Sanders Needs to Bolt Out of the Gate

Bernie Sanders is running a strong campaign but he’s still a long shot. He doesn’t have much margin of error at all. His biggest obstacle from the beginning has been the perception that a self-described socialist cannot win the general election. This hasn’t gone away.

Kathleen Jurgens, an Iowa Democrat, walked into a Clinton rally this week in Council Bluffs torn between the two. But an hour later, she said she was sold on Clinton’s pitch that she was the only candidate who could stop a Republican from winning the White House.

“I really like Bernie. He’s outspoken and he doesn’t seem as political,” Jurgens told CNN. “But at this point, you really have to look at electability and Hillary really impressed me.”

Overcoming this perception won’t be easy, but poll numbers that show him as more electable give him an empirical argument that is invaluable.

Sanders has also seen encouraging polls out of Iowa, where he is running neck-and-neck, and in New Hampshire, where he’s seeing a narrow but persistent lead. If he can win those first two contests and continue to show as the stronger general election candidate in the polls, he has a chance to make this into a long and very competitive process.

However, I’m willing to say that he has to do all three of these things or the campaign will be brief and decisive.

It might not be popular to say, but if Sanders can’t win in Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s very unlikely to win elsewhere. Both states are overwhelmingly white. The caucus process in Iowa favors the candidate with the hottest rhetoric because only a subset of very politically engaged Democrats participate. New Hampshire borders Sanders’s home state of Vermont and is filled with like-minded New Englanders who share Bernie’s worldview.

South Carolina and Nevada are much bigger challenges for Sanders and he is very lucky that those contests don’t come first. If he is going to be competitive there, he’s going to need to change perceptions about him by winning the first two states and showing that he’s still a better bet to beat the Republicans in the general election.

Barack Obama almost pulled off a one-two knockout in 2008, but when he unexpectedly blew a small lead in New Hampshire, it created a months-long battle for the nomination. And Obama had strengths within the Democratic Party that Sanders simply doesn’t enjoy. I do not believe Sanders can afford to stumble and still think he can win the long game. His position is more akin to the position Bill Bradley was in in 2000 or maybe that Howard Dean was in in 2004.

In fact, I am not convinced that Sanders will be even-odds to win even if he does deliver one-two blows in Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s just that this is an absolute prerequisite for him if he is going to have any chance.

Of course, now that he has Tommy Chong on his side, maybe he’ll prove unstoppable.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.