Some of these people need an off-ramp. Buttigeig for Governor. O'Rourke for Senate (an option he just ruled out). Yang for a House seat somewhere. Marianne Williamson for Mayor of Fairfield (the New-Agey author shouldn't be taken seriously as a potential POTUS but will over-perform in Jefferson County and Maharishi Vedic City - and will be a useful Mendoza Line for other candidates to try to stay above).
But there is one high risk, high reward lane yet to be occupied, and that someone, for victory's sake, needs to occupy. It's the lane that meets traffic head on. It might not get you to the White House, but it could get you somewhere.
Let's set the Wayback Machine to 2004.
That was the last "normal" cycle: a large-ish field of relatively equal strength, and a nomination that was settled long before the last primary state. No Democratic primary voter under 33 and outside of Iowa remembers any cycle like that. They have only seen bipolar races that go to the last state.
Howard Dean had been the front-runner for most of late 2003. But as caucus night drew closer, the top four candidates bunched into a four way near dead heat.
Back then, there were worries that Dean was some kind of "radical." He never was that. Dean had simply opposed the Iraq War when Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, and John Edwards had voted for it, and he had shepherded his state through the then-cutting edge "civil unions" for gay couples. ("Civil unions" were to full marriage equality as "cannabis oil" is to full legalization.)
The actual far-left people we would now call "Bernie Bros" were with Dennis Kucinich in 2004 and were more hostile to Dean that they were to the candidates who had voted for the Iraq War. Team Dennis resented that Dean had gotten all the anti-war attention that they felt Kucinich deserved. (I expect similar antagonism this year from the Sanders camp toward Warren - in a multi-cornered environment, your biggest enemy is the one fighting for the same niche.)
There was also tension between Dean and the other camps, especially Kerry. Compared to 2008 Obama-Hillary and 2016 Hillary-Bernie it was small, but by the standards of the era it seemed big.
The expectation bar was very high for Gephardt. As the 1988 caucus winner (a fact some Johnson County Paul Simon fans still dispute), anything less than a 2004 win would be damaging - and it just wasn't happening.
Everyone remembers The Dean Scream, but everyone forgets that it came AFTER the much more important Dean Third Place In Iowa. You will never convince us Dean fans that there was anything but a coordinated strategy by the other campaigns: knock Dean out and knock him out in Iowa.
Dick Gephardt, who knew he was fading, took one for the team:
Gephardt, locked in a desperate struggle for survival in the Democratic presidential contest, unleashed a blistering attack on front-runner Howard Dean yesterday.
His sweeping, and highly personal, condemnation of Dean also served to underscore the bleak reality Gephardt faces in Monday's caucuses. With his campaign running out of money and his prospects in the early primary states uncertain at best, the veteran Missouri congressman needs a victory in Iowa to keep his long political career alive.
But the decision to turn up the heat on Dean runs a risk of hurting Gephardt as well. If it succeeds, the attack could wind up indirectly benefiting two candidates already breathing down Gephardt's neck - Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. The two senators appear to be surging in the closing days of the increasingly negative, and volatile, Iowa contest...
Stopping just short of calling him a liar, Gephardt accused the former Vermont governor of being on both sides of such issues as trade, Medicare, gun control and favors for American corporations.
"It's become nearly impossible to know what Howard Dean really believes," Gephardt said, urging Iowans to reject what he described as Dean's "cynical politics of manufactured anger and false conviction."It was the only shot he had left. And it backfired; Gephardt finished fourth and dropped out on caucus night. But the attacks on Dean stuck, and scared Iowans into defecting to Kerry and Edwards. Even the hapless Kucinich got in on it, urging his people in non-viable precincts to realign to Edwards and not the more ideologically similar Dean.
In my own precinct, while we were still herding the Dean cats, the entire just short of viable Gephardt group marched en masse over to Kerry, and thus got reported as Kerry "state delegate equivalents".
(Stunts like that will be a little harder to pull off in 2020. With Democrats reporting raw votes for the first time, the national press will treat that first alignment as the "real" result. But it'll still have an impact in the delegate counts and party structure fights that matter within the state.)
Gephardt sacrificed himself by going hard negative against Dean and us Deaniacs in 2004, but his reward was presumably to come in the Kerry Administration. It was plausible enough that the New York Post famously got it wrong:
So that's history.
The question is, in 2020, which candidate in the 1 1/2th tier takes one for the team and does the same to Bernie Sanders?
The problem with the big field is that one candidate with a small but vocal and committed base becomes the front runner while the other candidates splinter the vote. Then that front runner becomes the winner, despite the opposition of most of the party, because the other's can't unite. Why should I drop out when I'm at 4%, if the second place candidate is only at 7? That's how the GOP got Trump.
In a gigantic field of ideologically similar (actual) Democrats, with everyone struggling for attention and viability, it's certain that SOMEone will gamble on explicitly attacking Sanders. Not on his message, which is popular with the base, but on the messenger: his personal history, character, and possibly supporter behavior if some of the more zealous ones create the opportunity.
This will backfire spectacularly, as it did with Gephardt, and destroy that candidate. But the other candidates, the longtime party activists and leaders, and the eventual nominee will be silently grateful, and if/when the election is won, that person will be rewarded.
Because the problem with the "Bernie Is The Most Popular Politician In America" meme that his acolytes constantly push is that it's untested. It's in a vacuum of no negative campaign against him.
Sanders was never truly, personally attacked on the national scale by either Hillary or Trump - because it served neither of their interests to do so. Clinton knew she had realistically clinched the nomination in March and would need the Berners' support, Trump needed Democratic division, and neither of those goals were served by going negative on Sanders.
Sure, there have been scattered negative news stories, which circulate and re-circulate in the #NeverBernie Twittersphere. They're not new to us political junkies. We all know what those issues are and I don't need to reiterate them.
But they WILL be new to the larger electorate. There has never been a sustained direct attack on Sanders from another candidate with the kinds of speech and debate quotes that mainstream news airs and re-airs. There have never been the kind of negative ads most candidates normally see at end game of a general election.
Even in an era of new media, 16 years removed from 2004, an awful lot of swing and low-info voters are still getting information through the old channels. At that point, it's too late. At that point, unlike in 2016, it's in Trump's interest to attack Sanders on everything (except releasing his taxes). You're into a wall to wall campaign of TV ads full of Sandinista videos.
No, not THAT kind of Sandinista video. Strummer-Jones 2020: Make America Clash Again
Bringing these issues up in the primary is doing the party a favor. If you don't care about the party, like some Sanders supporters, well, then, it helps the cause of defeating Trump. It either tests Sanders' ability to handle a body check and gets these things out of the way, or (I think more likely) it culls out a flawed candidate before he's nominated.
But it's a suicide mission for whoever does it, so who plays the Gephardt role? Someone with nothing to lose. Someone with high expectations, stuck in the pack, who has accepted reality for now but has ambitions for later.
The reward can't be as great as the running mate role that was seemingly within Gephardt's reach. The Sanders supporters would never accept it. The reward would have to be post-election - maybe a cabinet shot to position someone for 2028 - meaning look to the younger candidates.
Two things are certain: It won't be Kamala Harris, who I believe at this point has the inside track to the nomination. And it won't be Elizabeth Warren, who has the most to gain from defections from Sanders.
But this contest is likely to come down to Sanders vs. one Not Sanders, and it's a safe bet that someone will gamble that Anti-Sanders is the best way to be the Not Sanders, or at least to get a cabinet seat from her.