The results of the Democratic primary elections in Iowa (February 3, 2020) and New Hampshire (February 11) added a new dimension to the crises facing the Democratic Party and its successive series of failures. The latest of these setbacks was the U.S. GOP-controlled Senate’s acquittal of President Trump of two articles of impeachment pushed for by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, accusing him of abuse of office and obstruction of Congress. After the impeachment showdown, Trump’s approval rating hit an all-time high since he took office in January 20, 2017, mainly driven by robust U.S. economy.

The results of the recent Democratic caucuses brought to the surface a major rift in the Democratic Party after Sanders, who describes himself as "democratic socialist", came second and first in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries respectively. The results provoked the ire of the party's elite who started to look for ways to undermine the Vermont Senator and search for an alternative to be the party's candidate in the presidential elections next November.

The Rise of Sanders

Despite the intense competition between Democratic hopefuls and the fact that the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries cannot decide the trajectory of the Democratic elections in other states, many polls for Democratic voters indicate that Sanders will most likely grab the party's presidential nomination ticket against Trump who seeks a second term.

A new Washington Post–ABC News poll, announced on February 19, revealed that Sanders has a commanding lead with 32% support among likely Democratic voters, up by 8% from a similar survey conducted in January. About 30% of those polled said they believe that Sanders has a better chance to defeat President Trump, up from only 18% in the January poll. According to the poll results, Sanders is 16% ahead of his closest rival, former US Vice President John Biden.

The results of another opinion poll conducted by Monmouth University on February 11 showed Sanders' leading the Democratic race nationwide by 72%. Another poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, whose results appeared this month, indicates similar results in favor of Sanders. These polls also reveal that Sanders has broad support outside his ideological line.

The chances of Sanders winning the Democratic Party’s ticket have been increasing after Biden lost both the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, coming fourth and fifth respectively among Democratic hopefuls. Meanwhile, it is becoming clearer that Pete Buttigieg, who came first in the Iowa caucuses, and second in the New Hampshire election, will be unable to garner the votes of black and Hispanic voters, not to mention Buttigieg’s inability to provide for the substantial financial cost of campaigning across the U.S., and the fact that it may be difficult to accept a "gay" president. At the same time, the results of the 2016 presidential elections showed that Americans are not receptive to the idea of having a woman as their president, which reduces the chances for a Democratic female presidential candidate.

Sanders’ Advance Sparks Concerns

Bernie Sanders' victory in the Democratic primary in Iowa and New Hampshire sent some in the party’s elite scrambling over fears of a possible loss in the presidential election against Trump. The party is also concerned about the potential effects on the chances of the Democrats winning the Senate and House elections. This prompted the party's centrist candidates to spend large sums on anti-Sanders advertising campaigns in the states that will witness Democratic primaries this month in order to undermine his chances of winning.

The Democratic elite’s fears of Sanders’ victory were manifested in their affiliated media outlets' total blackout on Sanders' victory in the New Hampshire caucuses. Instead, these media outlets focused on Amy Klobuchar, who received the most intense coverage, as well as the second-ranked candidate Pete Buttigieg.

Top Democrats fear that Sanders' winning of the party's presidential nomination ticket will undermine the party chances in the elections, given Sanders' proposals over controversial issues such as replacing the current healthcare system with a government-run one. This is in addition to the fact that many of Sanders' proposals do not resonate well among the party's elite who have become linked to major sectors, such as the financial sector which funds the party. Further, Sanders' views do not find resonance among moderate voters from both the Democratic and Republican parties, who will then find themselves caught between the rock of Trump and the hard place of a candidate with unfavorable policies.

Democratic strategists fear Sanders' progressive policies and socialist identity will irritate Trump's electoral base, pushing it to further support the incumbent president. They also fear that the views of the Vermont Senator will lead the Democratic Party to lose the votes of independent and moderate Republicans who supported Democratic candidates in the November 2018 midterm elections.

According to this perspective, the fielding of Sanders will cost the Democratic Party a number of seats in the House and Senate at a time when the party seeks to consolidate its majority in the House of Representatives, and obtain a majority in the Senate, especially in the swing states that they won in the 2018 elections, which are home to many Latin voters whom the word “socialist” reminds of authoritarian regimes from which they fled.

The Democratic Party’s “Find-an-Alternative” Dilemma

With Sanders boosting his chances of winning the primaries after his remarkable performance in Iowa and New Hampshire and growing support for him among Democrats, the party's elite has scrambled to find a candidate from the center who can replace "Biden", who was once seen the party's favorite to face off with Trump, before his poor showings at the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses. Nevertheless, some analysts indicate that Biden might rebound and win the Democratic Party's nomination. 

All eyes have now turned to billionaire and former mayor of New York and one of the party's centrist candidates, Michael Bloomberg, whose stakes have gone higher after Biden's successive losses. Bloomberg decided not to run in early primary and caucus states, and, instead, invest heavily in the Super Tuesday Primaries slated for March 3 in 14 states, along the Democrats Abroad primary. However, this strategy is unconventional and risky.

Some democratic circles in support of Bloomberg promote that he made real achievements during his tenure as mayor of New York City, and that he is a non-ideological figure. But his record reveals that he is more of a pragmatic and liberal-leaning on many issues of concern to a large segment of American voters, as well as his ability to fund a successful election campaign with his own money. However, there are many challenges that may upset Bloomberg's candidacy, including his history, positions and previous statements.

Whatever the case, it is likely that the Democratic elites ’continued attempts to block Sanders’ victory will have major negative repercussions for the party and its chances of winning the upcoming November elections. Such endeavors may increase the risk of division within the party, and widen the gap between the party's elite who are looking for an alternative to Sanders, and the grassroots who support his candidacy. Further, if the Democratic Party substitutes Sanders with another candidate, as happened in the November 2016 elections, this may discourage his supporters from casting their ballots or vote for Trump as they did in the previous elections.

Conclusions

The race for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination ticket continues to heat up ahead of the November elections. This competition will remain open to all possibilities. Despite Bernie Sanders' lead in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries and upbeat wining chances in other states, it is still not clear who will grab the party's ticket or whether he/she will be a centrist or progressive.

With the increased odds of Sanders winning the primaries, the Democratic Party faces a crisis that threatens the chances of winning both the presidential and congressional elections, and on the other hand, casts a dark shadow over the party's internal cohesion. Sanders' victory will increase the risk of division within the party and shatter its electoral base at an entirely inappropriate time.

* U.S. Affairs researcher.

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