Does Bernie Sanders Have a Winning Strategy?

He has incredible “message discipline.” But doesn’t a presidential candidate need to respond to events?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a forum organized by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement .

His “message discipline” game is on point. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks on Nov. 9, 2015, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders needs to win New Hampshire if he wants any shot at the nomination. It neighbors the state he’s represented in Congress for two-dozen years and is populated, on the Democratic side, with delightfully ornery white liberals. He’s topped polling averages for the state just long enough to solidify the expectation that he must win it. This isn’t just me popping off. Take it from Sanders’ own New Hampshire director, Julia Barnes. “I wake up every morning and tell myself that New Hampshire is a must-win,” Barnes told MSNBC over the weekend. “No one is going to say that it’s not a must-win.”

One excellent means of solidifying his New Hampshire chances would be to win, or at the very least, surpass expectations in Iowa. The latest Des Moines Register survey of the Democratic race—conducted by Selzer & Co., considered the gold standard of Iowa polling—finds Hillary Clinton ahead but not insurmountably so, with 48 percent to Sanders’ 39. When the Register last polled the state in October, while Vice President Joe Biden was still included in polling surveys, Clinton led 42 to 37 percent. If Clinton blows out Sanders in Iowa, it could tilt New Hampshire in her favor; if Sanders either wins or gives Clinton a righteous scare in Iowa, he could preserve his New Hampshire edge, assuming he still possesses it through January.

Let’s say Sanders comes from behind to beat Clinton in Iowa and solidly wins New Hampshire. The question, then, is: Will that change anything?

Clinton has two firewalls immediately following Iowa and New Hampshire. Her strong support among Latino voters and organized labor positions her well for a win in the Feb. 20, 2016, Nevada caucuses. Her dominant support among black voters, who comprise a majority of South Carolina Democratic voters, has helped her maintain a roughly 50-percentage point lead over Sanders in the state that hosts its primary on Feb. 27. Three days later is Super Tuesday, featuring numerous states in which black voters similarly exercise a major role.

Rudimentary calculations would suggest that Sanders still needs to expand his voting base beyond young people and white liberals and into minority voters, who comprise a large and growing part of the Democratic base. Otherwise, even the ideal kickoff of twin victories in Iowa and New Hampshire would be for naught, and Clinton would cruise through the South to the nomination after losing the first two nominating contests—just as her husband did in 1992.

And doesn’t the Sanders campaign just know it! After a campaign start in which Sanders clashed with Black Lives Matter activists and carved out little room in his messaging for racial justice concerns, Sanders changed his ways. He began talking about racial justice matters on their own terms instead of as a subsidiary to economic justice concerns and released his own racial justice platform. He’s stepped out of the national news cycle, to a degree, to focus on introducing himself to black audiences he’s never before had to court. During a trip through the South in November, he addressed black churches in South Carolina and then headed to Atlanta, where he met with Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., before hosting a large rally at which he was introduced by rapper Killer Mike. (Video of the introduction went viral, and deservedly so.) Just last week, Sanders toured Baltimore with black pastors to reflect on the murder of Freddie Gray and the riots that ensued.

But just as Sanders was getting criticized earlier in the year for sticking to his economic inequality talking points and not addressing racial justice concerns, now he’s being questioned for sticking too closely to those talking points and not speaking about, well, whatever the media wants him to talk about. For the moment, that means ISIS and national security threats.

At an event in Baltimore last week, Sanders’ (unrelated) press secretary, Symone Sanders, kicked up a bit of drama by telling reporters not to ask about ISIS during their scrum with the candidate. “Don’t ask about ISIS today,” she told them. “I mean, it’s not on topic. If it comes up, and he wants to talk about it, the senator will let you know. But I’d appreciate it if y’all would stay on topic today.” You can understand her point—let’s talk about the very important issues on which our Baltimore visit was based, while in Baltimore! But it’s also not a good look to dictate to reporters what they can’t ask about when they get face time with a candidate.

The episode played into a popular perception about Sanders: that he just doesn’t like talking about national security or foreign policy. It’s always a decent bet in American politics that people will freak out about foreign policy for a hot minute or two but will ultimately vote according to their wallets. But right now, the fear of ISIS following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino gives an advantage to Clinton, based on her foreign policy experience and fluency on the issues. If Sanders showed more of a willingness to discuss these issues, he could both boost his own credentials and feast more directly on Clinton’s questionable record of foreign policy decision-making—and not just on Iraq.

One of the most commonly cited traits that political handicappers use to weigh a candidate’s viability is “message discipline.” By that metric alone, Sanders is far and away the best candidate in the field. It’s gotten him quite far already, positioning him well in the first two nominating contests of the year. That winning those two contests might get him nowhere else, though, shows the downsides: It prevents him from coming across as an acceptably well-rounded candidate, with wide audiences in each of the party’s major constituencies, who can respond ably to changing events.