Whether anyone realizes it or not, the race for the nomination is almost over. With just a few days left before Super Tuesday, there is no time left for subtle moves or strategic shifts. Given Bernie Sanders’ commanding lead going into the South Carolina primary, the other Democratic contenders are running out of time. The only ways to stop him now involve major tactical shifts, and two tactics, in particular, will start to look very attractive to moderates struggling to survive the end game: major high-dollar ad spends and coalitions or joint tickets. Without these two tactics in play, there is very little chance that any other remaining moderates will be able to overtake Sanders before he clinches the nomination on Super Tuesday or soon thereafter.
It’s not immediately obvious that we are in the end game now just from looking at the current hyped-up media punditry. In fact, if the commentariat is to be believed, there is still a chance for several candidates to take the lead. Bloomberg and Biden are the major focus of such speculation. But all of the scrambling to see a way forward misses key dynamics that are currently playing out behind the scenes. For instance, the notion that Biden could build momentum coming off of a big win in South Carolina is enticing, but ultimately misguided. The backlash against Sanders since his stunning Nevada victory has not been able to offset his rising popularity in states like Texas and Colorado. And while Biden is on track for a solid performance in South Carolina, it is unclear that even a win in SC will translate into support in later states in time for Super Tuesday.
Bloomberg’s way forward is surprisingly more possible, given his deep pockets. But the likelihood that the Democratic Party would find success at the polls in November after alienating their base by nominating him is very low. Bloomberg remains particularly divisive, and while some moderates and centrists will be pulled into his orbit by his flashy ads, whether the support that is won via advertising will actually translate into turnout in November is unknown.
The truth is that Bloomberg has been a gigantic disaster for centrists and moderates, much like Biden. First, he is the perfect foil for Bernie Sanders, so Sanders looks good by comparison when Bloomberg is in the mix. Second, Bloomberg being the almost singular focus of attacks at the debates actually backfired on most of the candidates because it was time they should have spent attacking Sanders. Sanders had a somewhat lackluster performance during the past two debates, but he came out of both relatively unscathed, which is the goal of any frontrunner. Third, Bloomberg is the only candidate in the race with a large enough ad spend budget to damage Bernie with attack ads, but he has so far spent it all on ads about himself and memes. That is likely to change in the coming days, as Bloomberg is reportedly getting ready to shift his ad campaign into attack mode. However, the window for major ad spends against Sanders is closing fast — it might already be closed.
To get a sense of where things stand at the moment, it is helpful to look back at the 2016 Republican primary. It’s important not to overdraw the comparisons, but the macroscopic rhythms of the 2016 Republican primary do line up more or less with events in the current 2020 Democratic primary so far. Importantly, by this point in the 2016 primaries, the race was already functionally over, and if everything continues the same way, the 2020 Democratic primaries will be functionally over in a few days as well. Just prior to Super Tuesday in 2016, Jeb had already dropped out, and the remaining moderates were clinging on for dear life. The Democrats are suffering through the same dynamic right now.
Liberal moderates are just now starting to wake up and realize that Bernie is a real threat. In 2016, it was right around this time, in the week after New Hampshire, when conservative moderates started the #nevertrump movement with Super PACs forming to try to stop him. But it was too late to stop Trump then and it's too late to stop Sanders now. When comparing similarity in the rhythm of events between the 2016 GOP primary and the 2020 Democratic primary so far, this sudden moment of realization fits perfectly. It's too late for a Super PAC to pump out enough ads to stop Bernie. Warren has recently opened her campaign to PAC money, and plans to spend $9 million on attack ads against Sanders. And again, Bloomberg is reportedly shifting the focus of his attacks ads to Sanders. But just like in 2016, if it’s not too late for attack ads to work already, then it will be too late in just a few more days.
The moderates that are still in the race are now starting to face serious questions about their viability. Some candidates will most likely drop out soon after Super Tuesday, but none of them want to be the first to go. The reason is that as candidates drop out and the field narrows, the remaining candidates will get more attention. They are all afraid of dropping out and then watching one their moderate rivals suddenly blow past Bernie and win the nomination. That means, just they did in 2016, the moderates will all stay in the race attacking each other and splitting the electorate for as long as possible, which will favor Bernie even more. This is reminiscent of the Rubio-Cruz-Christie firing circle, the most infamous moment of which was when Christie absolutely crushed Rubio in a debate right before dropping out. It's become known as the "Christie-Rubio murder-suicide" and it looks like Pete and Amy are trending towards a similar showdown.
Another thing to keep in mind is there are still a number of Democratic party leaders who have not endorsed a candidate yet. People at the national level like Al Gore, the Obamas, the Clintons, etc. and others like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Pelosi, etc. are all waiting to see how things play out a little longer before endorsing a candidate. Their endorsements matter and an endorsement from, say, Obama or Hilary Clinton could have a strong impact on the race. The problem is that the longer they wait to endorse, the less their endorsement will matter. So they are trying to time their endorsements to have the most impact possible, and that window is closing quickly now. After Super Tuesday, this "wait and see" approach will turn into an "it's too late to do anything anyway" approach. So they should act soon. But they probably won't because they don't want to risk their reputations.
In all likelihood, we'll start to see a lot of last-ditch efforts soon. Some candidates might announce VP picks early to try to draw attention. Bloomberg reportedly floated the idea of forming such a ticket with Andrew Yang recently. Other candidates might try to form a coalition of sorts to shake things up, just like Christie proposed to Rubio back in 2016. Biden could propose a coalition with Bloomberg, for instance, in which Bloomberg could be Biden’s VP. Buttigieg would make an excellent Director of Homeland Security, and Warren would make an excellent head of Commerce. Booker could be slotted into the Housing and Urban Development cabinet position quite easily. Harris would make a good Attorney General. Klobuchar could work on education. There are tons of options for deals that could potentially unite the party against Sanders. But such coalitions are unlikely to form until after Super Tuesday, and by then, Sanders may already have an insurmountable lead in the delegate count.
Post Super Tuesday, if current trends continue over the weekend, Sanders will be unstoppable. As candidates drop out, a larger and larger portion of their supporters will gravitate towards Bernie. His strength will grow as he gains supporters from other candidates and these boosts will make it harder and harder for the other candidates to catch up to him. These may not be big boosts for Sanders, but they could cripple the remaining moderates. If Bernie snags most of Klobuchar's voters away from Buttigieg for instance, or even gets 30% of Klobuchar voters, that could end Buttigieg’s campaign. As the field narrows, of course, Biden, Bloomberg and Sanders will clash more frequently. Many Warren supporters could go to Pete, and some moderates from all sides will gravitate toward Biden as the standard safe choice. But if Sanders can scoop up even 10% of their supporters as each candidate drops out, he will put later states like Pennsylvania well outside out of reach even for Biden.
Historically, any candidate who wins (the popular vote) in IA, NH and SC, and then goes into Super Tuesday as the front runner has won the nomination (I think Bill Clinton is the one exception). Right now Bernie has already won the pop vote in IA, NH, and NV, and while he might not win SC, a strong second would put him in line with this historic trend. Unless the Democrats put their ad money into attacking Sanders and then form coalitions and tickets to counter his rising dominance, Sanders will win. To be clear, it is still possible for him to lose. Americans are scared of change, and their reaction to Sanders’ Leftist rhetoric could scare moderate Democrats away from him more decisively than expected. But if Sanders’ polling numbers hold going into Super Tuesday, then he clinches the win based on delegate math alone.