Heart attacks are not a recommended way of reviving a presidential campaign. But in Bernie Sanders' case, last October's coronary surprise came with two silver linings. First, it marked the start of his campaign's recovery and the fading of Elizabeth Warren's. Second, it underlined the granite solidity of his base. Not even a heart attack could dampen their faith. Two stents and a record fundraising cycle later, Mr Sanders has good odds of winning the first Democratic caucus in Iowa next month — and New Hampshire the following week.
His stubborn following contrasts with the fluidity of the rest of the Democratic field. No one has much clue of the eventual outcome. Middle Eastern politics is more predictable than this. This time last year, most of the excitement was with Beto O'Rourke and Kamala Harris. Both ran weak campaigns and dropped out. For a few months it looked like Ms Warren had figured out how to be a frontrunner. But her ducking and weaving on healthcare turned out to be an act of enduring self-harm. The Democratic left prizes conviction and authenticity, which are Mr Sanders' defining qualities.
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The 77-year old's endurance poses two dangers to the Democratic establishment. The first is that Mr Sanders wins the nomination. This is not as far-fetched as it seems. With the exception of Bill Clinton in 1992, no Democrat has ever taken that prize without winning in Iowa or New Hampshire. Seven out of the last nine nominees won Iowa. Every campaign breaks some record so it is possible that Joe Biden could lose both early contests and still go on to take the nomination. But he would be badly wounded. At this point in 2008, Barack Obama was trailing Hillary Clinton in South Carolina. His Iowa victory transformed the race and he went on to win South Carolina. Mr Sanders could pull off the same feat.
In that case Michael Bloomberg would probably supplant Joe Biden as the party's best hope of stopping the Bernie express. It would quickly escalate into a battle between a grassroots socialist from Vermont and the Wall Street multi-billionaire. In a choice between populism and plutocracy, it is by no means clear Mr Sanders would lose. Such an outcome may look unlikely. But it is less unlikely, say, than Pete Buttigieg — the 37-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana — breaking through with African-American voters, or Ms Warren winning the hearts of non-college educated white males.
The second threat posed by Mr Sanders is in some ways even worse for the Democratic establishment. It is also likelier. Mr Sanders could stay to the bitter end and split the Democratic platform. He has the resources and people to do so. In the last quarter of 2019, he raised $34.5m from 1.8m individual donors. This was more than double the number of donors Mr Biden garnered and far higher than the $22m he raised. Moreover, he did so without corporate help. Mr Biden, on the other hand, tapped 44 billionaires, which was slightly more than the 39 billionaires who helped Mr Buttigieg. The $20-average donation Mr Sanders received is a testament to his blue-collar loyalty.
His campaign contains the outlines of a separate party. Last week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 30-year-old Democratic congresswoman who backs Mr Sanders, said that in another democracy she would be in a different party to Mr Biden. Her comment was interpreted as a threat rather than a truism. In reality it was both.
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The gulf between Mr Biden's centrism and Mr Sanders' socialism would be spread across separate parties in another country. It is hard to see how they will be reconciled before the Democratic convention in July. The bitterness that Mrs Clinton's supporters feel towards Mr Sanders has not abated. Roughly a tenth of Mr Sanders supporters voted for Donald Trump in 2016. They could have made the difference.
It is tempting to say that Democrats are suffering from a Jeremy Corbyn problem. But the parallel is inexact. The Labour party's heavy defeat in the UK election last month was partly attributed to Mr Corbyn's leftist economics. But much of it was about his lack of conviction on Europe. "All politics is local" is an American expression. The real parallel to Mr Sanders today is Mr Sanders in 2016. Then, he came close to defeating Mrs Clinton. His chances against Mr Biden are at least as good.
Written by: Edward Luce
© Financial Times