Not everyone who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary was a committed Democratic Socialist. A decent share may favor such policies and stick with him through thick and thin. But another decent share may bail on him this time around -- not because they've had a change of heart on what a better vision for America looks like, but because they believe that such change can only take place in single steps, with no leap-frogging allowed.
In 2016, the context was eight years of Obama, and the signature identity politics victory -- gay marriage -- made Democrats, and Republicans, believe that the progressive trend would only continue. No Republican would ever be elected president after the disaster of the W. Bush years.
Having eliminated the right-wing threat, the only question was how far and how quickly the progressives would push the inevitable trend. Maybe now they could finally get some action on economic populist issues, not just cultural and social issues.
A good share of Bernie's 2016 voters felt comfortable enough in what Obama had accomplished for the center-left of the party. Now it was time to take it to the next level.
But after the Trump admin has derailed those plans, these incrementalist voters feel like they've been sent back to square one. Obama's achievements have been erased, as an evil Republican is back in the White House genociding the gays, blacks, Muslims, and immigrants all over again. (Fact check: Trump is letting in legions more illegals than Obama).
If you believe that change can only proceed one major step at a time, then the next major step made by Democrats will be used up on simply getting back to where they believe society was under Obama, now that they're in hell under Trump. Only then can their next major step be another Bernie-style movement to pursue populism, rather than just having the central bank inflate another tech bubble, and re-shuffling the soldiers in Iraq over into Afghanistan.
Going from Trump to Bernie will feel like too great of a change to attempt in just one step. They are thinking in conventional left-right terms, where Trump is on the right, Obama or Biden are in the center, and Bernie is on the left.
If they thought about it in terms of populist vs. elitist, or realignment vs. status quo, then the Trump admin should be bringing them one step closer to Bernie, not setting them back. Trump campaigned on realignment, on material rather than culture war issues, and flipped states that should not have been possible.
He has delivered very little on those campaign themes, though, so that leaves the door wide open for a populist realigner like Bernie to swoop in and steal those issues for the Democrats. That door would not have been left open if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio had won the 2016 election.
But if you're an incrementalist, you don't see the history of realignments where a massive change happened swiftly, a la the Reagan Revolution, the New Deal, the Lincolnian Civil War era, the Jacksonian takeover, or the Jeffersonian triumph. They take the big picture to be settled, so that the only open question is left vs. right within the governing paradigm.
To them, Trump is not a would-be populist realigner whose logical successor would be Bernie, after failure to deliver -- he's just another right-winger in the Reagan era. Taking the neoliberal Reaganite paradigm as fait accompli, the goal is only to shift from right to center to left within that paradigm. And since Trump is on the right, that means the next step must be the center -- boom, Biden's your uncle. Perhaps after a term or two of Biden, then we can talk about another Bernie-style challenger to move from the center to the left.
The relative lack of enthusiasm for Bernie among the very people who supported him just four years ago, gives me flashbacks to the first W. Bush term. The Nader campaign was seen as an acceptable risk to take after two terms of Clinton -- after all, Gore was going to win, not that idiot from Texas, so what's the harm in indulging in a little lefty activism for Nader? But after Bush won, a fair number of Nader's prominent supporters not only refused to do so again in 2004, they outright begged him not to run again, like Michael Moore.
In 2000, you would have been going from the center (two terms of Clinton) to the left (Nader). But after Bush interrupted those plans, suddenly the society was set back to the right. In 2004, the only possible move was to the center, with Kerry, and not two major steps to land over on the left with Nader or Dean. Nader did far worse in '04 than in '00, and yet this centrist strategy still failed to get their guy into the White House.
Frightened risk-averse incrementalists will account for Bernie doing worse in the 2020 primaries than in 2016, although with a crowded field he could still end up in first place, despite having a smaller share than before. But if the incrementalists who backed Bernie in '16 concentrate on Biden rather than split up among a variety of other non-candidates like Beto or Buttigieg, Bernie's run will be over.
The split-up outcome is still possible. The latest Emerson College poll shows that among Bernie's 2016 primary voters, one-quarter have abandoned him for either Beto or Buttigieg -- both of whom would satisfy an incrementalist's desire to have a centrist for 2020, just not the centrist who's a zillion years old. By contrast, only about one-tenth of his 2016 voters have defected outright to Biden. This poll was biased more towards younger generations, so it's more revealing of Bernie's core support base of post-Boomer generations.
The main point is to not assume that Bernie's supporters in 2016 were all die-hard populists who will mount an equal or even stronger onslaught against the status quo, after an entire term of a right-wing Republican president. A big-enough chunk of them are going to want a centrist, to move one step at a time, and the biggest unknown is whether they'll split up their votes among a variety of centrists -- almost everybody but Bernie -- or converge on Biden specifically.
If you're trying to convince people to vote for Bernie, but you sense they're an incrementalist, they might not be persuaded to stick with Bernie. In that case, agree with them, and direct them toward any of the multiple other centrists aside from Biden, joking about how there are still centrists who aren't a zillion years old, which will resonate with Gen X and Millennial Bernie voters from 2016 who are getting nervous about him for 2020.