Short of another heart attack, Bernie Sanders is now the clear favourite to become the Democratic nominee. His thumping victory in Nevada on Saturday, following a narrow one in New Hampshire and an even finish in Iowa, completes a hat trick that will be hard to reverse. The irony is that Mr Sanders could not have done it without Michael Bloomberg. Not only did Mr Bloomberg’s massive spending validate Mr Sanders’ case that US democracy has become a plaything of billionaires; Mr Bloomberg’s presence is also diverting the other candidates’ attention from Mr Sanders. These unintended benefits will persist at least until Super Tuesday in early March when the New York billionaire’s name will first appear on the ballot. After that, it could be too late for any rival to catch up with the Sanders juggernaut.
Other outcomes are always possible. Having spent most of his money so far attacking Donald Trump, Mr Bloomberg will surely now try to bring Mr Sanders down. But that could work both ways. A couple of hundred million dollars in anti-Sanders advertisements could dent the socialist’s bandwagon. It could equally drive new voters into his camp. Moreover, a reoriented Bloomberg campaign would do nothing to solve the Democratic establishment’s core problem — its division between rival centrists. The parallels with Mr Trump’s position at this point in 2016 are unmistakable. Just as Republicans failed to find one anti-Trump candidate to rally around, Democrats are also badly fragmented. Mr Bloomberg is so far only making that problem worse.
There are two other striking similarities with Mr Trump. The first is that mainstream Republicans kept reassuring themselves that Mr Trump had a ceiling of support — he never seemed to get much above 30 per cent. The same applies to Mr Sanders. They underestimated the advantage of Mr Trump’s solid floor, which other candidates lacked. The same absence of core support applies to Mr Sanders’ rivals. Pete Buttigieg came equal first in Iowa and second place in New Hampshire. Polls show he would be lucky to make fourth place next weekend in South Carolina. The same applies to his Super Tuesday prospects. Joe Biden came fourth and fifth respectively in the first two contests. Even if he wins South Carolina, he is probably too deeply wounded to regain his mojo. Elizabeth Warren had a strong debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday. But she directed most of her ire at Mr Bloomberg. Her real rival is Mr Sanders. While the former New York mayor remains in the race, the rest of the field cannot afford to ignore him.
The second parallel with 2016 is that most Democrats were praying that Mr Trump would be Hillary Clinton’s opponent, just as Republicans are now openly willing Mr Sanders to win the nomination. Mr Trump was seen by Democrats as the easiest for Mrs Clinton to beat. They could scarcely believe their luck as his winning streak gathered pace. Today’s conventional wisdom, which is shared by Mr Trump, and apparently by Vladimir Putin, is that Mr Sanders would be the easiest Democrat to beat in November. In reality, nobody can be sure what would happen in a Trump-Sanders face off. Many people are dressing up personal preference as analysis.
The person with the most ability to change the narrative is Mr Bloomberg. If he pulled out of the race and put his financial might behind a unity Democratic candidate, the anti-Sanders majority could consolidate. The same would of course happen if the rest of the field dropped out in favour of Mr Bloomberg. Anyone placing their bets on that occurring clearly missed the Las Vegas debate. To put it mildly, he is not popular with the other Democrats. From Mr Sanders’ point of view, Mr Bloomberg is the gift that keeps on giving.