(CNN)After Joe Biden‘s stunning comeback on Super Tuesday, the Democratic Party is once again facing the nightmare of 2016: a collision course between its establishment candidate and Bernie Sanders that could leave the party fractured and weakened come November.
Four years ago, some of Sen. Sanders’ most ardent supporters — including many young voters — stayed home on Election Day, rejecting Hillary Clinton as their nominee. This campaign cycle, many of the Vermont independent’s supporters are still deeply distrustful of a Democratic establishment that they believe wrested the nomination away from Sanders.
But while Clinton and Sanders fought a long, drawn-out battle four years ago, the swift coalescence of Democratic Party figures around Biden has been far more overt and catalytic.
Though all sides claim they will be united in working to defeat President Donald Trump, the brewing Biden-Sanders battle could run even hotter than the Clinton-Sanders clash, because of Biden’s and Sanders’ dueling strengths, which have divided the party along lines of race and age.
There was no brilliant shift in strategy that lifted Biden’s campaign from near-death before South Carolina to victory there and then to resurgence on Super Tuesday. Instead, he was thrust back into front-runner contention by a series of weighty endorsements, starting with US Rep. Jim Clyburn in South Carolina and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and swiftly followed by three former primary rivals: Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke. It was the sign that undecided and skittish Democratic voters clearly had been looking for.
The big endorsements for Biden kept coming after Tuesday night’s showing. He was anointed by another force that Sanders supporters loathe when former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Wednesday threw his backing behind the former vice president — an embrace that could mean millions of dollars continue to be spent on ensuring that Sanders is not the Democratic nominee. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm also backed the former vice president, giving him a boost in a key state that will vote next Tuesday, along with former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
In an echo of 2016, the undertone of suspicion among Sanders supporters resurfaced Wednesday on social media with posts carrying the hashtag #RiggedPrimary and #RiggedDNC. In recent interviews at Sanders rallies, his supporters have openly expressed their fear that Democratic Party leaders will “steal” the nomination from him.
Sanders himself outlined an us-vs.-them construct for the campaign at a news conference Wednesday in Burlington, Vermont, where he listed the forces stacked against him, including Wall Street and “the entire corporate establishment.”
“There has been never a campaign in recent history which has taken on the entire political establishment, and that is an establishment which is working frantically to try to defeat us,” he said.
“There has not been a campaign that is trying to deal with the kind of venom that we’re seeing from some in the corporate media,” Sanders added. “This campaign has been compared to the coronavirus on television. We have been described as the Nazi army marching across France, etc., etc. As we come into the last several months of this campaign, what I hope very much is that what we can focus on is an issue-oriented campaign, which deals with the concerns of the American people.”
When asked about Bloomberg, Sanders said he had “no animus” toward the former mayor, “but this just confirms exactly what I said. It’s what the media has been talking about for months. How do we stop Bernie Sanders? How do we stop a movement of working people and low-income people? How do we stop a multi-generational, multi-racial movement, which is standing up for justice?”
Biden’s aides, in turn, were sharply critical of what they view as divisive tactics by the Sanders team in upcoming states, including a new ad critiquing the former vice president’s advocacy for freezing Social Security spending in 1995 (an argument the then-senator from Delaware made when supporting a balanced budget amendment). Another ad touted Sanders by using past praise from former President Barack Obama.
“We’ve seen, unfortunately, what kind of campaigns Bernie Sanders runs. We saw the impact that it had in 2016,” Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield told reporters.
US Rep. Cedric Richmond, a co-chair of Biden’s campaign, also took issue with Sanders’ characterization of Biden’s victories Tuesday night, pointing to his huge margins among black voters.
“I just did not know that African Americans in the South were considered part of the establishment,” the Louisiana Democrat said.
In a quest for unity, Democratic leaders like Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have studiously stayed out of the fight. But Clinton, whose disdain for Sanders has continued to draw headlines, was blunt about where her preferences stand in a new