Bernie Sanders
Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr

After the 2000 presidential election, when George W. Bush narrowly defeated Al Gore in the Electoral College with an assist from the Supreme Court, many critics blamed Ralph Nader. His candidacy arguably cost Gore the election, because Nader received more than 90,00 votes in Florida, where Bush’s margin of victory was just 537. If Nader had not been in the race, the vast majority of those votes would have gone to Gore, the argument goes. He may have run as a champion for progressive values, but he ultimately set progressives back by putting a conservative in the White House.

Unfortunately, Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar are all playing the Ralph Nader role in the 2020 Democratic primary. Each of them is unintentionally causing something they are trying to prevent—the ascendance of Bernie Sanders as the party’s nominee.

It’s not their fault, really. None of these above candidates could know that in a crowded field—in which Sanders was not the perceived frontrunner—their bids would boost Sanders. But that is what’s happening now. After coming in a close second in the Iowa caucuses and winning the New Hampshire primary, Sanders is surging in the polls and holds a sizable over all of his rivals.

But a closer look at the early states that have voted shows that he’s not exactly winning. While Sanders earned 26 percent of the votes in Iowa, Buttigieg, Biden, and Klobuchar earned 56 percent collectively. And while Bernie earned 25 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, the other three garnered 51 percent. In other words, Sanders is sliding toward the nomination by only winning a plurality of his party’s voters while the others duke it out over the majority of them.

This has happened before. Donald Trump prevailed in 2016 not because a majority of Republican voters preferred him, but because too many other candidates stayed in the race for too long. In fact, Trump won only about a third of the votes in early states. Had more candidates dropped out sooner, with one of them able to consolidate support from GOP voters who disapproved of Trump, we would be living in a very different world today.

That comes with a valuable lesson. If any of the moderate candidates want to have a real shot against Sanders, three of them must drop out immediately and then run a well-coordinated campaign to support the fourth. Whichever candidate has the best poll numbers and momentum after Super Tuesday should lead the ticket.

Sometimes, political logjams work themselves out. The problem is that this time, each of the four candidates in the “moderate lane” has a reason to stay in the race. Buttigieg was neck and neck with Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire. Klobuchar got more votes in New Hampshire than Warren and Biden combined. Biden is still leading in polls in South Carolina, which he hopes can resurrect his candidacy. And Bloomberg, who hasn’t competed in early states, has spent unprecedented amounts of money in anticipation of Super Tuesday and is gaining traction in the polls. He has no reason to drop out before then.

Each of the candidates likely hopes for a good performance on Super Tuesday, forcing the other three to drop out and giving them a chance to take on Sanders alone. But it won’t work. If they wait that long, Sanders will probably have accumulated such a significant delegate lead that it won’t matter. Polls show Sanders leading in delegate-rich Texas and California. FiveThirtyEight’s forecast believes Sanders is about four times more likely than the next closest candidate (Biden) to win the nomination.

To be clear, it’s not that the “moderates” must unify in the interest of stopping Bernie Sanders. They need to unify to help themselves, and the voters who support them. If they really believe their approach has a better chance of beating Trump than Sanders’s, this may be the only way.

It’s a matter of strategy. The longer each “moderate” stays in the race, the worse all of their chances. And though pundits are beginning to sound the alarm, expecting the deadlock to break up on its own is a mistake. Even if three of the “moderate” candidates drop out soon, it won’t be enough. Only concerted, headline-making, collective action will work, which is why the “moderate” candidates should set their egos aside, join forces, and take unprecedented steps.

Here’s how it could work. After Super Tuesday, the three candidates who are worst positioned to win the nominations end their campaigns and endorse the fourth. Each of the three who bow out should be promised a cabinet seat or other significant role within the administration if they want it. Maybe one is even promised the vice-presidential slot, but the nominee could also try to bring a candidate who has dropped out, like Cory Booker, or another popular national figure like Stacey Abrams. It’s easy to imagine some appealing tickets like Klobuchar-Booker or Biden-Abrams.

The campaigns could also merge their staffs, resources, and ground games to the extent possible. Combining Biden’s resonance with black voters, Klobuchar’s Midwestern appeal, Buttigieg’s campaign strategy, and even Bloomberg’s billions to support one candidate would create an extremely formidable campaign. Of course, all of these candidates can spend weeks or months arguing over who deserves to lead the ticket, but this is not the time for selfishness.

None of this is to say that such an approach would definitely prevent Sanders from winning the primary. Or that his nomination would be a disaster on anything resembling the scale of George W. Bush’s presidency. That said, this is the most important election of any of our lifetimes. A second Trump term would be a catastrophe for the nation and the world. The historical evidence cuts in favor of nominating a more moderate candidate.

Ralph Nader could not foresee his impact on the 2000 race when he launched his campaign. But as Election Day neared, and it was clear he might be a spoiler, he had options. He could have approached Gore’s campaign and offered to bow out of the race and endorse him in exchange for certain concessions to advance his agenda. It wouldn’t have been an easy choice, but in hindsight, it may have been the right one. Of course, leadership entails doing what’s difficult, especially when it is hard.

The moderate Democrats running for president are at a similar crossroads now. If Pete, Amy, Joe, and Mike truly believe that any one of them would be a better nominee than Sanders, they must decide whether they’d rather let things play out on their own and watch Sanders win, or set their egos aside and join forces so that one of them has a real chance.

David Edward Burke

Follow David Edward on Twitter @DavidEBurke. David Edward Burke is the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization that advocates for political reform.