A frequent political betting mistake is to refight the previous election. To assume the dynamics will be replicated. That the narrative which worked previously will remain effective or that the same voters will be motivated by the same issues.
It rarely turns out that way.
As I write, many a political punter could be making that mistake. Since Bernie Sanders declared his candidacy on Tuesday, his odds have been in freefall. The Independent Senator for Vermont is down to a best-priced 12/1 (Ladbrokes) to win the 2020 Presidential Election and 8/1 (10Bet) to be Democrat Nominee.
Here are four reasons why you should consider one of the other potential Democratic nominees instead:
To understand how different 2020 will require looking back at the remarkable 2016 story. At this stage, Sanders was priced at least ten times higher than currently. He was a fringe figure - not even a fully-fledged Democrat - promoting socialism in a country that never voted that way.
In an early signal of the new politics, Sanders raised his profile on social media - live-tweeting responses to the chaotic Republican debates for example. Establishment campaigns couldn’t compete because they hadn’t mastered the medium. Vast numbers of small donations poured in and a new progressive movement was born.
I'm running for president. I am asking you to join me today as part of an unprecedented and historic grassroots campaign that will begin with at least 1 million people from across the country. Say you're in: https://t.co/KOTx0WZqRfpic.twitter.com/T1TLH0rm26— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) 19 February 2019
Events fell his way. Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal dogged her campaign and destroyed her ratings, amid constant speculation that she was facing indictment. Everything was set for the popular Joe Biden to enter but the VP opted out - effectively leaving Sanders in a dual with a deeply flawed presumptive nominee.
By the time the primaries begun, it felt like a grassroots revolution. I saw it in Iowa as thousands queued for miles in the snow ahead of his rally. He would lose a photo-finish there, before thrashing Clinton in New Hampshire. Many an upset would follow - 33/1 for Michigan was particularly memorable - before ultimately falling short.
That was the ‘peak Bernie’ moment. He’d run a heroic outsider campaign that promoted progressive causes to the centre of US political debate, attracted millions of small donors, engaged young voters and nearly beaten the formidable Clinton machine. Had Sanders just stepped back and enthusiastically endorsed her - he would probably be in pole position today.
Instead, the contest proved ruinously divisive for all. When Wikileaks released the emails from Russia’s hack of the DNC to coincide with the party convention, it blew up the Left. Many Sanders supporters concluded the system was rigged and failed to back Clinton in the general election. Bad blood persists on both sides. Some, harshly, blame him for Trump’s victory.
Ongoing enmity from Clinton supporters is about the only parallel between 2016 and 2020. The narratives will be completely different. Then Sanders was an exciting, outsider candidate fighting the establishment. Now, he will be a 78-year-old, formerly failed candidate. Popular, authentic, likeable, but an old, white man looking to lead a party that prides itself on diversity, battling several much younger women. Haters will call it an ego trip.
Rather than a head-to-head against a damaged opponent under FBI investigation, rivals will have credibility on the issues Sanders is defined by, in ways which Clinton couldn’t get across. The populist rhetoric and redistributive policies that made his candidacy unique are now mainstream.
One Democrat after another has endorsed Medicare for all and cheaper tuition fees. Many are committed to refusing corporate ‘PAC’ money - for example, Beto O’Rourke just broke fundraising records for his Senate race after taking that stance.
Their plans compete on who will tax the rich more or the scale of a ‘Green New Deal’ - as opposed to arguing over the wisdom of such policies.
Despite the hype surrounding his declaration, the polls are far from encouraging. On Morning Consult’s numbers, he’s up to 22% for the nomination - it is lower elsewhere. Enough for second behind Biden but, like the former VP, an ordinary number given his extreme name recognition advantage.
Critically, a tweaked electoral system will damage Sanders’ cause. He became competitive in 2016 by dominating states that held caucuses rather than primaries. The new rules will mean fewer caucuses and they will be harder for his active supporters to dominate. Turnout will likely increase vastly, bringing new voters and different issues into play.
Finally, it isn’t obvious how Sanders can build a viable coalition for this primary. His 2016 loss was primarily down to struggling with the African-American voters who make up a big part of the Democrat base. Being thrashed in the early Southern primaries left too much ground to make up.
Instead, Sanders swept the youth vote and the ‘idealistic white liberals’ whose votes the Trump campaign would try to suppress by triggering their hatred towards Clinton. In stark contrast with her toxicity among them, there will be plenty of competition for those segments. O’Rourke could probably kill Bernie’s hopes just by entering the race.
Already it seems even his most fertile groups of primary voters are shopping around. A recent poll in New Hampshire - a very white state, neighbouring Vermont, where Sanders won 60% in 2016 - put him below 30%.
None of this means he can’t become president. I’m adamant that any Democrat would beat Trump, who continues to lose party support. Sanders has more cross-over appeal with the wider electorate than most of these rivals. If he could somehow win the primary, I’d make him heavy odds-on favourite for the White House.
More likely, however, is that his bid fizzles out at some point in 2019, as he is eclipsed by younger, fresher rivals. Once his lack of path becomes evident, Sanders will end up endorsing a socialist ally - probably Elizabeth Warren.
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