In 2016, Bernie Sanders came within a hair’s breadth of defeating Hillary Clinton in the closest Iowa caucus ever, and due to the vagaries of the caucus process, it’s entirely possible he won the pure vote count that the state Democratic Party declined to release. A week later in New Hampshire, he won 60.4% of the vote and trounced Clinton. It wasn’t quite the perfect start—he could have used that win in Iowa—but it was better than anything he could have envisioned in the anonymous days when he first announced his candidacy. But Nevada came next on Feb. 20, and he lost a close one by five points, and went on to get trounced in South Carolina where Clinton’s famous “firewall” first showed its potency. That was the last time Sanders was anywhere near a lead—Clinton won eight of 12 primaries on Super Tuesday, some of them by enormous margins…particularly in the American south, which made up half of that day’s races. From then on, Bernie didn’t have a mathematical chance to catch up, despite a big victory in Michigan that telegraphed Clinton’s eventual difficulties against Trump, followed by a favorable slate of late March states that saw him win in Wisconsin, Washington, and Utah, among others.
The point is, Sanders’ strength in Iowa and New Hampshire did not translate—there was no massive change in the momentum of the race, and once those states were over, they were well and truly over. Some have argued that a slim victory in Iowa, rather than a slim defeat, could have altered his fortunes, but it’s hard to see how that would have altered the hard reality of life in the south.
In 2020, things have changed a little. The superdelegates have been relegated to second-ballot relevance, and though the first four primaries remain the same, the Super Tuesday races are far more balanced, with states like California, Utah, and Maine now balancing out the overwhelming southern influence from 2016. Joe Biden as a primary opponent is also slightly less fearsome than Hillary Clinton, who had locked in the support of the party establishment so comprehensively that no traditional challenge was possible.
Still, even if history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. Sanders is first or second in Iowa, based on recent polls, first in New Hampshire, and a close second in Nevada. As in 2016, the latest polls show that the reliable black vote will deliver a big victory for Biden in South Carolina. After that, a similar dynamic plays out—even if Sanders scores a win in California, or Utah, Warren will likely deprive him of a chance in Massachusetts, and the wins he manages will likely be close, while Biden will roll up bigger margins in the southern states. Maybe not as big as Clinton in 2016, but big nonetheless, and none of the candidates that might have challenged his dominance there—Kamala Harris, Cory Booker—managed to catch any national attention (ditto for Julian Castro in Texas). Further, none of the mistakes he makes, from shoddy debate performance to the slew of gaffes to his staff actually reducing his late afternoon and night-time performances, seems to erode his national support.
If we’re in for a repeat of the 2016 script in the primaries up to Super Tuesday, the race then becomes a measure of whether Sanders can claw his way back over the rest of the primary—a tough task when he’ll be coming from behind, with the media pushing a Biden coronation narrative.
There’s a few ways that this foregone conclusion could be derailed. Biden could drop out of the race, of course, but that feels unlikely. Warren could drop out after unremarkable showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, which might bolster Sanders’ support and give him an advantage in states like Massachusetts and California. Someone like Pete Buttigieg could gather some steam and eat into Biden’s base in the American south (though the possibility of him making a dent in the southern black vote seems laughably small). The overall numbers could change drastically in the next month due to debates or some other factor.
But the most realistic way for Bernie to overcome the obvious structural obstacles is to win Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, and pray that those wins will generate momentum on the national scale. It didn’t happen in 2016, but he’s better positioned to sweep the first three races this year, so it’s not a perfect comparison. It’s become abundantly clear, though, that in order to compete with Biden throughout the primary calendar, into the depths of March and April, the early states will have to function like a springboard for Sanders. His supporters are the most loyal in the race, but not the most numerous, and in order for his message to spread, he’ll need an alchemical transformation of his campaign that can only be engineered by winning early and often.