The Democratic establishment isn’t panicking over the prospect of Bernie Sanders as their presidential nominee. Yet.
They figure that Hillary Clinton, the darling of Democratic regulars, will win the Feb. 20 Nevada caucus and Feb. 27 South Carolina primary handily. That would put her on track to sweep a string of similar states that vote March 1, relegating Sanders to scrappy challenger status.
Even if Clinton stumbles, supporters see another insurance policy: superdelegates. Fifteen percent of the nominating convention’s delegates are party officials unbound by results. So far, The Associated Press estimates that about half the 712 superdelegates are backing Clinton, while eight are behind Sanders.
Privately, those same Democrats read last week’s New Hampshire primary results and shudder. Sanders’ 22-point win over Clinton was stunning but not wholly unexpected. What jolted insiders was its breadth.
Sanders signaled that he’s not simply a candidate of the under-30 generation or liberals. He won nearly every demographic group.
In Nevada, one poll taken last week showed him tied with Clinton. In South Carolina, where Clinton is counting on African-American voters, there’s evidence that many younger black voters are considering Sanders.
60-38Bernie Sanders’ percentage of victory over Hillary Clinton in this month’s New Hampshire Democratic primary
The trends suggest Sanders has wide appeal in a year when voters are demanding change. Should the independent senator from Vermont and his democratic socialism become the party brand, the panic is on.
“It risks catastrophic losses,” U.S. Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Democrat from a swing district in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, said of Sanders as the nominee. “There’s no conceivable way Bernie can win with that platform.”
Democratic regulars recoil at the potential labels Republicans could stick on Sanders. He’s proposing a $13.6 trillion, 10-year tax increase, and many proposals will hit the middle as well as wealthier classes. He wants universal health care for a nation still divided over the last massive overhaul, Obamacare. And there’s that socialist label.
“There was a time when being called that was the kiss of death,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. – and older voters haven’t forgotten.
Republicans would make sure they remember. “The prospect that Democrats could nominate a self-avowed socialist is growing more probable by the day,” GOP Chairman Reince Priebus said last week.
It’s already started on the campaign trail. “Bernie Sanders is a socialist,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told a Greenville rally last week. “We are not going to be a socialist country. If you want to live in a socialist country, move to a socialist country.”
While polls find that most Democrats are not bothered by the socialist label, a lot of others are.
“He’ll have real trouble taking that message to the general-election voter, for obvious reasons,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa..
Republicans are widely expected to retain control of the House of Representatives, where they now have 246 of the 435 seats, with 218 needed for a majority. Their prospects of retaining a Senate majority are shakier. Unless Sanders heads the Democratic ticket.
So far, the Democratic establishment is hanging its hopes for Clinton on Nevada and South Carolina.
Demographics in those states differ sharply from New Hampshire and Iowa. Nonwhites in 2008, the last contested Democratic caucus or primary, made up about 36 percent of the Democratic vote in Nevada and 57 percent in South Carolina, a constituency thought to be loyal to Clinton. In New Hampshire, 7 percent of the electorate last week was nonwhite.
Even if Clinton stumbles in February, five states with March 1 primaries had nonwhite Democratic-voting populations casting more than one-third of the ballots in 2008.
That’s why Jim Hodges, Democratic former governor of South Carolina, isn’t concerned. “It’s not going to happen,” he said of a Sanders South Carolina victory.
She is in very good shape here.
Former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, discussing Hillary Clinton’s chances in his state
Clinton’s backers concede that she could be running a better race, but they discount Sanders’ chances.
“There is a real contrast in enthusiasm between the candidates,” said Donald Fowler, Columbia-based former national Democratic chairman.
What if Sanders did win a sizable bloc of black voters? Reuters/Ipsos polling found that African-Americans nationwide back Clinton by 3-1. But among 18- to 29-year-old black voters, she’s up only 46-33 percent over Sanders.
Should Sanders win the nomination, the establishment would publicly soothe itself by noting that the voters had spoken. They’d note how Sanders has been a reliable, collegial party player during his Washington career.
“I’m going to support whoever the nominee is,” said Kathy Sullivan, New Hampshire Democratic committeewoman.
But there’s still a feeling that would depends on Sanders changing his approach for a general election.
“His success is going to depend on whether he can come across as a reassuring figure as well as an insurgent,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who’s neutral in the race.
The chances of that? “We’ll see,” he said.