For business groups, the question regarding Sen. Bernie Sanders isn't whether he will win the Democratic presidential nomination. It's how much further left he will push the Democratic Party before his campaign is finished.
Most officials in Washington's trade associations hold to the conventional wisdom that front-runner Hillary Clinton will win the party's nod. But many are now worrying that she will have to co-opt more of Sanders' issues to do so. She already has moved pretty far in that direction, they note.
"Hillary Clinton sounds just like Bernie Sanders," said Jack Mozloom, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business. "This is the Democratic Party's agenda now. It's very hard left."
An official at another trade association, who like several others asked to be anonymous, said the Democratic Party as a whole has shifted perceptively leftward since the last election. Even if Clinton did win and pivoted back toward the center after the election, Democratic senators probably would insist on a progressive policy wish list should they regain the majority.
"You'd probably see things like a national 'living wage,' card check — something that couldn't pass even when Democrats had 59 Senate votes — and mandatory paid leave," the official said. Card-check legislation would make union organizing much easier by replacing federally monitored secret ballot workplace elections with unmonitored public ones.
Sanders, 74, long regarded as a Senate gadfly, has mounted a surprisingly successful presidential bid by appealing to hardcore liberals with issues such as a $15 minimum wage.
The Vermont independent lost the Iowa caucuses to Clinton by one of the slimmest margins in history and is heavily favored to win the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. Polls show Clinton is ahead in the later primary states, and she leads in the national polls.
Nevertheless, should Clinton follow her near-loss in Iowa with an actual loss in New Hampshire, that would likely turn the nomination into the kind of prolonged fight that Democratic Party leaders had sought to avoid.
Clinton, a former Walmart board member with close ties to Wall Street, had earlier tried to head off that scenario by adopting several liberal policies she had previously avoided, such as coming out against both the Keystone XL pipeline project and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. In the latter case, she even had a hand in negotiating the deal as Obama's secretary of state. Sanders' success suggests Clinton would have to go further still to appease his base.
Sanders' rhetoric has been directed at large institutions, but trade groups argue that policies they inspire tend to have a larger impact on medium and small-sized businesses, many of which have a harder time absorbing the costs.
"From the entrepreneur's perspective, Bernie's tax policies would be crushing. Higher rates on the individual and corporate side and higher payroll taxes would sink an already floundering economy. Higher rates on capital gains taxes would further restrain capital access, which continues to be a challenge for growing firms," said Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council.
Several business officials were particularly concerned with the prospect of a Democratic administration that would push for a radically higher federal minimum wage as opposed to relative marginal hikes pushed by previous administrations such as President Bill Clinton's.
The rate is currently $7.25 an hour. President Obama's administration initially endorsed a proposal to raise it to $10.10 an hour and then endorsed a $12 one last year. Clinton shares that position.
An official for one trade group called that a "game-changer" that would force their members into cutting back on hiring and would force others out of business entirely.
Kerrigan said one advantage to Sanders is that he's transparent and authentic.
"Small business owners and entrepreneurs appreciate his honesty in terms of his policy agenda ... Bernie's appeal is interesting, he just has bad policies that would tank the economy," she said.