Could Bernie Sanders put Mitt Romney in the White House? I haven’t gotten my 2012 and 2016 wires crossed; I have a theory that’s slightly more realistic than a Donald Trump presidency seemed a year ago.
As it stands now, it seems almost inconceivable that Sanders could become the Democratic nominee. But by staying in the race, Sanders is clearly hurting Hillary Clinton. A raft of new polling has Trump either tied or beating Clinton. The polling suggests that a unified Democratic Party would give Clinton a daunting lead over Trump.
And yet Bernie just won’t go. Why?
Part of the answer is personal: He’s simply having the time of his life. After spending decades as a gadfly on the periphery of national politics, suddenly he’s the belle of the ball.
More important, he really believes in his “political revolution.”
At this point, the smart thing to do from the purist-progressive perspective would be to continue fighting within the Democratic Party for ever more leverage over the Clinton campaign and in Congress, while the best thing for the party would be for him to fold up shop immediately.
What if Sanders does neither? What if he concludes that the party rigged the game against him and bolts to run as the independent he is?
One might assume that the obvious effect of a Sanders independent bid would be a Trump victory in November. Indeed, Trump, with his trademark subtlety, has encouraged Sanders to run as an independent for the obvious reason that doing so would doom Clinton’s candidacy.
But Sanders’ third-party bid could well encourage a fourth-party bid from an authentic conservative, such as Romney or Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse. And in a four-way race (or five-way, if you include the Libertarian Party), all bets are off. Theoretically, a winning share of the popular vote in a four-way race could be 26 percent. States that haven’t been competitive in decades would suddenly become battlegrounds. Of course, if no one gets a majority in the Electoral College, the decision goes to the House, for even more exciting postseason drama.
Sanders wants to smash the status quo in both parties. The opportunity is staring him in the face.
Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.