More and more, to his fans and supporters, it looks like Bernie Sanders can win.
It’s not just crowd size, although that shows the depth of enthusiasm for the Vermont senator’s campaign. It’s that in the two most critical states—Iowa and New Hampshire—he’s either on the rise, or winning outright. The Des Moines Register and its well-regarded pollster puts Sanders at 30 percent of the vote among Iowa Democrats. Clinton is at 37 percent. Other polls show a less even race—with Clinton well ahead—but the trend is clear: Sanders is improving and Clinton is fading. To that point, he has his best support among first-time caucus-goers, independents, and voters under 45—the same groups that brought Barack Obama to a surprise win in 2008.
The same is true in New Hampshire, where Sanders is ahead, full stop. He leads by an average of 43.6 percent to Clinton’s 39.8 percent, a major shift from the beginning of the summer, when Clinton held a large lead over her chief competitor. Some of this is homefield advantage, but we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which Clinton is weaker than she was, and Sanders is more popular than we (and possibly even he) imagined.
It helps too that Sanders holds his own in head-to-head polls with Republicans. In a hypothetical match-up from the latest Quinnipiac survey, Sanders beats Jeb Bush, 43 percent to 39 percent; Donald Trump, 44 percent to 41 percent; and comes just behind Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, 40 percent to 41 percent. The self-described “socialist”—a cranky, left-wing fixture in American politics—is a viable presidential candidate.
But a viable candidate isn’t the same as a possible nominee. And while the raw material is there, it would take skill, discipline, and incredible good fortune for Sanders to bridge the gap from phenomenon to the Democratic Party’s choice for the White House.
First, he would have to get used to scrutiny. Blacks Lives Matter aside, Sanders hasn’t been criticized like a serious presidential candidate. Clinton has stayed away—perhaps worried of alienating his supporters—and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has focused his fire on the GOP and the Democratic National Committee. If Sanders is a real contender, however, that will change. Clinton and her team—to say nothing of the press, and of Republicans—will dive into his past, and exploit any weakness he has. Sanders might survive the process, but you shouldn’t count on it. Obama survived the furor over Jeremiah Wright, but it was close; if not for his rhetorical gifts, the then-candidate might have crashed his campaign on the rocks of controversy.
If Sanders can get past the scrutiny, he’ll have to grow his appeal. Most Democrats aren’t liberals and many Democrats aren’t white, but so far, Sanders is the candidate of white liberals and just a handful of blacks and Latinos. Without a large share from either group, Sanders can’t compete in vital states like South Carolina and Nevada, where they dominate voting. But going beyond his base is more difficult than it looks. For as much as black Americans might like his policy positions—which fit their enthusiasm for a stronger safety net—they’re also strategic voters, not ideological stalwarts. Electability is key, and as a consequence, they tend to back the establishment choice: Al Gore over Bill Bradley; John Kerry over John Edwards. On occasion, blacks will back a factional candidate, like Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. But Jackson had the reverse problem—he couldn’t win enough whites.
In other words, to win as a challenger in the Democratic Party, you have to bridge the gap between two different parts of the party. And this is hard. So hard, in fact, that it’s only been done twice in the modern era: Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Obama in 2008, who won over black voters with his surprise win in the Iowa caucuses. If Sanders wants to repeat the feat, he’ll have to do two things simultaneously: Beef up his operation in Iowa and New Hampshire, and invest in South Carolina with time and resources. He needs to cultivate visible allies in the black political community and build a dedicated presence with black civic institutions. He may not win the black vote, but with effort, he can deny Clinton the advantage of unified black support.
This is vital, but it’s still not enough. Even if he wins the early contests and builds momentum for the next round, he’ll have to survive Super Tuesday, which rewards organization, strategy, and institutional support more than popularity or enthusiasm. Obama had all of this—plus an inept effort from the Clinton campaign—and finished with a tie.
If Sanders can raise the money and hire the staff to build a credible national campaign for Super Tuesday, then he’ll still face a seasoned Clinton with a fresh memory of her past mistakes. He’ll have to match Obama’s flawless performance against an opponent who knows the moves, and is ready to meet them. And in that, she’ll be backed by the bulk of the Democratic Party. Not only does Clinton have the most major endorsements of anyone in the race, by far, but Sanders can’t catch up; even with every remaining governor, senator, and representative, Sanders would still be behind in the all-important endorsement primary.
There’s no doubt that Sanders is a viable presidential candidate, but his barriers to winning are almost insurmountable. And not all of that is Clinton. If Clinton were to leave the race—imagine an indictment for purposefully sharing classified information over unsecured email—Sanders wouldn’t benefit. He’s just too out of the mainstream, and the Democratic Party—seeking a consensus candidate—would just find someone else from the center of the coalition, whether that’s Martin O’Malley or Vice President Joe Biden or a figure who isn’t even on the radar.
To repeat a point, the presidential primary isn’t a popularity contest, and winning takes more than money or enthusiasm or party support or a smart campaign. It takes all of it, plus all the luck you’ll ever have in your life. Bernie Sanders is a good candidate. But good isn’t great enough to win.