- - Tuesday, October 15, 2019


Bernie Sanders is the pivot point in the Democrats’ presidential contest.  Midway between the first- and second-tier candidates, which camp he joins will determine if this is a two- or a three-candidate race. Without overstatement: As goes Bernie, so go the Democrats — toward a conventional nomination or a deadlocked convention. 

Since the first debate over three months ago, the Democratic field has changed a good deal. Overall it has shrunk, internally it has shifted. 

Looking at Real Clear Politics’ average (10/15) of national polling, former Vice President Joe Biden still clings to the top spot, despite dropping from 32 to 29 percent. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has leapfrogged into second place, almost doubling from 13 percent to 23 percent. At about five percent, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris lead the second tier, almost all of whom have fallen. 

Between these two groups sits Sen. Sanders. Now in third place, Mr. Sanders has been relatively flat, edging down from 16.9 to 15.6 percent — roughly 10 points from each group. 

Should Mr. Sanders fall, Ms. Warren would almost certainly benefit. Thus far, Ms. Warren has grown at the expense of Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders, and the second tier. Since Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren are on the left, there is neither reason nor evidence his supporters would not go to Ms. Warren

This would accelerate the current pro-Warren trend and make the contest a two-person race. Once Ms. Warren (or any candidate), consolidates the left’s support, already comprising well over 60 percent of Democrats, Mr. Biden is quickly overwhelmed. 

Should Mr. Sanders rise, the Democratic contest changes completely. Such a scenario is neither impossible nor improbable. Mr. Sanders has a loyal and tested base. He was the left’s first standard bearer and is still their most aggressive champion. 

Additionally, a Sanders rise need not come directly at Ms. Warren’s expense.  It could come from Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren both gaining support as second-tier Democrats withdraw. Should Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders apportion the “other left candidates” approximately 20 percent support, Mr. Sanders would reach roughly 25 percent support and Ms. Warren, roughly 40 percent; Mr. Biden would remain at less than one-third. 

In the case of Mr. Sanders falling, the question becomes one of timing. The more quickly it happens, the greater the likelihood that Ms. Warren has time to accumulate the delegates needed to win the nomination on the first ballot. The longer the duration, the more difficult it becomes as Mr. Sanders, Mr. Biden, and potentially others, continue to win delegates, thereby withholding them from Ms. Warren.

In the case of Mr. Sanders rising, there is no mystery. The result would be a chaotic three-way race in which no one reaches the number of delegates needed to win a first ballot nomination. 

Already further left than any major party in U.S. presidential election history, a three-way race with Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders splitting the Democratic Party’s left majority would lead it further still, as the two competed for the left’s support. The end-result of a brokered convention would only heighten the chaos, leaving no segment of the Democratic Party pleased, and potentially some unmotivated for November. 

The one assurance out of these scenarios is that Mr. Sanders will not quit. He would not in 2016 when he opposed Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s consensus choice, from start to finish; he certainly will not for Ms. Warren now. 

Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren are truly different, representing the old and the new left. Mr. Sanders can argue that he will hold Ms. Warren accountable. That is partly true. Ms. Warren would have every incentive to pivot as early as practicable toward the middle to prepare for the general election, but she will be unable to, so long as Mr. Sanders stays in the race. 

In sum, Ms. Warren must beat Mr. Sanders to win. For Democrats it’s a race among the left: Once they coalesce around one candidate, the race will be over — regardless of what Mr. Biden does. The left will therefore decide who wins the nomination, but first they must decide whether Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren wins the left. 

• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department.

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