The cost-benefit analysis doesn't look so good for Bernie Sanders.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders Has a Lot to Lose in 2016

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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I agree with what Francis Wilkinson said this morning here at View: It would be good for the Democrats, and probably for the nation, if Hillary Clinton draws a serious challenger. I’m less convinced that Bernie Sanders -- who is doing whatever he can to convince everyone he’s running -- can be this person.

There isn’t a single Democrat in America who thinks Sanders, a self-described socialist, will be the party's nominee for president in 2016. I assume that includes Sanders himself, a smart guy who has been, as far as I can see, an excellent (and often more pragmatic than ideological) U.S. senator.

So his would be a classic protest campaign, not a true challenge to Clinton. Its success would be measured on what, if any, changes in policy it forces the nominee-apparent to make, and it isn't clear Sanders could do much to push Clinton on any issue. The Vermont senator appears ready to run as more of a broad-based candidate, articulating a range of positions, not stressing a particular one. That’s good for party competition in some ways, but it leaves any support he receives open to multiple interpretations.

Remember, Hillary Clinton is wildly popular among Democrats, and she has about as much campaign experience as anyone who has ever sought a presidential nomination. She isn't likely to stumble badly at the beginning. There’s more than a fair chance she’ll crush anyone who takes her on unless the challenger has a lot going for him or her.

That means having at least one of three advantages: a realistic chance of winning, a large group of devoted loyalists or a galvanizing issue. Right now, it’s hard to see Sanders having any of those. It’s easy to imagine people gathering in living rooms and on front porches in Iowa and New Hampshire to stop a war, for example; it’s harder to see them mobilizing over a general preference for a more liberal platform.

Yes, sometimes it's worth playing the long shot. But if Sanders is crushed -- winning less than 20 percent of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire in a two-person contest, let’s say -- the result may be to set back the policies he cares about. The trick for him (and any protest candidate) is to figure out how to get the maximum benefit out of pushing his issues without turning the contest into a counterproductive referendum on them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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