World·Analysis

Sanders surge in crowded Democratic field echoes Trump's 2016 rise

Democrats in 2020 are going through the same sort of identity crisis that Republicans went through with Donald Trump in 2016: An outsider, openly contemptuous of the party machine and its direction, is facing a fractured field of rivals.

Rivals focus on Sanders during South Carolina debate as fight for delegates heats up

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders took tough criticism from his rivals ahead of the South Carolina primary, which comes just before Super Tuesday, when many states will vote on the same day. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

Now that all the U.S. Democratic presidential candidates have realized that Sen. Bernie Sanders is the front-runner for their party's nomination, they are finally treating him that way. 

Sanders was the pinata on Tuesday night, as seven Democratic hopefuls sparred in South Carolina's pre-primary debate in Charleston.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren trashed him as an all-talk,-no-walk legislator who had little to show for his decade-plus in the Senate. 

Former vice-president Joe Biden recited the Vermont senator's votes against gun control laws. 

But it was Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who really put his finger on the thing that's frying the circuits of the party's mainstream: the uphill climb of retailing Sanders's democratic socialist platform.

The cost of the Sanders health-care plan, he said, adds up to "four more years of Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House, and the inability to get the Senate into Democratic hands."

What's more, he said, addressing Sanders, the crucial 40 Democrats who flipped Republican seats in the 2018 midterms, "are running away from your platform as fast as they possibly can."

WATCH: Buttigieg takes on Sanders on filibuster reform, just one of several attacks on the Vermont senator during Tuesday night's debate

'How are we going to lead a revolution if you can't support a rules change?' Buttigieg challenged Sanders. 1:14

If true, it could mean Democrats are on the road to electoral catastrophe. 

But Sanders has a ready answer — one he has used since his 2016 campaign. He says his ideas are attracting new people to the party who will more than make up for those who might be turned off by them. 

There is polling to back that up. But the polling also shows that the people Sanders draws most are under 35 — an age cohort that includes the least reliable voters. The risk is obvious and promises many sleepless nights ahead for nervous Democrats.

Biden needs a win in South Carolina

By many reckonings, Tuesday night's debate was a loud, too-lightly reffed, oratorical brawl that brought forth the worst in all of the candidates. But it also showed how the strain on the party is peaking this week. Suddenly, it looks as though the race may be all but over in just a few days. 

Biden needs a decisive win in the South Carolina primary Saturday to shock his campaign back to life. He said he'll get it. If he doesn't, his decades in politics will likely come to a humiliating end — three presidential campaigns (1988, 2008, 2020) and not a single primary in the win column.

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former vice-president Joe Biden walks off the stage Tuesday. A win in South Carolina is critical to Biden, who has seen his perceived front-runner status fall away. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The rest of the field will have a struggle to keep up, not just in the polls but in fundraising, too. Nothing grounds a presidential campaign faster than money spewing out and none coming in.

That doesn't apply to former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, of course. He has his own, effectively endless, supply of cash. But he isn't even on the ballot until next week's Super Tuesday when multiple states have primaries including the biggest of them all, California. 

By then, Bloomberg might be the last man standing between Sanders and the nomination. Or he might be the last man standing in front of a charging Sanders bulldozer, already done in by his two unspectacular debate outings.

How did it come to this?

The Democrats in 2020 are going through the same sort of identity crisis that Republicans went through with Donald Trump in 2016: An outsider, openly contemptuous of the party machine and its direction, has pulled together the support of a significant and deeply committed minority of the party while the majority against him seems split between too many candidates to stop him.  

At about this point in the Republicans 2016 primaries, there were still five candidates splitting the vote against Donald Trump."

As with Trump, the prospect of Sanders at the top of the ticket in November is provoking existential anxieties for the traditionalists in the party he aims to lead.  But, as most Republicans did with Trump in 2016, expect most Democrats to get behind whoever their nominee is this year. 

Donald Trump took on a slate of Republicans, many of them long-established party stalwarts, on his road to winning the 2016 primary. (Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press)

Many fear for their country if Trump is re-elected. Those fears only grow as Trump appears emboldened by his acquittal in last month's impeachment trial and intent on using his executive powers to protect his allies and punish those he considers his enemies.

"I would vote for a nominee Sanders," Biden-supporter Cindy Tyeskey-Gage told CBC News at the Democratic caucuses in Las Vegas last weekend, "but I would be crossing my fingers, closing my eyes, holding my nose and casting that vote." 

What's less clear is whether Sanders's supporters would even bother to vote if it turns out their man isn't on the top of the ticket. 

Delegate count critical ahead of convention

And, again, just as it was with Trump and the Republicans, there is now an explosion of chatter about a brokered Democratic convention when the party meets in Milwaukee, Wis., this summer to officially confirm its nominee for president. 

It's a longshot, but the idea is that unless Sanders has a majority of the delegates pledged to him on the first ballot (1,991 is the magic number), there would be a second ballot, and delegates would be free to rally around another candidate — and maybe put an end to Sanders nomination by pushing someone else over the top. 

That would not seem strange to Canadians. It often takes multiple ballots before political leaders in Canada win the support of the necessary majority in their party. But in modern-day U.S. presidential politics, it's like threatening civil war. 

The party's rules allow for it, but the assumption is the party pulls together behind the candidate with the most delegates going into the convention and avoids the divisiveness of a floor fight and further ballots.

Like Trump, Sanders remains a tourist in the party he seeks to lead, at best tepidly committed to it as an institution. A few days ago, he tweeted: "I've got news for the Republican establishment. I've got news for the Democratic establishment. They can't stop us." They?

Sanders signed a Democratic National Committee pledge in 2019 saying he would lead the country as a Democrat if he secured the nomination, and ultimately the presidency.  And even then he hedged his bet in case it didn't work out. He also filed to run for re-election to the Senate in 2024 — as an Independent.
 

With files from CBC's Alex Panetta

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