No longer a fringe candidate or an outsider, Bernie Sanders will be under pressure to score decisive victories in early contests for the Democratic nomination or risk seeing his 2020 candidacy deflate.
Sanders' challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016 gives the 78-year-old independent senator from Vermont higher name recognition than other declared 2020 candidates, and that's made him the early front-runner in the primary campaign.
But he still has to prove he has overcome his previous shortcomings — primarily an inability to win over significant numbers of the women and minority voters that are a key part of the party’s base. And rather than being the one candidate chasing the prohibitive favorite, Sanders in 2020 will face a bigger, younger and more diverse crowd of competitors, many with similar platforms.
He also might have to compete with the expected candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden, who has wide name recognition and broad support among Democrats.
"They lived through a two-person race and did really well," in 2016, said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who isn't currently affiliated with any campaign. "Well guess what? You're in a totally different animal now."
Sanders lost to Clinton in 2016 in Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina and California, while winning the New Hampshire primary next door to his home state. As the insurgent candidate, Sanders could absorb the losses and credibly fight on. A poor showing by a candidate who's now at the top of polls could be devastating.
Sanders has campaigned in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada since announcing his candidacy last month, and he will spend this weekend in California, where early voting starts the same day as the Iowa caucus next February.
The campaign raised $10 million in its first week and has at least 70 paid staff members, including some on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire. On Tuesday the campaign announced a slew of hires for his national organization, making his staff more diverse and female than it was for his 2016 run.
Laying the groundwork in early states and hiring a more diverse staff are moves aimed at addressing weaknesses that contributed to his 2016 losses, particularly with black voters, according to Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser for the Sanders campaign.
"As the spring unfolds, I think you'll see clusters of events that speak both to policy issues and also to other important issues of the campaign like electability," Weaver said.
The campaign's first test will be in the Iowa caucuses, where in 2016 Sanders came away with only four fewer delegates than Clinton out of a total of 1,681. He called the loss a "virtual tie."
"He has to do very well in Iowa, there's no doubt about that, given how well he did last time," Weaver said.
Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman and a member of Clinton's 2016 campaign staff in the state, said her advantage was that she built a "massive organizing effort" on the ground earlier than her opponents.
"That's how you win a state like Iowa," Price said. "And it's true of all of these four early states, but especially in a place like Iowa where our caucus process, you have to build infrastructure in 1,679 precincts across the state."
In New Hampshire, Weaver said Sanders won't do as well as he did in 2016, when he won 60 percent of the vote in his first primary victory. The crowd of 2020 candidates will splinter the vote, and Weaver noted that Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, like Sanders, has the advantage of being from a nearby state. Former Texas Representative Beto O'Rourke this week is making campaign stops in all 10 counties in the state.
In Nevada and South Carolina, Sanders lacked the deep and long established relationships that Clinton had in 2016. Although Sanders lost Nevada by only five percentage points, he fell behind Clinton in South Carolina by nearly 50.
"She had a better assembled team in Nevada," said Megan Jones, a Nevada-based Democrat who worked on former Senate Leader Harry Reid's political operation. "There was a lot of deep support for her in this state."
Jaime Harrison, who led the South Carolina Democratic Party in 2016 and is now a DNC associate chair, said that flipping Clinton supporters in 2016 was "a tough hill to climb" for Sanders, but now he's "a known commodity" across the country.
"Now he has to go and take the support that he has and use that as the base and build upon that support," Harrison said.
Early campaigning suggests that California Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker are planning to be competitive in South Carolina, focusing their initial energy on southern states.
Harris brought on Clinton's 2016 South Carolina political director Jalisa Washington-Price to lead her campaign in the state, while Booker hired former aides of South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, a member of House leadership. Sanders is preparing to announce South Carolina and Nevada hires "soon," according to Weaver.
The Sanders campaign has also worked to push back on the perception that he didn't appeal to minority voters in 2016. He launched his campaign this year with a rally in Chicago focused on his personal history and work in the civil rights movement, though subsequent rallies returned to his usual stump speech on economic issues.
"He will continue to talk about his record and his personal history, where it's starting in the civil rights movement, supporting Jesse Jackson for president in the '80s, his work against mass incarceration in the '90s," Weaver said.
Sanders is capping off the first stage of his campaign launch this weekend with a tour of San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where Harris will have a home-state advantage.
In 2016, California's primary fell on June 7, at a point when Sanders' campaign was financially depleted and Clinton had all but clinched the nomination. Sanders laid off hundreds of paid staffers in April 2016 and directed his remaining resources to holding rallies across California, where he won 46 percent of the vote to Clinton's 53 percent. This time Sanders plans to invest "tens and tens of millions of dollars" in paid media in the state, Weaver said.
“California’s gonna turn out to be a pivotal state in this process,” Weaver said.