'Come to Jesus' Moment for Dems

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
February 28, 2020

At the risk of adding religion to the already incendiary subject of politics, Democrats are approaching what Southerners often call a “come to Jesus" moment, namely the realization that there is a pretty good chance Bernie Sanders builds up an insurmountable lead, or close to it, on Super Tuesday. If you are a Sanders supporter, you shouldn’t get overconfident, but there is a lot to feel good about. If you are a more conventionally wired Democrat, this is a cause of great concern.

This has less to do with Sanders’s big win in Saturday’s Nevada caucus than you might think. Frankly, I don’t think Nevada or South Carolina were ever going to be very important, sandwiched as they are between the closely watched Iowa and New Hampshire contests in the first half of February and Super Tuesday on March 3, when almost 34 percent of the pledged delegates will be picked. Nevada and South Carolina primarily exist to shoot the wounded from Iowa and New Hampshire.

Nor is this about Michael Bloomberg’s poor performance in his first debate. In politics, the phrase imprinted on your car’s rearview mirror is 180 degrees wrong: It’s not that "objects in mirror are closer than they appear," it’s that events in the immediate past usually are less important than they initially appear. Just ask Amy Klobuchar, who should have finished higher in New Hampshire if her strong debate performance there were the only factor.

If, a year ago, someone was to imagine the best possible scenario for Sanders, it would be that Elizabeth Warren’s support would collapse and that the center-left lane would be badly splintered between three or more candidates. Well, that is exactly what has happened. Warren, who was coming on like gangbusters in the fall, has faded. And as long as Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bloomberg, and Klobuchar are all running, none of them will be the Democratic nominee.

David Wasserman, my Cook Political Report colleague, estimates that Sanders could win as little as 25 to 30 percent of the total vote on Super Tuesday but take as many as 40-45 percent of the delegates, with the remaining 55 to 60 percent of the delegates split perhaps five ways.

Looking at the year-end Federal Election Commission reports and campaign spending patterns since then, it is very hard for me to see how Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or Warren can really compete financially with Sanders on Super Tuesday and the remaining states that will vote in March. Tom Steyer has spent a lot of money but has little to show for it; he may raise some eyebrows in South Carolina but is not an important factor in this race. It would seem that Bloomberg is the only Democrat (other than Steyer) with the resources to compete with Sanders, but he obviously needs a better debate performance Tuesday night in order for his poll numbers to keep trending up.

The argument that, if nominated, Sanders cannot possibly beat President Trump underestimates the extent of the self-inflicted damage that Trump has sustained. But Trump was always most vulnerable in an up-or-down referendum on him, not a referendum on democratic socialism or on impeachment. If it were a choice between Trump and a qualified but reasonably noncontroversial Democrat, he would certainly lose the popular vote and have a tough time in the Electoral College. It is not that Sanders cannot win, but that he would have a tougher time winning a general than one of his less-polarizing rivals.

Current national trial heats show Sanders running ahead of Trump by 2 to 8 points, but so many of Sanders’s potential vulnerabilities have gone relatively unexploited. Recall the Willie Horton ads that independent-expenditure groups backing George H.W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis in 1988 and the Swift Boat ads against John Kerry in 2004 for an idea of how these issues could be used against Sanders.

Democrats now are legitimately concerned about the House as well. In a neutral political environment, Wasserman suggests that the over/under is about a six-seat loss for Democrats, short of the 18-seat loss that would tip the House over to the GOP. It is hard to imagine a party scoring net gains of 40 seats in one election and not losing a few seats in the next election. The generic congressional ballot test shows Democrats 6 to 8 points ahead, roughly where they were at the time of the 2018 election. Does that change with Sanders atop the ticket? Maybe.

In the Senate, my thinking was that the Democrats had a good chance of getting to 48 or 49 seats, but that the 50 or 51 seats needed to take the majority would require a national political tailwind. If the top of the ticket is softer, then their chances of gaining a majority drop from perhaps one-in-three to even longer odds

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on February 25, 2020