Throughout 2019, few observers thought Bernie Sanders had a real chance to win the Democratic nomination. The media treated him more like a gadfly than a serious contender.
Then 2020 dawned, and it dawned on people that the â€œdemocratic socialistâ€ who for years wasnâ€™t even a Democrat might end up as the partyâ€™s candidate against President Trump.
Today, Sanders leads the Democratic field in the two ways we keep score in politics: money and polls.
He raised way more than any other candidate in the last quarter of 2019 â€“ and more than anybody else has raised in any quarter. Sanders hauled in $34.5 million, compared to Pete Buttigieg, $24.7 million, Joe Biden, $22.7 million and Elizabeth Warren, $21.2 million.
Sanders leads in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. A Des Moines Register/CNN poll has him ahead in Iowa with 20% to Warrenâ€™s 17, Buttigiegâ€™s 16 and Bidenâ€™s 15. A CBS News/YouGov poll says Sanders leads in New Hampshire with 27%. Biden has 25, Warren 18, Buttigieg 13 and Amy Klobuchar 7.
If Sanders wins both states, heâ€™ll take his money and momentum into Nevada and South Carolina in late February and to Super Tuesday March 3, when 14 states, including North Carolina, will pick 40 percent of the delegates.
The Democratic race could come down to Sanders, a moderate or two (Biden, Buttigieg or Klobuchar) and maybe a billionaire or two.
The billionaires, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, might be the only candidates who can keep up with Sandersâ€™ money. Itâ€™s not just that Sanders has raised nearly $100 million total; itâ€™s all from small-dollar donations. Heâ€™s received more than five million contributions, at an average donation of $18. He can go back to that bank again and again.
Sanders has other things going for him. In an increasingly liberal party, he and Warren are the most liberal candidates. In a time of possible war, heâ€™s the most antiwar candidate.
Sanders has an air of authenticity. Thereâ€™s no artifice to his irascible, grumpy-grandpa persona. And heâ€™s familiar. Heâ€™s been saying the same things since he nearly beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
His supporters are passionate. In Iowa, 67% of his voters said they â€œenthusiasticallyâ€ support him. The only other candidate close is Warren; 61% of her voters said theyâ€™re enthusiastic; 52% of Buttigiegâ€™s voters and 49% of Bidenâ€™s voters were.
Last year he addressed concerns that heâ€™s long been an Independent by declaring that he is a Democrat.
Sanders has broadened his support, according to a Vox analysis. In 2016, his base was heavily white, male and young. Now he has more women and minority supporters, though not many older voters.
Many Democrats fear thereâ€™s a ceiling on his support. They worry heâ€™s too liberal to win in November. A number of Democratic candidates and operatives in North Carolina have told me they donâ€™t want Sanders heading the ticket.
Above all, Democrats just want to beat Trump. Desperately so. Impeachment and Iran make them more determined.
Democrats, then, have two theories of the race.
Many believe Americans are ready to move on from Donald Trump and just want a safe, stable alternative.
Sanders supportersâ€™ theory is that heâ€™ll reach millions of Americans who donâ€™t vote because they believe all politicians are crooked and donâ€™t care about them. They believe that, just as an optimistic newcomer reached those voters in 2008 and a dystopian outsider reached them in 2016, Sanders can reach them with a radical departure from politics as usual.
Over the next two months, Democrats across the country â€“ including in North Carolina â€“ will decide which theory theyâ€™ll test in November.