The Democratic primary contest has been a binary race for one week only. That fact alone explains Bernie Sanders’ underperformance compared to his run in 2016.
After toiling for years on the fringes of official Washington, Sanders was launched into the mainstream thanks in large part to the contrast between himself and Hillary Clinton, drawn into sharp focus by the direct juxtaposition binary races create. In Clinton, Sanders found the perfect foil.
This is why the senator spent almost all of his speech Wednesday posing pointed questions for Biden, written deliberately to sharpen their differences, and specifically emphasizing that Sunday’s debate would be the first “one-on-one” match of the cycle.
Sure, Biden easily won Michigan on Tuesday, a state in which Sanders pulled off a surprising win over Clinton just four years ago. But, again, that race had been a binary for months, with essentially no other viable candidates. This time around, Sanders has spent nearly a year necessarily aiming his fire all over the place. Voters had much more choice. Warren, perhaps Sanders’ closest competitor for progressive voters, did not drop out until last week.
He should be salivating right now. For all his flaws, Sanders looks much better next to stodgy creatures of the Democratic establishment. Their own flaws make his radical proposals palatable to voters, more exasperated with the status quo than fearful of its enemies.
Clinton and Biden share some similarities but also some major differences. They are not, as Ezra Klein suggested, interchangeable variables for the sake of experiment. Of course, like Clinton, Biden is almost certain to pull off a victory. But staying in the race will allow Sanders to continue nudging him leftward and continue bolstering the movement his 2016 campaign galvanized.
This is why Sanders is sticking it out, despite an exceedingly narrow path to the nomination. The binary is Bernie’s best friend, and he knows it.