Rival candidates have four days to stop Sen. Bernie Sanders if they hope to prevent the Independent from Vermont from taking the party’s presidential nomination.
Sanders is the undisputed front-runner in the race after his thumping victory in Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday.
His current trajectory is set to carry him to at least a top-two finish in today’s South Carolina’s primary.
It is eminently plausible that, by the end of tonight, Sanders will have jumped out to a delegate lead that none of his rivals can reel in. It’s a prospect that thrills his supporters — and horrifies Democrats who fear the democratic socialist would lose a general election to President Trump.
Sanders has a real chance of winning the South Carolina primary. Such a result would likely mark the de facto end of former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign — and give Sanders unstoppable momentum going into Super Tuesday.
“If he wins South Carolina, the train has left the station,” said one Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to discuss the state of the race.
The Vermont senator’s strength in California is especially important. There are 415 delegates up for grabs in the Golden State — the single biggest prize in any primary. Even though the state’s primary is not winner-take-all, sizable margins for Sanders could catapult him way ahead.
According to a Los Angeles Times poll released on Thursday, Sanders is ahead of his nearest rival by 2 to 1. Elizabeth Warren, who led in the state several months ago, is in second, but far behind, with 17%. The findings of the poll, help explain why Sanders’ rivals have done most of their recent campaigning elsewhere among the 14 states that vote in the March 3 Super Tuesday contests.
The speed at which Sanders has moved into a dominant position has left many more moderate Democrats both disconcerted and panicked.
There is not a great deal of empirical evidence to support their charge that he is unelectable. In polls that measure hypothetical match-ups with Trump, Sanders does not perform notably worse than other candidates.
But Democrats who are skeptical of Sanders had their nerves jangled again Sunday by comments he made about Fidel Castro, the late Cuban president.
Sanders was asked during a CBS “60 Minutes” interview about his past praise for elements of Castro’s government, and essentially repeated his view.
“When Fidel Castro came to office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?” Sanders said — even though he also condemned Castro’s authoritarianism.
Rivals including Biden and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg blasted Sanders for the remarks. Democratic members of Congress joined the chorus of condemnation — Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) called the comments “absolutely unacceptable” — and the Democratic Party of Florida also distanced itself.
The furor was important because, to some, it raised new questions about Sanders’s ability to carry the crucial state of Florida, where about 7% of the population is Cuban American.
The Sunshine State has been decided by margins of 3 percentage points or less in the past three presidential elections.
Of course, there are plenty of more general concerns expressed by centrist Democrats.
Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that Sanders was “stoppable” in his march toward the nomination.
“But I would say this: The moderates need to coalesce around one person,” Emanuel added.
There is no sign that is about to happen.
Democrats who have hoped that the party would opt for a more centrist nominee than Sanders have been frustrated to see several candidates split moderate support, including Biden, Bloomberg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D).
Meanwhile, progressives have largely coalesced around Sanders as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has underperformed expectations.
The prospect of one or more of the remaining major candidates dropping out before Super Tuesday is undercut by a basic fact. They’re not in the race to thwart Sanders specifically; they are in it to try to win the White House themselves.