When he entered the race in May, political observers largely wrote off Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as a “fringe candidate” for the Democratic presidential nomination. Few thought he would present a serious challenge to front-runner Hillary Clinton.
While early caucus and primary polls are not always a reliable indicator of the state of the race, it is safe to say that Sanders’ platform of fighting economic inequality is resonating among more and more Democrats and the party’s enthusiasm for Clinton is waning, giving Sanders ample opportunity to paint himself as a foil.
Sanders’ campaign has invested in a sophisticated ground game in both states, organizing volunteers and spreading his message on social media. He has also raked in impressive amounts of cash, almost entirely from small donations. In the first two months of his campaign, he raised $15 million.
But in order to really present himself as a viable challenger to Clinton, Sanders now has to make his message resonate beyond the party’s progressive wing and attempt to diversify his support outside the bastion of mostly young white liberals. Clinton enjoys robust support from black voters, as she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have spent much of their political career engaging the black community.
Sanders’ campaign will have to look beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, as he still trails Clinton nationally -- though he is closing the gap, with a CNN/ORC poll released Thursday showing him within 10 points of Clinton.
He does have time on his side. This time in 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama had yet to engage black voters in his campaign against Clinton, with many expressing skepticism toward his candidacy. It was not until his victory in the Iowa caucuses in early 2008, when it appeared more likely that Obama could defeat Clinton for the nomination, that he was able to galvanize black voters.
Part of Sanders’ problem is name recognition: in an August Gallup poll, two-thirds of black voters indicated they do not have an opinion on the candidate because they do not know about him. Sanders has tried to make inroads with them, unveiling policy proposals addressing racial justice and targeting black voters in South Carolina, who make up a significant portion of Democratic voters there.
Nationally, the campaign is working to replicate the Iowa and New Hampshire ground campaigns in other states. Sanders has even traveled to states traditionally not important to Democrats, as part of a strategy aimed at expanding the Democratic electorate nationwide. His campaign has said that one of its goals is to increase enthusiasm among the party’s voters and get more of them to the polls.
The wild card that could upend the entire race is Vice President Joe Biden, who continues to explore a run. It’s truly difficult to predict whether he will take the leap -- he has consulted with aides and potential donors but his grief over his son Beau's death continues to sap his “emotional energy” for another campaign.
If he entered the race, Biden could cater to the party’s establishment, who favor Clinton but are worried about Sanders’ viability as a candidate and the ramifications of Clinton's email controversy, which has reinforced perceptions of her as out of touch and untrustworthy.
Biden could equally cut into Sanders’ support, as the vice president is seen as a champion of the middle class and has close ties to labor groups, a big part of Sanders’ base.
Sanders said last week that he was “stunned” by his growing poll numbers but that he “had a message that I believed from day one was going to resonate with the American people.” The big question that underpins whether he can sustain his surge is whether that message can resonate with more groups of voters.
Also on HuffPost: