Its onset has been visible for some time; such is the nature of slow-motion wrecks. Unfortunately we cannot press the fast-forward button. Wednesday night’s debate in Las Vegas was the Democratic party’s nastiest so far — with Michael Bloomberg its clear loser. At some point, nevertheless, the Democratic race is likely to boil down to a fight between him and Bernie Sanders. There are few ways that a zero-sum contest between a self-funded old billionaire and a stubborn old socialist could end in a friendly armistice. There are many in which the collision could play out. Almost none, barring the least likely — a sweeping victory by one over the other — entails a happy ending for Democrats.
The similarities between Mr Sanders’s campaign and Donald Trump’s in 2016 are apt. Each has militant supporters who are happy to indulge in social media harassment and character assassination. Barely half of Mr Sanders’ supporters would vote for Mr Bloomberg if he became the nominee, according to a recent poll. That share would almost certainly rise as the spectre of a Trump second term loomed. But Mr Trump would only need to capture a slice of the “Bernie Bro” constituency — the politically incorrect element of the US senator’s base — to tip the election his way. That is what happened in 2016. An estimated tenth of Mr Sanders’ supporters voted against Hillary Clinton.
Mr Sanders is trying to do a Trump-like hostile takeover of the Democratic party. He enjoys similar tactical advantages. Like Mr Trump, Mr Sanders has benefited from a packed field of conventional candidates who have spent most of their firepower attacking each other. Wednesday’s debate was the most combustible example of that so far. Like Mr Trump at the same point in 2016, Mr Sanders is spurned by his party’s establishment. Nowadays that is taken as a virtue. A single Iowa legislator endorsed the senator from Vermont before the state’s caucus this month against double-digit endorsements for most of the others, including Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. Mr Sanders nevertheless won the most votes.
Finally, like the US president, Mr Sanders believes he is heading a movement, not a campaign. People who lead causes do not drop out. They fight to the bitter end. Billionaires do not drop out, either. Anyone who thinks Mr Bloomberg will fold if he underperforms — his first real test is on Super Tuesday in early March, when about a third of US states will vote — is not paying attention. The former New York mayor has sunk $400m of his wealth into this race so far. That is roughly a tenth of his probable annual return from his $54bn personal fortune. He could do the same 10 times over without touching his capital. One terrible debate will not change that even if he has to spend millions of dollars cleaning it up.
All of which presents a looming dilemma for Democrats. Mr Sanders wants a revolution. Mr Bloomberg wants a restoration. The contours of one increasingly likely collision came at the end of Wednesday’s debate. Every candidate, barring Mr Sanders, said they would accept the rules of a brokered presidential convention. Mr Sanders alone insisted that the candidate with the most votes should be the nominee — even if they had less than half the delegates. The danger is that this is precisely what will happen. Mr Sanders now has a clear lead in the national polls but is unlikely to win a majority of the delegates. None of the rest, other than Mr Bloomberg, have enough cash to stay in the race for long.
In another democracy, Mr Sanders would belong to a different party to the rest. Mr Bloomberg would too. The first calls himself a socialist. The second is essentially what used to be called a Rockefeller Republican. The question is whether their shared antipathy to Mr Trump is greater than their differences. In theory, both would answer yes. In practice, Mr Sanders and the other candidates see New York’s former mayor as a plutocrat who bought the silence of sexually harassed former employees as well as his place on the Democratic stage. Mr Sanders, meanwhile, is seen as an ageing coronary patient whose extravagant promises would deliver Mr Trump a second term. The writer, Jorge Luis Borges, once likened the UK-Argentina war over the Falkland Islands to two bald men fighting over a comb. It would also serve as an apt forecast of a Bloomberg-Sanders showdown.