In risky strategy, Sanders's rivals hold their fire against him

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

He won the most votes in Iowa. He leads every single New Hampshire poll. He’s starting to pull ahead nationally for the first time. And he’s lapping the field with his mammoth fundraising.

But Bernie Sanders is also the most polarizing Democrat in the race, a “democratic socialist” with a long history of controversial positions, a bogeyman to Wall Street and, although in seeming good health, the survivor of a heart attack as recently as October. Many Democrats consider him a risky choice; Republicans reportedly have been urging their followers in South Carolina to cross party lines to vote for him in that state’s primary, as the presumed weakest opponent to President Trump.

Yet on the eve of New Hampshire’s pivotal Tuesday primary, his rivals have mostly spared Sanders their attacks. Why?

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner on Saturday in Manchester, N.H. (Matt Rourke/AP)

It’s the most pressing question among Democrats — especially mainstream Democrats who aren’t down with Sanders’s “political revolution” just yet. They suspect (and polls suggest they’re right) that the senator from neighboring Vermont is on the cusp of victory there. They see his strength in Nevada and California, where surveys already show him in first. And they can’t fathom why his rivals aren’t harping on his Soviet honeymoon or his wife’s messy college presidency.

The answer? The rest of the candidates are too busy trying to stop one another.

The final weekend before New Hampshire was notable for two things: a near-total lack of new broadsides against Bernie, the presumptive frontrunner, and escalating aggressiveness across the rest of the field.

As the delegate winner in Iowa — and the only candidate who has climbed quickly enough in the post-Iowa New Hampshire polls to challenge Sanders’s lead — Pete Buttigieg took the most incoming fire. At Friday’s debate, both Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer attacked Buttigieg at every turn, with Klobuchar likening him to the “newcomer in the White House” and Steyer questioning the demographic breadth of his support. (Buttigieg has struggled to garner any measurable backing among black Democrats.)

Then, on Saturday, Joe Biden launched a cutting new digital ad contrasting Buttigieg’s record as mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city with Biden’s weightier experience as vice president of the United States. “When park-goers called on Pete Buttigieg,” the narrator says sarcastically, “he installed decorative lights under bridges, giving citizens of South Bend colorfully illuminated rivers.”

Meanwhile, the Sanders campaign released its own attack on Buttigieg over his big-ticket fundraising events, and Elizabeth Warren implicitly dismissed him as a candidate who has been “shaped by a bunch of consultants.”

Smelling blood after his humiliating fourth-place finish in Iowa and a round of new polls showing him plummeting to fourth in New Hampshire, Biden’s rivals also took aim at him. “Neither is he,” Buttigieg quipped Sunday when asked to respond to Biden’s earlier remark to reporters that “this guy,” Buttigieg, “is not a Barack Obama.” Steyer continued his efforts to erode Biden’s support among black voters in his firewall state of South Carolina, where over the past seven months the California billionaire has spent $14 million on TV and radio ads and more than $100,000 on ads in black-owned newspapers, while hiring 93 staffers and assembling the largest operation of any campaign — and where he has been rewarded with double-digit poll numbers as a result.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg meets with Pat Provencher at a campaign event in Plymouth, N.H., on Monday. (Matt Rourke/AP)

All of which underscored what has become the defining dynamic of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. In poll after poll, roughly one-quarter of primary voters say they would prefer to nominate Sanders over anyone else. The other three-quarters continue to say they would prefer someone else. The problem for those potential someone elses is that they are still dividing up that 75 percent 10 ways, making it very difficult for any one of them to catch up to Sanders. The longer this continues, the fewer delegates will remain for them to catch up with.  

So the strategy of Bernie’s rivals has its own logic. His supporters are the most committed of all; attack him and they simply double down. The way for “someone else” to win the nomination, then, isn’t by peeling off Sanders loyalists. It’s by eliminating the rest of the competition and getting a chance to face off against him one-on-one.

But New Hampshire could make it painfully clear why this “last candidate standing” strategy may never stop Sanders. According to the latest FiveThirtyEight polling average, Sanders leads the pack with 26.1 percent — a gain of 2 percentage points since Iowa. Buttigieg is next at 20.8 percent, having shot up nearly 8 points since the caucuses. At 12.5 percent, Biden has fallen more than 4 points during the past week, and he now narrowly trails Warren, who is averaging 12.7 percent. Meanwhile, Klobuchar is rapidly gaining ground after an impressive debate performance Friday; both surveys conducted after that event show the Minnesota senator surging into third place with 14 percent of the vote.  

Say those results hold. Biden would finish fifth. Three non-Bernie candidates — Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren — would finish ahead of him. Yet Biden, who’s banking on black voters in South Carolina to bail him out on Feb. 29, has already insisted he’s staying in the race, and he’s likely to continue campaigning at least through Super Tuesday on March 3 because he is polling well in most of the large states that vote that day (Virginia, Texas, North Carolina and so on). But if both Klobuchar and Warren beat Biden, they’re not likely to drop out, either.

Neither is Buttigieg. After top finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he’d probably have the best claim to the anti-Bernie mantle. But Democrats in the next two states to vote, Nevada and South Carolina, are disproportionately minorities, with whom Buttigieg barely registers; right now he’s averaging 7.6 percent in the former (good for fourth place) and 5.6 percent in the latter (good for sixth place). No one is going to clear the field for Mayor Pete — including Steyer, who’s been spending big and picking up steam in South Carolina and Nevada — as long as there’s a decent chance he might crash and burn later this month.

Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Keene, N.H., on Sunday. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

To be sure, a few lesser candidates — Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, Deval Patrick — might drop out after New Hampshire. Klobuchar’s polling bump could dissipate; she could finish fifth, behind Biden, and exit as well. Their supporters might disperse — some to Sanders, some to his rivals. But Democrats will still face the same collective-action problem that confounded Republicans in 2016: a frontrunner who doesn’t command majority support yet still leads the pack because too many of his would-be adversaries have good reasons to keep running.

And then there’s Mike Bloomberg, who’s patiently awaiting the field on Super Tuesday with rising poll numbers and $60 billion in the bank ­— a factor that will further splinter the anti-Bernie vote.  

In short, unless a surprising set of results in New Hampshire suddenly motivates several top-tier Democrats to end their campaigns, it’s going to be a while before anyone actually gets around to taking on Sanders.

By then, it might be too late.

Read more from Yahoo News: