The Bernie Sanders campaign came out of nowhere. A year ago, no one thought Sanders would pose any serious challenge to the Democratic establishment choice Hillary Clinton. But the a challenge like the Sanders campaign is really nothing new. In an election year when there is no Democratic incumbent in the White House, the normal patterns is for there to be an establishment consensus candidate and a "protest" candidate who gives the establishment candidate a challenge in the early primaries.
Going back 30 years to first election that really caught my attention, we look at the establishment candidate for 1984, former VP Walter Mondale, facing an insurgent challenge from Gary Hart. Hart did well in some early primaries, but then faded and lost to Mondale's establishment support. Similarly, in 1988, Gov. Michael Dukakis quickly became the establishment choice, but faced a number of challengers, most particularly Jesse Jackson. The 1992 election was a strange one since the establishment choice, Mario Cuomo made an early decision not to run at all. There was no real establishment choice and a virtually unknown Governor named Bill Clinton stepped into the void. In 2000, VP Al Gore was the obvious establishment choice. He faced a serious challenge in New Hampshire from Bill Bradley before going on to crush him. In 2004 there was a little more fracturing that usual with the establishment split between John Kerry and John Edwards, with the insurgency role played by Howard Dean. Dean flamed out quickly after New Hampshire, but Edwards fought on. Kerry eventually won the nomination.
This brings us to 2008, when the establishment candidate was Hillary Clinton. An insurgency campaign began under Barack Obama. Typically, an insurgent wins support based on a coalescence of opposition of the establishment candidate. An insurgent gains some recognition through a good showing in the early votes of Iowa and New Hampshire. After that, the insurgent gets put under the spotlight and often fades. Voters start thinking of the insurgent not as just the person opposing the establishment choice but whether that candidate would actually make a good President. Almost no insurgent ever makes that leap from being an alternative to someone else to becoming the voters' actual choice for President. Obama broke that barrier. After facing several attacks meant to trip up his campaign (e.g. Jeremiah Wright) he stepped up and convinced voters that he would make a good President.
Now, with the 2016 election upon us, we see a familiar pattern. Hillary Clinton is the establishment candidate facing a challenge by insurgent Bernie Sanders. Bernie has done surprisingly well in the first two tests, Iowa and New Hampshire. Now, however attention begins to focus on whether Sanders really will make a good President. Can he overcome Hillary's advantages on support by super delegates, big money donors, and the support provided by key constituencies?
That remains to be seen. Personally I don't think Sanders has the organizational ability to overcome Clinton's advantages. I don't think he does well when he has to address issues other than his primary focus on wealth disparity. That said, there is a large constituency within the Democratic Party who does not seem to like or want Clinton to be President and feels that she does not address or does not agree on issues important to them. I think Sanders got into this race as a single issue candidate in order to force Clinton to focus more on issues of wealth disparity. I suspect Sanders himself is surprised by his success so far and that success is a testament to the tepid support among Democrats for Clinton.
To be fair to Hillary Clinton, I think much of her negative numbers are the result of being the target of Republican mud slinging for the last 25 years. Many of the attacks on her policies and character are overblown or unjustified. But nevertheless, the attacks have had their affect. Some of the mud inevitably sticks. It has also forced Clinton to be a much more guarded candidate and much less willing to be spontaneous or speak her mind. This makes her appear less genuine to voters. Regardless of how she got that way, it has resulted in Clinton being a less attractive candidate to many voters.
All that said, I don't think Sanders has that rare something the lets him leap from being an insurgent to a leading candidate. You will see him falter in South Carolina and melt away on Super Tuesday. He will take a fair percentage of the vote, but will not get the nomination.
Still Clinton, we emerge as a weakened nominee and will have a difficult time in the general election. Her chances of success there will depend greatly on the Republican nominee.
Next post, I will take a look at the Republicans.