Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) rivals are sounding the alarm over his growing strength and warning that he could effectively secure the presidential nomination on Super Tuesday if Democrats don’t quickly align behind an alternative.
The clock is ticking fast toward March 3, when about one-third of all delegates will be allocated after 14 states get to vote in the Democratic primary race.
While Sanders and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have effectively split the delegate hauls from Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders is the favorite to win the Nevada caucuses on Saturday.
Sanders has been keeping a light schedule in Nevada, instead making the strategic decision to beat his rivals to the Super Tuesday states, where he’s begun to campaign vigorously.
Over the past week, Sanders drew about 50,000 people to rallies in North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, California and Washington, punctuated by a massive event in Tacoma, Wash., which drew 17,000 people.
Sanders has opened up polling leads in California and Texas, the two biggest states to vote on March 3, and his small-dollar fundraising apparatus is steamrolling the competition.
No one managed to take Sanders down at the feisty debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, providing another win for the front-runner.
Those dynamics have provoked some unusually blunt political assessments from the Buttigieg campaign and advisers to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who are warning that Democrats who fear that Sanders would be a general election disaster are running out of time if they hope to rally around an alternative.
“Democrats could end up coming out of Super Tuesday with Bernie Sanders holding a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead,” the Buttigieg campaign wrote in a memo on Thursday. “In order to stop this outcome, a viable alternative to Sanders needed to emerge.”
The problem for the anti-Sanders wing is that there is no strategy to stop him, and the Vermont senator is in position to potentially build a delegates lead while his centrist rivals split the moderate vote among themselves.
Both Buttigieg and Bloomberg are pressuring the other moderate candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), to drop out so that the anti-Sanders crowd can coalesce around one alternative.
In a memo released shortly before the debate, senior Bloomberg advisers laid out the stark delegates math Democrats face if they hope to stop Sanders.
“If Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar remain in the race despite having no path to appreciably collecting delegates on Super Tuesday and beyond, they will propel Sanders to a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead by siphoning votes away from Mike Bloomberg,” Bloomberg campaign advisers Kevin Sheekey and Howard Wolfson wrote this week.
Many moderate Democrats had come around to viewing Bloomberg as their best hope to stop Sanders. The media reframed the contest in the week leading up to the Nevada caucuses as a battle between Sanders and Bloomberg, who has been rising in national polls.
But Bloomberg’s disastrous debate performance on Wednesday night will raise new questions about whether his strategy of plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into national television ads will be enough to compete with Sanders’s organic support.
The Buttigieg campaign is calling on Bloomberg to step aside.
"If Bloomberg remains in the race despite showing he can not offer a viable alternative to Bernie Sanders, he will propel Sanders to a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead siphoning votes away from Pete, the current leader in delegates," Buttigieg's campaign wrote.
Establishment Democrats warn that the prospect of Sanders at the top of the party’s ticket would have negative ramifications down the Democratic ballot in November.
“There is an elevated conversation and concentration on what down ballot races mean not just for this election but for generations in this country,” Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said. “The next leader of the free world and the next majority in the Senate will have generational power in terms of appointing judges and confirming judges.”
Others argue that the moderates in the race need to be more diligent about raising the alarm about Sanders, as opposed to hitting each other.
“Whether you’re talking about Bloomberg or Biden or Buttigieg or Klobuchar, is that they just won’t come out and say it. I don’t understand why no one is coming out and saying, 'Do you want two more Supreme Court seats to go to Donald Trump and Mike Pence’s nominees?'” Demoratic strategist Jon Reinish said. “Putting a socialist at the top of the ticket will lose you the House and all of those moderate seats that we picked up.”
The tension between Midwestern moderates Buttigieg and Klobuchar reached a breaking point on Wednesday, with the two sparring on a range of topics including experience and knowledge of global affairs.
One exchange, in which Buttigieg hit Klobuchar for her vote to confirm President Trump’s nominee for Customs and Border Protection, resulted in the Minnesota senator saying, “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete, but let me tell you what it’s like to be in the arena.”
“They both made a colossal mistake in going after each other,” Reinish said. “Every minute not spent going after Bernie Sanders was a wasted minute.”
The Sanders campaign sees the worries about his general election prospects as hysterical speculation, pointing to national polls that routinely show Sanders running as strong as any of the candidates in a head-to-head match-up with Trump.
Meanwhile, Sanders is motoring along and aiming to bolster his front-runner status with a victory in Nevada on Saturday.
A victory here could showcase Sanders’s diverse coalition, which increasingly includes a large share of Latino voters.
The Vermont senator is projecting confidence and will not spend caucus day in the state. Following a rally in California on Friday, Sanders will head to Texas for rallies in San Antonio and El Paso.
A Monmouth University survey released Thursday found Sanders leading in California by 7 points. That poll underscores the uphill climb the divided field of Democrats face in stopping Sanders.
“As the poll currently stands, it’s possible that only two or three candidates reach viability in any given congressional district,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “That would enable Sanders to rack up half the delegates or more while only earning one-quarter of the total vote.”