Opinion: it's Super Tuesday for the Democracts so how would the leading contender fare against the White House incumbent?

As the Super Tuesday primaries approach, with their vast haul of delegates at stake for the Democratic presidential contenders, Sen. Bernie Sanders has emerged as a clear front runner. While some of his rivals have performed well in individual states – with Joe Biden receiving a major boost in South Carolina on Saturday – none of them has amassed a consistent string of results to match Sanders' successes in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. Multibillionaire and former New York City major Michael Bloomberg remains a potential factor, since he will make his first appearance on the ballot on Tuesday, but it seems at this point Sanders' race to win.

The support Sanders has attracted has given clarity to a confusing field, but serious questions remain about his viability in a general election. Is America ready for "democratic socialism", however loosely defined? Can he mobilise the African-American vote? Does he have what it takes to beat sitting president, Donald Trump?

Four years ago, Sanders began as a long shot but managed to mount a major challenge to Hillary Clinton. His enthusiastic backers maintain he would have defeated Trump in 2016 had a nefarious Democratic National Committee not boxed him out of his party’s nomination. But we don’t know what memes and belittling language Trump would have devised to mock him, which he marshalled to such effect against Clinton.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Conor Boylan from the Progressive Democrats of America on his involvement in the Bernie Sanders' campaign

Whatever the task would have been like in 2016, it has become vastly more demanding in 2020. The incumbent always enjoys an advantage, especially when the economy is perceived as strong (i.e. employment numbers and the stock market, unless coronavirus derails it) and there are no major foreign wars (if you don’t count Afghanistan, which Trump inherited).

Trump is basking in an imperial presidency, with the levers and prestige it confers, and his campaign narrative will insist that he has delivered on the promise to make America great again. On the other hand, he now has an actual record to defend, including a divisive immigration policy. Can Sanders capture a different national mood, appealing to issues of social justice and equity, lambasting billionaires, and propounding health care for all?

The major debate surrounding the Sanders' candidacy is whether a left-wing agenda can gain traction in the general election or whether a more centrist platform remains essential to victory. Since the time of George W. Bush, a new logic has gained traction in American politics which suggests that appealing to the candidate’s base, mobilising activists and ensuring voter turnout is crucial. This is instead of making a wider, more moderate case to the electorate in order to attract independents. If so, then "Bernie" has a chance, given that his support is undeniably the most committed and vocal among the Democratic contestants.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Bernie Sanders' brother Larry on the race for the White House

The difficulty with this argument is apparent in Ezra Klein's recent piece in the New York Times. Klein maintains that Democrats still have to capture the centre to win the election, while Republicans don’t. Democrats rely for their vote count on a mixture of liberal, progressive, and left-leaning voters; African-Americans and Hispanics and a religiously diverse constituency and those of no religion. By contrast, Republican support is overwhelmingly white and Christian and messaging is therefore far more simple on that side.

Klein points out that "three-quarters of Republicans identify as conservative, while only half of Democrats call themselves liberals — and for Democrats, that's a historically high level." The calculation in reaching Democratic voters is thus a demanding one, requiring strategies and policy positions that can encompass a disparate range of people.

To make matters harder still for the Democrats, Republicans can afford a losing margin in the popular vote and yet still prevail in the electoral college (as happened in the case of Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016). The system in the US over-rewards rural and thinly populated states where Trump plays well.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Marion McKeone on the battle of the billionaires between Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump

Sanders has other liabilities. The Democrats do not lack for older candidates, but he would enter the White House at 79, far and away the oldest person ever to do so. In short, he is making Trump look young, while his heart attack in October has raised unwelcome concerns about his health. His single-mindedness would make him resilient against Trump attacks, but the risk is that he appears rigid and doctrinaire. What inspires his followers can sound like hectoring to others.

Sanders’s strength lies to some extent in the fact that, despite his long tenure in Washington, he does not come across as a political insider. He entered the House of Representatives in 1991 and became a senator in 2007, but most of his career has been spent as an independent, not as a member of the Democratic party. Hillary Clinton – hardly a disinterested observer – commented in her post-defeat book, What Happened (2017), that Sanders "is not a Democrat—that’s not a smear, that’s what he says. He didn’t get into the race to make sure a Democrat won the White House, he got in to disrupt the Democratic Party."

This makes him sound rather a lot like Trump in 2016. There are other points of comparison too, including an opinionated style and persona-led politics to an extent, together with the ability to energise people with the possibility of a programme of change, however shaky some of the costings and legislative potential may be.

But in a contest of personal appeal, Trump has more reach and he and his party are more ruthless. Sanders will need every ounce of support he can get - and that may require finding some way to a wider base of Democratic voters, including moderates as much as progressives.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ