What Was Bernie’s Campaign, Exactly?Comments
Although this is likely to be forgotten by history, the elite coalescence around Joe Biden was late and (for good reason, IMO) reluctant, happening just before Super Tuesday. Bernie didn’t even have to win South Carolina, he just needed to keep the margin respectable enough to keep the more moderate candidates from unifying behind Biden. He didn’t, for reasons connected to the broader strategic blunders of his campaign. We’ve already discussed one damning postmortem, and we have another one focusing on South Carolina specifically:
Sanders, an irascible Northeastern liberal, was never a natural fit with many black voters, particularly older ones in Southern states with more-conservative leanings. But several staffers said the disconnection did not have to be this bad.
Turner, a former Ohio state legislator and Sanders’s most visible African American ally, traveled with Sanders, introduced him at rallies and helped shape the campaign’s outreach to black voters — including keeping an eye on South Carolina.
Some staffers felt she was wrong for that role. “She didn’t know the state,” said Gilliard, who said he is fond of Sanders but parted ways with the campaign after the Feb. 29 primary.
Delegating his South Carolina operation to Turner — a proud Stein ’16 voter with no connection to the state — made absolutely no sense, with predictable results. But as Yglesias pointed out recently, it reflects a larger problem with his campaign, which is that African-American voters are particularly loyal to the Democratic Party, and a campaign against the party in a primary is just not going to work to win most of them over:
To summarize the story extremely briefly, most white people are Republicans. Those who are not Republicans have made a very conscious ideological choice to reject conservative ideology, creating a largeish bloc of voters who — like Sanders himself — are left-wing but cool on the Democratic Party. By contrast, black people who participate in black institutional life — who attend black churches, have many black friends, live in black neighborhoods, etc. — tend to have a strong affirmative attachment to the Democratic Party, even as their policy views are diverse.
The essence of Sanders’s message is that progressive-minded people need to overthrow a corrupt Democratic Party establishment in order to remake it in a more ideologically rigorous direction. This is just antithetical to the main currents of black opinion and the main modes of black political engagement.
Consequently, despite years of earnest striving to win over black voters, Sanders ended up over the weekend speaking to a room full of white people in majority-black Flint, Michigan. He was onstage next to Cornell West, a brilliant African American philosopher who likes Sanders but, unlike most black people, is hostile to the Democratic Party.
To return to the original story:
“Inexperienced state leadership,” said Hyman, who gave speeches for Sanders, “was very slow to respond and to take any risk or broaden our base or to push for some of the what we thought were common-sense suggestions.”
One idea, for example, was for Sanders to visit with a convention of Baptist ministers, according to Gilliard and Thigpen, who said that plan was rejected by higher-ups. Jessica Bright, who served as state director, said the decision was “more of a scheduling conflict. It wasn’t anything outside that realm.”
But for people in South Carolina, Sanders’s priorities clearly appeared to be elsewhere. The campaign didn’t start advertising heavily on radio in the state until late January and on television in mid-February, according to data from Advertising Analytics, even though the primary was Feb. 29.
It’s just bizarre how complacent the campaign was about this, given that it’s what sunk his 2016 campaign. But it all goes back to the extremely dumb 30% strategy:
The campaign had other big problems, according to current and former officials and allies. The team was caught flat-footed by how quickly the Democratic Party establishment united behind Biden, after the campaign executed a plan that rested heavily on a divided opposition.
Expecting there to be numerous candidates that were viable enough to split the African-American vote but not viable enough to threaten Bernie was always betting on a massive longshot. They seem to have been using Trump as a model, but 1)the Republican field in 2016 actually consolidated pretty quickly — Walker didn’t make it to October, Jeb! was dead after Iowa, Christie killed Rubio like Warren killed Bloomberg — it’s just that the last man standing was barely more popular among Republican elites than Trump himself. And even more importantly, Republicans have winner-take-all primaries, making it much easier for a minority candidate to pile up a delegate lead.
As the Times article noted, a related problem that marks his biggest disadvantage with respect to Biden is his reluctance to do the basic work of campaigning:
But he has always been disdainful of the art of politics and had to be nudged into wooing even friendly Democratic leaders. As Ms. Warren relentlessly courted Ms. Ocasio-Cortez last fall, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s advisers had to prod Mr. Sanders’s aides into having him call her — a conversation that eventually led to her endorsing him.
Pushing Mr. Sanders to reach out to “establishment Democrats” whom he regularly taunted was even tougher — despite the best efforts of even some of his staunchest supporters on the left. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez repeatedly urged the campaign to broaden Mr. Sanders’s message and seek out new allies, outside his familiar base.
As somebody for whom Biden was not a top 5 candidate and probably not a top 10 candidate, I find this all pretty infuriating. If Bernie wasn’t serious about putting together a majority coalition, he shouldn’t have run.