Bernie Sanders: The Latest Version of Howard Dean

by Stuart Rothenberg July 10, 2015 · 9:00 AM EDT

Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders’ poll numbers in New Hampshire have reporters taking notice and progressive Democrats excited: Bernie is surging!

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, if you believe the 73-year-old Vermont independent-turned-Democratic presidential hopeful.

“We are going to win New Hampshire. We’re going to win Iowa, and I think we’re going to win the Democratic nomination, and I think we’re going to win the presidency,” Sanders promised June 28 on ABC’s “This Week.”

Sanders may be deluding himself about his presidential prospects, but he shouldn’t be duping you. He isn’t Jimmy Carter or George McGovern, both of whom started as long shots but won Democratic nominations for president.

Sanders is merely the latest version of Howard Dean, another Vermont elected official who surged in early polls by appealing to the liberal base of the Democratic Party and running against the establishment’s early favorite, who in 2003 was Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

Progressive Democrats feel good when they listen to Sanders, who reflects their values and priorities. And since they aren’t picking a nominee, or a president, right now, but are simply looking for a vehicle to express their feelings, they don’t have any trouble cheering — and even embracing — the senator and his candidacy.

Of course, members of the national media are quite content to play along.

Reporters would love to cover an interesting and newsworthy Democratic race, and any candidate who “ducked” reporters’ questions for as long as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did is asking for a fight with the media, even with sympathetic journalists.

But Sanders (or anyone else now in the Democratic race) isn’t a serious threat to Clinton, who continues to be held in high regard by strong Democratic constituencies. He isn’t raising enough money to compete seriously for the nomination against the former first lady, and he doesn’t have the organization or the breadth of appeal needed to defeat someone like her.

While it is certainly true Democratic primary voters view themselves as more liberal than they regard Clinton, that doesn’t mean they don’t like her or wouldn’t vote for her in the primary.

In fact, June’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted by Hart Research and Public Opinion Strategies, found only 8 percent of Democratic primary voters said they could not see themselves voting for Clinton, while four times that number, 32 percent, said they could not see themselves supporting Sanders.

The same survey also found 88 percent of self-identified strong Democrats, 81 percent of black respondents, 78 percent of 2012 Barack Obama voters and 73 percent of self-described liberals have a positive view of Clinton.

Some Democrats may wish she had Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s passion or President Bill Clinton’s ability to show empathy or establish a personal connection with voters. But Democratic primary voters surveyed by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal believed overwhelmingly they would be optimistic or satisfied with the job the former New York senator would do as president.

Of course, I understand why Sanders might deceive himself into believing he will be sworn in as the nation’s 45th president. Every politician has a scenario for victory, and it’s hard to get up each day to attend campaign events while telling yourself you can’t win. Believing you are headed for victory, and having a plan that tells you that victory is possible, makes the agonizing schedule almost bearable.

Moreover, while some reporters and handicappers try to analyze Sanders’ prospects dispassionately, most of the folks who attend Sanders events are there to cheer him on and encourage his candidacy. They give him the false notion something bigger is happening. (I have been interviewing candidates for decades, and almost all have told me about voters encouraging them to run. I can’t remember any telling me about voters urging them against a bid.)

It is easy to imagine what many grass-roots Democrats see in Sanders. He is passionate in his feelings, and many of his targets — corporate CEOs, millionaires and billionaires, Big Oil — are classic Democratic antagonists. And for reporters, a news story about Sanders threatening Clinton is more newsworthy and entertaining than one examining the Vermont senator’s true prospects.

But when Sanders predicts he will be both the Democratic nominee in 2016 and the next president of the United States, he displays the political naiveté of an ideologue with an inflated sense of his own importance. Clinton’s campaign certainly has little reason to panic at this point.