The footsteps Bernie Sanders is hearing belong to Elizabeth Warren. The problem for the Vermont senator is that those footsteps are ahead of him, not behind him, in Iowa and California and perhaps soon in the rest of the country.
Think of this phenomenon as the red shift applied to politics.
Both candidates lean to the left, to be sure, but the Massachusetts lawmaker is also leaning forward and has passed Sanders in the Hawkeye State, where presidential candidates' reputations are made, and has passed her fellow New Englander in the hearts of many liberals. She poses a direct threat to Sanders in New Hampshire, where he chalked up an important victory in 2016, and may now be the contender former Vice President Joseph R. Biden fears the most.
From the start, political professionals saw the 2020 Democratic campaign as a contest with various "lanes" -- a minority/diversity lane composed of Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, a moderate lane composed of Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and an assortment of lesser-known figures, and a progressive lane consisting of Sanders and Warren.
Much of that theory has collapsed. Biden, who occupies a lane of his own, is by far the principal candidate among moderates. Harris has failed to catch fire (but hopes for a revival in South Carolina), and Booker has shined in debates, but his prospects have dimmed on the ground (and he has spoken openly of abandoning the race).
Klobuchar at one time was the contender the Donald Trump camp dreaded facing. The reasons: She is nice; he is not. She is introspective; he is not. She has appeal in the vital voter group composed of women in the suburbs; he does not. But she, too, has failed to catch fire, even in Iowa, which shares a border with her home state -- a distinct advantage, as Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who came in first, and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, who finished second, discovered in the 1988 Democratic caucuses.
That leaves the liberal lane, and thus far Warren has outperformed her progressive rival in many regards.
Warren is fresh; Sanders is stale. Warren engages a crowd; Sanders lectures it. Warren's story is one of prevailing against adversity; Sanders' story is one of being an adversary of virtually everyone he has ever met. One more: Warren emits a sense of fun; Sanders emits a sense of weary travail.
Warren seems to be on a magical mystery tour. Sanders seems to be croaking the song "Yesterday."
There are, of course, second acts in American political life. Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 after losing it in 1960 to John F. Kennedy. Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination in 1968, also after losing to Kennedy in 1960. George McGovern prevailed in 1972 after losing to Humphrey in 1968. Ronald Reagan ascended in 1980 after falling to Nixon in 1968 and Gerald Ford in 1976. John McCain secured his party's nomination in 2008 after George W. Bush won in 2000, and Mitt Romney went on to the general election in 2012 after losing in 2008 to McCain.
But to prevail a second (or, in Reagan's case, a third) time takes a special character and special circumstances.
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Two cases studies provide illuminating examples. In 1968, it took the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the collapse of the GOP presidential campaigns of Gov. George W. Romney of Michigan and Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York for the GOP to produce the Nixon-Humphrey race. Undaunted by defeats to Nixon and Ford, Reagan finally prevailed in 1980.
Then there is the age factor. Warren is 70 years old, but Sanders is eight years older. His message is virtually identical to that of 2016, though he freshened it with last week's proposal to eliminate medical debt. Even so, the whole Feel the Burn movement has a shopworn feel. He resists entreaties to modernize his approach -- it worked last time, after all, and it shows consistency and a certain rusticated authenticity, even though he was born in Brooklyn.
Each presidential race is different, of course, and for Sanders to prevail in 2020, some elements have to fall in his favor -- an embarrassing misstep by Biden, for example, or an unseemly revelation involving Warren. The former is likely, the latter not so much.
But it is more likely that the unlikely emergence of Sanders at all in 2016 is the special circumstance. It was that race that elevated a senator of little prominence and few prospects from a curiosity into a contender. For years hardly anyone paid any mind to the Vermonter on Capitol Hill -- he was regarded as a wacky socialist who could have emerged only from the granola precincts of Burlington, Vermont -- and he had little impact except as a gadfly.
The important factor was less Sanders than his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who campaigned on an "inevitability" platform that Sanders transformed into a liability. If she were the anointed candidate of the party elites, then in the eyes of Sanders and the following he swiftly acquired, she was by definition an unacceptable candidate in a campaign year when the elites were discredited. It did not help Clinton's cause that she was awkward on the stump, stiff, overprepared and overscripted.
Sanders does not have that sort of foil this time. Warren is overprepared in an entirely different way: brimming over with policy ideas, many of them indistinguishable from those of Sanders but presented in a cheerier, more approachable way. Clinton was programmed; Warren is spontaneous. Having her dog along helps in appearances in New Hampshire, which instinctively distrusts anything with the faintest odor of Massachusetts (the taxes are too high, the tourist visitors too pushy), but which nonetheless has given its first-in-the-nation primary victory to Bay State candidates five times since 1960.
Still, Sanders retains a hold on second place outside of Iowa, though it is hard to deny that Warren has the momentum. Both would beat Trump if the election were being held right now, which it isn't. Harris would be in a statistical tie with the president, but of course, polls this early rarely have any meaning except to political writers who don't have the sense to ignore them.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.