It's 2015, not 1968.

Photographer: Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg

Bernie Sanders Is No Eugene McCarthy

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.
Read More.
a | A

Can we please stop predicting that Bernie Sanders is going to be the Eugene McCarthy of 2016?

The chain of events supposedly goes like this: The early support the Vermont senator is generating will grow into something bigger, and that in turn will encourage new candidates to enter the Democratic contest and just possibly cause Hillary Clinton to drop out. 

I've seen this claim bandied about several times, including in Ed Kilgore's mention today. Recall that in 1968, McCarthy, a protest candidate, challenged incumbent President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. McCarthy didn't win, but he did surprisingly well. Robert Kennedy then jumped into the race, and soon thereafter Johnson shocked everyone by announcing he wouldn't run for re-election. Eventually, Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination.

When Johnson dropped out, he was deeply unpopular with a large segment of his party. There is no evidence that Clinton is in a similar situation. 

Democrats, including some who currently say they support Sanders, like her! For example, a recent New Hampshire poll that showed Sanders gaining ground also had 74 percent of the Democrats surveyed with a favorable opinion of Clinton. Overall, Sanders probably has an even slimmer chance of winning than Bill Bradley had against Al Gore in the 2000 Democratic contest. 

True, it isn't too late for others to jump into the race at this point. After all, Kennedy didn't join in until after the New Hampshire primary. But the process changed after 1968, when the party convention still decided the nomination and a candidate could win (as Humphrey did) while ignoring the primaries completely.

Now, the primaries and caucuses have taken the place of the convention, and the "invisible primary" in which party actors make their choices has already been going on for a long time. It's probably too late for anyone to begin to mount a full campaign now, and under the current rules, getting in after an early caucus or primary defeat for Clinton would be just about impossible. Besides, if there's one thing we know about Hillary Clinton, it's that she's willing to fight on in a contested nomination battle even when the odds and the numbers are against her. 

Yes, Sanders has had a real public opinion surge. It's even possible he'll win one or more state contests. This just isn't going to have any effect on who wins the nomination.

Matt Yglesias and Jamelle Bouie are right that Sanders's campaign could wind up being important even if he never has a realistic chance of winning. Parties are permeable. New people showing up and getting involved can change established coalitions, leading the party to shift its positions on the issues or adopt new ones.

Bouie compares Sanders's support to Ron Paul's faction in the Republican Party in 2008 and 2012. But if Sanders is successful, he might be more like Pat Robertson in the Republican primary in 1988. The conservative Robertson solidified the influence within the party of an already existing faction, and Sanders could do that for liberals in the Democratic fold. This might happen (although it's hardly a sure thing) even if Clinton sweeps the primaries.

Just don't tell me he's a stalking horse for some other candidate or in any other way similar to Gene McCarthy. The system just doesn't work like that any more.

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

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net