Bernie Sanders can win the Dem nomination if he pivots quickly--but can he do it?

Bernie Sanders can win the Dem nomination if he pivots quickly--but can he do it?
Gage Skidmore / Gage Skidmore

Disclaimer: AlterNet does not endorse candidates but I personally support Sen. Bernie Sanders. The opinions expressed here are my own.  

The savvy view is that debates almost never move the needle but they appear to have led to some key shifts in this cycle, most notably Sen. Elizabeth Warren's thrashing of Mike Bloomberg in the Nevada debate.

The upcoming March 15 debate may be a make or break moment for Bernie Sanders' campaign. There's another big batch of delegates up for grabs (577 in total) two days later as several big states, including Florida, Illinois and Ohio, hold their primaries. Polling suggests that the Vermont Senator is at risk of falling below the 15% threshold for delegates in Florida, and could see former Vice President Joe Biden take a lead that would be almost impossible to overcome short of some unforeseeable development shaking up the race. Voters tend to rally around a perceived winner, and Biden is looking like that candidate at present.

But Sanders can still win this by simple virtue of the math. There are 2,500 delegates to be won in the remaining contests, and this cycle has already featured several shifts. Just ten days ago, pundits were wondering if Sanders own momentum could be stopped.

But changing the current trajectory of the race would require a quick change in strategy, and it's not clear that Sanders is capable of executing the pivot that he needs to make to contend.

Last April, Edward-Isaac Dovere reported for The Atlantic that Sanders' strategy rested on holding his loyal base in a fractured Democratic field. At the time, Sanders' aides believed that he "would easily win enough delegates to put him into contention at the convention," reported Dovere. "They say they don’t need him to get more than 30 percent to make that happen." It may not have been a bad strategy at the time, but the rapid departure of every candidate other than Biden certainly makes it look misguided in hindsight.

He needs to shift, quickly, from attacking the Democratic establishment, the media and "millionaires and billionaires" in general to centering his campaign on the perfidy of one billionaire in particular, Donald Trump. Because that's where most primary voters are.

The overarching story of the 2020 primaries is that most of the Democratic base prioritizes beating Trump over pretty much everything else. Biden is a weak candidate, famous for his gaffes and failure to respect women's personal space, and with a long history in Washington that includes a number of past positions that are out-of-step with today's party.  But throughout much of this campaign season, Biden's remained above the fray as the other candidates bashed each other, focusing on his central promises of beating Trump "like a drum" and offering a return to normalcy. He has consistently polled well on the question of "electability."

To turn the ship around, Sanders needs to puncture Biden's inevitability argument at the debate--and through his surrogates--while re-focusing his own attacks on Trump. The problem is that fighting with the establishment and the press not only energizes a good chunk of his base, it seems to energize him and his advisors as well. It's a conundrum.

Buzzfeed's Ruby Cramer reports that "Sanders believes a two-man race should turn the race into a policy-focused argument of ideas — and that perhaps the narrowed focus will be enough to give him the advantage in future contests against Joe Biden." That seems consistent with Sanders' modus operandi--whether you love him or hate him, he's always focused on the issues he cares deeply about, and it's a big part of his appeal.

But I'm skeptical that a policy-focused debate will move the needle in this cycle. Democratic voters are just far more concerned with ending the chaos and corruption of Trump's presidency than who has the better approach to healthcare reform.

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