump in November.
That is mainly an unintended consequence of the fragmented Democratic primary field. Most voters in New Hampshire plumped for a moderate candidate, but divided their votes between Mr Biden, Mr Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. This made Mr Sanders’s loyal but limited core support—around 15-20% of the Democratic electorate—especially potent. Yet while the field was still split in Nevada, he also showed new strength there.
In 2016 Hillary Clinton won the caucuses on the back of her strong support from black voters; when she demonstrated this again in South Carolina the following week, Mr Sanders’s challenge was over, bar a lot of shouting. Yet he has since improved his standing with non-whites across the board. Entrance polls in Nevada suggest he was backed by over half of Latino and a quarter of black voters. This sets him up well for South Carolina’s primary on February 29th, where more than half the Democratic electorate is black, and the dozen states with big non-white populations that will vote next on Super Tuesday, March 3rd.
The Democratic establishment, whose elected and non-elected members dislike Mr Sanders personally and fear he could not beat Mr Trump, is in a spin. There is talk of which moderate candidates should now drop out, and why they should all devote themselves to attacking Mr Sanders, not each other, as they mostly have done. Yet none looks likely to drop out before South Carolina and only Mr Buttigieg has turned strongly against Mr Sanders. Shortly after the senator’s triumph in the caucuses became clear, Mr Buttigieg urged Democrats to “take a sober look at what’s at stake” before “we rush to nominate Senator Sanders”. The left-winger would divide the party, further polarise the country, and lead down-ballot Democrats to a crushing defeat, Mr Buttigieg warned.
But that was perhaps his last notable contribution to the primary. Having won a hair’s-breadth victory in Iowa and a solid second place in New Hampshire, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is now seeing the predicted limits to his appeal. According to the entrance poll, he won just 2% of black caucus-goers in Nevada. Meanwhile Mr Biden, a likeable man who spouts a lot of nonsense, may also be incapable of taking on Mr Sanders.
The former vice-president’s combination of strong credentials and weak performance is one of the main reasons why the centre-left is so split: it has made Mr Biden doggedly competitive but never dominant. And a looming new threat to Mr Biden, the belated entry of Mike Bloomberg into the race on Super Tuesday, has presented him with an additional distraction. The moderate ex-mayor of New York has climbed in national polling largely at Mr Biden’s expense. Whatever momentum he may gain in South Carolina, which he has long been expected to win, Mr Bloomberg now threatens to undo. (Much good it may do him: the notion of Mr Bloomberg as a white knight, with the gravitas, smarts and resources necessary to rally an anti-Sanders coalition, was dealt a bad blow by his poor performance in a televised Democratic debate last week.)
Moreover, Mr Sanders may win in South Carolina. Currently polling a close second there to Mr Biden, he is on course to win as many votes as he won in 2016, despite the more crowded field. As in Nevada—and unlike in Iowa and New Hampshire—that appears to signify that Mr Sanders is now adding to his leftist base. In particular, he is polling strongly with younger black voters in the state, a significant change from 2016.
Even if that proves insufficient to get him another win—given that South Carolina’s black electorate is older and correspondingly more conservative than Nevada’s—this appears to set up Mr Sanders well for the two most delegate-rich states in the primary, California and Texas, which have similar demographics to Nevada and will both hold primaries on Super Tuesday. A poll last week suggested he was the only candidate on track to surpass the 15% “threshold” for winning delegates in California. In that case, he would secure all 144 of the delegates it apportions on a state-wide basis (California’s congressional districts distribute another 271 delegates, among whichever candidates surpass 15% in each of them).
Mr Sanders’s potential to emulate Mr Trump, another factional candidate whose small but loyal base propelled him through a crowded field, was always apparent. Yet it seemed unlikely to be realised for two reasons. First, because of the way Democrats apportion their delegates in proportion to vote-share—not, as the Republicans mostly do, on a winner-takes-all basis: this was bound to limit Mr Sanders’s chances of taking the strong early lead, in the phase of maximum crowding, that Mr Trump did. Second, the Vermonter’s base is considerably smaller than the president’s was; heading into the Iowa caucuses, Mr Trump was polling 35% nationwide; Mr Sanders around 23%. The first disadvantage still holds; Mr Sanders has so far won only 31 of the 1,991 delegates he would need to secure the nomination. But the second has been mitigated by the failure of the Democratic field to thin out, especially due to Mr Bloomberg’s entry: the self-funding former mayor has more or less halved Mr Biden’s vote-share before he has even contested a state.
If Mr Sanders does as well in the next wave of states as looks likely, he may well benefit from another advantage Mr Trump enjoyed. Odious as the president then appeared to the Republican establishment (remember that?), Republican voters were wont to consider his early success somehow legitimising. Many were consequently won over to him as the front-runner. Mr Sanders appears well placed to profit from the same effect. American voters of all stripes tend to choose their candidate on the basis of his style and personal attributes, not policy. And even the many Democrats who find Mr Sanders left-wingery unnerving tend to like him personally.
By and large, they also tend to think he would stand a decent chance against Mr Trump. And, who knows, they could be proved right. In head-to-head polling, Mr Sanders performs roughly as well against the president as Mr Biden or any other Democrat does. Partisan identity, as Mr Trump also showed, is now a far bigger determinant of voter choice than the merits of a particular candidate. But even so, if the Democrats truly consider beating Mr Trump as important as they say, nominating Mr Sanders would be a big gamble. It is one thing for them to shrug off Republican attack ads denigrating all Democrats as crazy socialists. It could be quite another to present the Republicans with an opponent who might seem to fit that description.