The race between more than 20 candidates in the Democratic Party to be the party’s nominee in the upcoming US presidential elections has taken a sharp turn. This is troubling to the moderate camp in the party after the gains made by hard left candidate Bernie Sanders in several primary elections. This unease is due to several factors.
First, within the party itself there is concern that Sanders’ gains will lead to irreconcilable divisions ahead of the Democratic National Convention in July to decide on the party’s candidate in the presidential race. Second, traditional party voters are divided over Sanders’ ideas because they will burden the central government with expenses it cannot shoulder, such as healthcare for all. According to some sources, the cost of this ambitious plan would amount to an astronomical $98 trillion, which is more than the value of private and public assets in the US combined.
Third, the left-wing camp itself is ironically divided in supporting Sanders as he faces competition from Senator Elizabeth Warren, whom Republicans describe as on the radical left. She is the first woman to win a Senate seat for Massachusetts and advocates progressive ideas, gender equality, ending the influence of big business on politics, and increasing taxes on the rich to achieve equality. During a recent debate, Warren accused Sanders of not supporting a female president in the White House, and that he admitted this to her in 2018. This means the victory of one of these two representing the left in the Democratic Party could mean the loss of the votes of the other’s supporters, especially if Warren leaves the race and Sanders moves forward. His comment on a female president could mean losing a large portion of women’s votes in the presidential race if he is chosen as the party’s candidate.
Fourth, it will be very interesting if Sanders is chosen as the Democratic candidate. In an article titled “55 Things You Need to Know About Bernie Sanders”, Politico website stated that he spent his youth and most of his political career attacking and maligning the Democratic Party and the US political system. He said the party is ideologically bankrupt and the current two-party political system is shameful, describing the Republicans and Democrats as “Tweedle-dee” and “Tweedle-dum”.
What is truly concerning is the weakness of candidates from the party’s moderate camp, such as Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, and their inability to keep up with Sanders and Warren in rallying party voters because they lack clear plans on how they will address the problems of taxes, growing income inequality, the environment and other issues that are close to the hearts of US voters. In debates among Democratic candidates which began last year, Warren confronted her opponent Bloomberg with his documented opinions on women and his policies as mayor of New York City, when he supported a racist policy of “stop and frisk” against non-whites. Warren warned that Bloomberg would not be a strong candidate against Trump and that the party would regret choosing him as their frontrunner in the presidential race.
Even worse, it is highly likely Warren will exit the race, which will encourage her hardcore supporters who defend gender equality and women’s rights to attack the party from this angle, especially since the forecast of some opinion polls show that Sanders is more likely to win the party’s nomination in the end. Asked who is a more formidable contender to Donald Trump in November, it appears Democrats are not confident about Warren. In an opinion poll on 25 February, 33 per cent of Democrats believed Sanders can defeat Trump, while 23 per cent believed Bloomberg is a better candidate, and Biden had the support of only 18 per cent of those polled.
Nonetheless, it’s still too early to talk about Sanders’ certain candidacy despite being far ahead of other candidates last month. The picture will be clearer after Super Tuesday on 3 March, when primaries take place in 13 states simultaneously, and the results will largely decide the chances of the finalists for the Democratic nomination at the DNC. But what happens if none of the candidates wins a majority in the primaries?
Sanders and his supporters want the presidential nomination to go to the candidate with a plurality of the delegate vote at the DNC, rather than to require a majority of votes. This means anyone who wins the most delegate votes, rather than 1,991 pledged delegates that constitutes a majority, becomes the party’s candidate. The party’s moderate or conservative camp objects to amending the party’s bylaws for Sanders’ sake, and want the convention to decide the candidate if no nominee wins a majority.
The future of the Democratic Party is at stake whether Sanders wins a majority of votes or a plurality. In the first scenario, it will be easy for Trump to spread fear among voters and special interest groups about Sanders’ ideas, and the potential internal and external crises they could trigger if he becomes president. In the second scenario, the Democratic Party will be extensively criticised by young Sanders supporters inside and outside the party if the DNC chooses another candidate and ignores the fact that Sanders won a plurality.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly