In this Democratic primary that is both inspiring and infuriating in equal measure, one of the least appealing aspects of it how many Bernie supporters are accusing Hillary Clinton or the “Democratic Machine” of stealing the election for her. Now, there’s no question that the primary system is a hot mess–caucuses are undemocratic, many voter registration laws are ridiculous (including New York’s), states won’t pony up for primaries, states have different standards on who can vote in these primaries (I do not believe that non-Democrats should have the right to choose the Democratic Party nominee), etc. But these allegations that the problem is a conspiracy are totally ridiculous. First, the “party machine,” whatever that even means today, is the weakest it has ever been. Remember that for the vast majority of Democratic Party history, the primaries didn’t even mean very much and actual Democratic Party insiders picked the president. This has only changed in the last 50 years. Second, as Holland points out, why would Hillary steal a primary when she has no reason to do so?
It’s a conspiracy theory, and conspiracy theories tend to fall apart under the weight of their own internal illogic. Consider the 9/11 attacks: If they were a “false flag” operation pulled off by a cabal of extremists within the Bush administration in order to create a casus belli for the invasion of Iraq, why wouldn’t they make the attackers evil Iraqi intelligence officers rather than citizens of Saudi Arabia? And if they really felt the need to bring down the World Trade Center, why bother shooting a missile at the Pentagon? Why crash an airplane into a field in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania? Even judged on its own terms, the theory makes no sense.
Obviously, if campaign operatives were caught rigging a primary or caucus, their candidate would face a media shit-storm, their political careers would be over, and they might well end up in prison. So let’s set aside the specifics for a moment and consider whether there’s a coherent motive for these crimes that would be worth the risk.
Put yourself in the shoes of a vicious Clinton operative with loose ethics and a desire to win at all costs. Why would such a person bother rigging the vote in Wyoming, the state with the fewest delegates up for grabs? That’s a significant risk and a lot of trouble to go through to turn what might have been an 8-6 or perhaps 9-5 delegate split into a 7-7 outcome.
The same problem holds more generally. While Sanders has run an excellent campaign and exceeded all expectations, at no point during the Democratic primaries has he been on track to win. Sanders has held a lead in a handful of national polls, but at no time in the past year has his support broken 42 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s weighted polling average. And at no point in the race has Clinton held a lead narrower than 9.7 percentage points in that average. Why would any campaign, no matter how unprincipled, fix a race that it’s been winning from the start?
The reasons Sanders isn’t winning are not a conspiracy theory. They are quite explainable. It’s that a) he had a late start and couldn’t really compete in many of the states between Nevada and when his early success led to more fundraising and b) he has done very poorly with people of color and a Democrat can’t win the nomination without sizable black and Latino support.
But for a lot of people, conspiracy theories are more palatable than actual political analysis. It’s easier to blame some nefarious power than own up to a candidate’s or a position’s shortcoming, not to mention the work of structural analysis.