Disappointment tests all movements, and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s is no exception. As the Sanders coalition grapples with what to do after his disappointing showing on Super Tuesday, a long-simmering tension between two camps is starting to bubble over.
Sanders’s campaign is by no means over, but he’d expected to be in a better position than he is now. Coming off a big victory in Nevada a little over a week ago, Sanders turned around and lost South Carolina by more than expected. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar dropped out before Super Tuesday and endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden. Sanders fell slightly behind in the delegate count despite strong Latino support in Texas and California. And now he needs to play catch-up in the face of an unfavorable map.
Two competing wings of his movement have two competing answers to what he should do. One wing of the Sanders movement is conspiratorial in its mindset and fundamentally hostile to the existing Democratic Party as an institution. They were ascendant after Biden won the New Hampshire primary, which probably helped inspire the rapid consolidation of the moderate lane that boosted Joe Biden.
Another wing has worked for years inside Democratic Party politics and is trying to win an internal struggle over the future direction of public policy. This wing now seems to be dictating actual campaign strategy.
But some Sanders-aligned media figures are firmly in the former wing and busy venting — giving the impression online, in particular, that his entire movement is paranoid, petulant, and inflexible.
Sanders made two risky bets that haven’t paid off
I haven’t seen a lot of introspection or self-criticism among Sanders-aligned thinkers.
But the truth is that however much you believe in the main tenets of Sanders’s policy message (I am sympathetic to it), the campaign also grounded itself on a couple of tactical propositions that turned out to be wrong. In April 2019, for example, Edward-Isaac Dovere reported for the Atlantic that Sanders was counting on a divided opposition to let him coast to victory without securing the vote of the median Democrat.
He’s counting on winning Iowa and New Hampshire, where he was already surprisingly strong in 2016, and hoping that Cory Booker and Kamala Harris will split the black electorate in South Carolina and give him a path to slip through there, too. And then, Sanders aides believe, he’ll easily win enough delegates to hit him into contention at the convention. They say they don’t need him to get more than 30 percent to make that happen.
So he’s eagerly gotten into fights, like one over the weekend with the Center for American Progress about a video produced by an affiliated website that speciously accused him of profiting off his 2016 run. And then he’s fundraised by citing the fights as evidence of the resistance to the revolution he’s promising.
Sanders did indeed win Iowa with about 25 percent of the vote, followed by winning New Hampshire with 25 percent of the vote, and winning Nevada with 34 percent of the vote.
But on Tuesday with a winnowed field, Sanders lost Iowa, Tennessee, and Oklahoma with 25 percent of the vote each. He lost Massachusetts with 27 percent. He got 30 percent in Texas and Minnesota and lost both. He lost Maine with 33 percent.
Sanders did have a few states like Alabama where he really struggled, but the bigger issue for Sanders is that even his big win in California came with 34 percent of the vote. Topping out at around a third of the vote is not exactly a failure for Sanders’s campaign — as Dovere reported it was something like a strategy. It’s a strategy with obvious risks, since you can’t force your opponents to stay in the race and split the vote. All kinds of politicians take advantage of divided opposition when it presents itself, but a normal primary campaign at least aspires to win the center of the party.
The other calculus was about turnout. Sanders said, over and over again, that he was counting on an unprecedented youth turnout wave to put him over the top. This simply did not materialize for him. It didn’t materialize on Super Tuesday, but, critically, it didn’t materialize earlier even in the states that he won. A win is a win however you get it, but the fact that Sanders couldn’t deliver prompted anxiety among Democrats who heard him say over and over again at his stump speech that record turnout was the key to his political revolution.
Some prominent Sanders-aligned figures, however, are not particularly focused on why those bets were made or why they didn’t pay off.
The Berniesphere is not in a self-critical mood
Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs, is one of the top thought leaders in the Berniesphere. And his focus in the aftermath of the defeat is on explaining why Sanders’s problems are the fault of anyone other than Sanders himself or his campaign (as Robinson himself notes, this “it wasn’t out fault” response to loss was typical of Hillary Clinton’s team).
His diagnoses are that the Super Tuesday defeat is “a real lesson in how power works,” whereby shadowy actors placed “a few phone calls” to rally support for Biden.
If Biden wins the nomination, it will be a real lesson in how power works. Bernie was on track to win, Biden had no campaign, and they all knew it. So a few phone calls were made behind the scenes to Amy, Pete, Beto. Several million was put into a pro-Warren Super PAC. Voila!
— Nathan J Robinson (@NathanJRobinson) March 4, 2020
It’s true that coordination between the Biden camp and the Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and O’Rourke camps were an important part of the story.
That said, it’s also worth noting how small and limited this anti-Sanders conspiracy is. Back in 1999, Bill Clinton and the top House and Senate Democrats all endorsed Al Gore, a courtesy that has not been extended to Biden. Six of the Super Tuesday states — California, Maine, Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina, and Minnesota – have Democratic governors and none of them endorsed Biden. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker didn’t join the endorsement party. In other words, while the endorsements and their rollout seem to have made a difference, the level of party support Biden enjoyed was far from unprecedented or overwhelming.
When Sanders had a heart attack after falling to third place in the polls last fall, I thought his campaign was done for. But he rolled out endorsements by Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and then followed them up with Rep. Pramila Jayapal. This sent a powerful signal that Sanders wasn’t quitting due to ill health and that grassroots progressives shouldn’t get on a Sen. Elizabeth Warren bandwagon. It was smart politics and it worked, helping Sanders recover second place in national polls and setting the stage for his eventual emergence as a frontrunner.
It’s not hard to imagine an alternate reality in which Sanders picked up a bunch of bandwagon endorsements between New Hampshire and Super Tuesday. Most Democratic Party members of Congress opposed the 2002 Iraq War authorization (which Biden then supported), opposed Biden’s 2005 bankruptcy reform, and opposed the Obama-Biden administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership. That roster of veteran members seems like potentially fruitful terrain for Sanders to pick up endorsements, but he didn’t manage to pull it off. Why not? Why weren’t there “phone calls made behind the scenes” to offer Warren whatever she needed to hear to drop out and endorse Sanders?
Bitterness at Warren for staying in the race is widespread in the Berniesphere, which is fairly reasonable. (It’s worth noting, however, that Bloomberg won more votes than she did on Super Tuesday, so a two-person race likely would have resulted in a bigger Biden win.)
Elizabeth Warren has just kneecapped the progressive movement.
— Henry Williams (@humford) March 4, 2020
But the more weight you put on the idea that Warren’s determination to stay in the race was a critical factor in driving the outcome, the more it seems like an error on Sanders’s part to have not done a better job of quietly placing phone calls. The fact is that trying to win endorsements and make alliances is a perfectly normal part of politics. Sanders benefitted at an earlier point in the campaign from doing it skillfully, but during a critical period, he didn’t do a very good job.
Can Sanders normalize himself?
In a new ad released Wednesday morning, Sanders shows video of himself with former President Barack Obama and plays audio stitched together from three separate occasions on which the president said nice things about him.
Biden, Warren, and Bloomberg have all run versions of this play in ads of their own and given Obama’s widespread popularity among Democrats, it seems like a smart idea for Sanders. The ad would, in turn, be a good complement to a message highlighting a few key issues — the Iraq War most notably — where Sanders and Obama were on the same side and Biden was on the other side.
The race is by no means over. Sanders’s new plan to try to beat Biden seems to be emphasizing issues (opposition to Social Security cuts, opposition to the Iraq War) where most Democrats agree with him, while emphasizing that Obama liked him. This is smart, and might work.
But it would have worked a lot better had Sanders tried to implement it from a position of strength after his victory in the New Hampshire primary. I personally argued then that mainstream Democrats had less to fear from Sanders than they thought. But to the best of my knowledge, Sanders’s campaign did basically nothing in late February to try to spread that message. They didn’t want to change directions and they arrogantly thought they didn’t need to change directions to win against a divided field. When luck turned against them, they were caught up short and are now pivoting in a more pragmatic direction. But it may be too late.