Sen. Bernie Sanders narrowly won the New Hampshire primary, but the bigger story is that 52.6% of voters picked three candidates in the so-called moderate, more electable lane.
Sanders strikes fear in the party establishment, he draws enthusiastic crowds with bullying supporters, and he is benefiting from a movement against him that is divided among too many candidates to succeed. Bernie Sanders sounds a lot like the Donald Trump of 2020. He’s on the move but underestimated at every step.
The moderates are afraid Sanders can’t beat President Trump in the fall. They’re afraid that Sanders’s policies do not reach the swing voters who will decide the election. They’re worried that Trump and his surrogates can rightly tag Sanders as a socialist.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Republicans successfully demonized the word “liberal” and made liberal candidates the enemy of the voter. Out of that strategy the Democrats rallied around another word: “progressive.” Socialism makes progressive politics look right of center. The more time Sanders spends defending his self-appointed label, the less time he will have to talk about what he can do for working families. 
Indeed, Trump is dying to run against Sanders and spends less time demeaning him than he does the other Democrats so that Sanders remains viable. 
In fact, with all of Trump’s self-inflicted wounds and generally underwater popularity, Sanders may be the riskiest of the wannabes to take on Trump. Yet he’s the party frontrunner.
Moderates, step aside
With Sen. Elizabeth Warren in freefall Sanders is likely to consolidate the support of the left wing of the Democratic party. On the other hand, the moderate lane is still divided up among Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and former Vice President Joe Biden. The split means Sanders is en route to winning the nomination with a plurality – not a majority – of party support. 
Had Klobuchar not turned in a bravura performance in the debate on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, she may have stalled, not surged, and her support largely would have gone to Buttigieg. This would have given Buttigieg a second consecutive victory and put him in the driver’s seat, not Sanders.  But Buttigieg and Klobuchar will continue to duke it out in the middle ring – and whatever chance Biden has left, he will eat into their totals too.
Other than a potential cash crunch, none of the trio has a real incentive to get out. In one way or another, they’ve been envisioning this moment for years. They’re not going to stop right when they can taste it – even if it means bringing fellow moderates down and helping reelect Trump in the process.
Warren’s deflating popularity largely helps Sanders. The mess in the middle works to Sanders’ benefit. 
If Biden fails to reignite in South Carolina, he must get out before Super Tuesday.
If one of Buttigieg or Klobuchar is consistently winning in the next two races, then the other must get out before Super Tuesday.
There can be only one moderate to take on Sanders if the center of the party wants to win. 
The moderate lane gets even more muddled when former Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his wallet enter the fray. His late-start approach has never been tested with his resources, and his numbers improve week over week. Even if more than one moderate makes it to Super Tuesday, which seems likely, they’ll divide votes even more when Bloomberg joins, further propelling Sanders. 
Part of the logic of Bloomberg’s run is denying Sanders a majority of delegates going into the convention. But for all of the talk of a brokered convention, if Sanders has a convincing if not majority lead come Milwaukee, the party will coronate him.
If the party really wants to pick someone who can appeal to moderate voters, then the number of moderate candidates needs to consolidate to one.
The challenge and opportunity of Sanders
While a moderate consolidation to defeat Sanders would put Democrats on a better footing, the Vermont senator could surprise in November and win.
There are two competing theories on how to win a general election in 2020. The first is to persuade the persuadables, the handful of swing voters in swing states in order to reach 270.  
The other theory is to motivate your base and the disaffected to come out and vote for you. This was key to Trump’s victory, and based on the way he governs, it’s key to his reelection strategy too.
With a strong economy, Sanders as socialist fails if the persuasion theory dominates. But he can go toe-to-toe with the President if the election is about motivation. Plus there will be plenty of voters who just want to dump Trump and his stench, even if they violently disagree with Sanders on most issues. The old way of politics has Sanders losing. An unpredictable and angry electorate could end up inaugurating President Sanders next January.
Michael Gordon has a long history in Democratic politics and communications strategy. He worked in the Clinton White House and as a spokesperson for the Clinton Justice Department. He also has served on multiple national, state, and local campaigns.