Should Sanders prevail, Trump’s strategy will be to spotlight his democratic-socialist identity in an attempt to make voters fear he’ll take away their freedom. (Trump will try to brand any Democratic nominee a socialist—Team Trump just thinks it’ll be easier with the guy whose self-description includes the word.) If Sanders falters, Trump will argue that he was unfairly robbed of a nomination he earned. Trump has long stoked suspicions of an anti-Sanders conspiracy within the Democratic Party, for what seems to be two purposes: leaving Sanders’s following so disillusioned that they stay home on Election Day, or perhaps persuading them to switch sides and vote Republican. Sanders may not need Trump, but for the time being, Trump needs Sanders.
“Sanders would be every holiday present rolled into one,” Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary and an ex–senior adviser to a pro-Trump super PAC, told me. “With Bernie, there’s a general agreement that he’s a gift.”
Mistreating Sanders and alienating his supporters could cost Trump the election, depending on how the Democratic nomination fight ends. An analysis from the political scientist Brian Schaffner shows that in 2016, tens of thousands of Sanders supporters voted for Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—three battleground states that Trump narrowly flipped from blue to red. Had these voters aligned with the Democrats instead, Hillary Clinton would have won all three states and, ultimately, the election.