Over the last few days I’ve occasionally forgotten that we’re in the midst of a nomination contest between two candidates in the high-risk category for COVID-19. The fact that they’re in the high-risk category isn’t what I space on. It’s that we’re in the midst of a nomination contest.
Based on all available data, the race is basically over. Biden is the overwhelming favorite to win. The Sanders campaign’s apparent assumptions about the electorate appear in tatters. There was no youth surge. It turns out that a lot of some of his presumptive strengths – with white rural and working-class voters – depended on confusing support for Sanders with opposition to Clinton in 2016. Scott has a good summary, which you’ve probably already read.
As Scott notes, there have been a number of interesting accounts of what went wrong for Sanders. Many of these have focused on the campaign itself. Over on Twitter, Zaid Jilani – whom I often disagree with – has been, as best I can tell, very good on problems with the campaign itself and its strategy.
The less said about the failure to fix some of the key problems from 2016 – including support among older African-American voters – the better. It’s great that younger minority voters favored Sanders, but that and a social-media account will get you snide comments about “low-information” voters failing to support Bernie.
More generally, I remain surprised that the campaign never made a serious attempt to pivot toward attracting center-left voters. Maybe “surprised” isn’t quite the right word. There were plenty of signs. For example, prominent supporters of Jill Stein’s 2016 bid number among the campaign’s surrogates and staff; members of his team have wasted time and energy attacking moderates in down-ticket races, doxxing anti-Sanders Twitter users, and generally decreasing the chances that “the establishment” – which includes both elites and a majority of the Democratic primary electorate – would ever reconcile themselves to Sanders taking control of the party.
In of itself, this kind of stuff isn’t that consequential. But, based on some of the material that’s getting aired now, it seems like a symptom of – and a partial explanation for – the campaign’s tendency to speak largely to, and in the language of, its core supporters.
Now, you can make a case that the campaign got boxed in by Warren’s brief period of dominance, which made it necessary to compete for the progressive wing. Even then, you’re still left with a basic challenge: if the aim is to win with 30-35% in a crowded field, then you need to assume that, at some point, you’ll need to expand your coalition in the face of a shrinking field. It’s possible that bandwagoning will be enough: that people will want to support the winning candidate. But you can’t rely on that; you need to actively make it happen – and you can’t bet on attracting legions of new voters, especially when those new voters aren’t producing larger margins in the early states.
These are fairly generic concerns. They apply to any ‘insurgent’ candidate running from the left. But the campaign also faced at least one specific challenge – the legacy of 2016. I would caution against underestimating the reservoir of bad will the Clinton-Sanders battle generated among many reliable, politically active Democratic voters. Yes, there are always haters and die-hard Clinton supporters who despised anyone willing to seriously challenge her. There’s nothing Bernie could have done about them. The kind of people I have in mind generally liked Bernie, but got turned off by the endgame of the contest and, fairly or not, with so-called #BernieorBust types.
I have a number of close friends in that category – people who mostly voted for Sanders in 2016 but soured on him as they watched the campaign escalate its attacks on Clinton and the Democratic party after it was clear that Bernie couldn’t, short of Clinton dropping out, win. I’m skeptical that this mattered that much in the broader arc of the general election, but it certainly wasn’t a good look. It especially made little sense once the campaign pivoted towards shaping the platform – except perhaps as a way to keep the base revved up and thus likely to continue donating time and money.
I raise this issue for a specific reason. As of now, Bernie has committed to staying in the race. I think this makes sense. The odds are heavily against him winning, but you never know. If Biden really stumbles – or worse – then that might change things.
The question is how the campaign pushes forward. As my wife recently said, it’s one thing to make the argument that Biden is too gaffe-prone or too centrist to actually win, let alone to run on a policy-focused campaign. It’s another to make what she calls “existential attacks” – ones that characterize Biden as unfit to serve or the party itself as malevolent.
Right now, it seems like this could go either way. Some on the campaign clearly want to take a scorched earth approach, they are already making these kinds of attacks on Biden in public. I’m confident Sanders doesn’t want to see Trump reelected – that he views the threat of Trumpism for what it is. But he can be prone to rhetoric that at least gives legitimacy to such existential attacks.
At the same time, it’s hard to see how going after Biden – as Sanders apparently did during the last debate – for stuff like voting for the Iraq War and DOMA, or his past support for entitlement reform and more recent support of the TPP, is going to succeed. It’s all very similar to one of the major lines of attack against Clinton. It didn’t work then. It seems less likely to work now: voters seem inclined to accept that Biden has evolved over his very long career in politics and it’s far from clear that a majority of Democratic voters are, say, skeptical of multilateral trade agreements.
So that leaves the question on the table: what is the endgame? If the idea is to stay alive and hope for Biden to implode, then it’s pretty clear that going hard negative – particularly on “existential” criticisms of his candidacy – isn’t going to deliver enough votes to change the trajectory of the race. There’s not a lot of point in influencing the platform unless Biden actually wins. And if Biden does, in fact, implode, then Bernie’s going to need to unify the party behind him.
Given all this, the answer to the question of how to finish out the campaign shouldn’t really be in doubt. Yet here we are.