Despite His Losses, Bernie Sanders’ Agenda Is Winning

Sanders' platform is exceedingly popular, especially among younger voters. (Photo by Brittany Greeson/Getty Images)

While Sanders lost in Michigan and other states, exit polls show voters want Medicare for All, an economic transformation and a nominee who will run on a progressive platform. Those demands aren’t going anywhere.

Miles Kampf-Lassin March 11, 2020

The out­come of Tuesday’s pri­maries nar­rows the path for Bernie Sanders to reach the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion — of that there can be no doubt. While del­e­gates are still being appor­tioned, Sanders’ inabil­i­ty to score a come­back win in Michi­gan — the state that reen­er­gized his polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion in 2016 — comes as a major set­back to his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Instead, Joe Biden has fur­ther solid­i­fied his posi­tion as the race’s frontrunner.

Sanders’ message of empowering the working class is gaining in popularity.

Sanders sup­port­ers can point to a num­ber of fac­tors that skewed the Michi­gan out­come in Biden’s favor, from long lines and hour-long waits at the polls in col­lege-adja­cent areas like East Lans­ing, Ann Arbor and Kala­ma­zoo, to glow­ing media cov­er­age of Biden fol­low­ing his vic­to­ry in South Car­oli­na, to the sub­se­quent del­uge of Biden endorse­ments from much of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic establishment.

But while these issues sure­ly played a role in Biden’s vic­to­ry in the Great Lakes State (and deserve scruti­ny), fix­at­ing on them alone can’t explain why Sanders wasn’t able to recre­ate the coali­tion that pow­ered his upset win four years ago. After all, at that point in the 2016 race, Hillary Clin­ton was the party’s favorite to win the nom­i­na­tion, had the sup­port of the media and polit­i­cal elite — and yet Sanders still won in Michigan.

There’s plen­ty of elec­toral analy­sis left to dig into when it comes to the Michi­gan results, but it appears that this time, Sanders was unable to cap­i­tal­ize on the strong sup­port of non-col­lege-edu­cat­ed white vot­ers, and faced resis­tance from sub­ur­ban women. That, along with Biden’s abil­i­ty, yet again, to win the major­i­ty of black vot­ers’ sup­port, sealed Sanders’ defeat.

If the demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist is to recap­ture momen­tum in the race and pre­vail in his chal­lenge to the sta­tus quo, his cam­paign will need to adjust to these cir­cum­stances in order to wide­ly broad­er his appeal, espe­cial­ly to black vot­ers. One oppor­tu­ni­ty to do so will come in just a few days at the March 15 Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate in Ari­zona. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D‑S.C.) has called for such future debates to be can­celed and for Biden to be anoint­ed the nom­i­nee, while polit­i­cal con­sul­tant James Carville claimed on MSNBC Tues­day night that vot­ers want to shut this thing down.” Yet over 20 states still have yet to vote.

At that debate, Sanders will need to show not only that it’s him and not Biden who is the true cham­pi­on of work­ing peo­ple, and that he’s best posi­tioned to defeat Don­ald Trump in Novem­ber, but also that he’s best pre­pared to tack­le a major nation­wide cri­sis like the coro­n­avirus — an issue that exit polls showed Biden win­ning on Tues­day. Vot­ers will need to be con­vinced on all three of these fronts in order for Sanders to blunt what much of the com­men­tari­at has deemed Joe­men­tum.”

But one thing Sanders doesn’t have to change is his plat­form, name­ly his sig­na­ture issue: Medicare for All. In Michi­gan, a pre­lim­i­nary exit poll from CBS showed that 57% of Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry vot­ers favored imple­ment­ing a sin­gle-pay­er health­care sys­tem that would replace pri­vate insurance.

In Wash­ing­ton State, 64% of vot­ers said they pre­ferred sin­gle-pay­er and even in deep-red Mis­sis­sip­pi, 62% were in favor. Those results track with exit polls from the 16 oth­er vot­ing states where the ques­tion had been asked, each of which showed more vot­ers in favor of a guar­an­teed pub­lic health­care sys­tem than opposed. A full 77% of Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Demo­c­ra­t­ic-lean­ing vot­ers now say they sup­port Medicare for All. 

These results sug­gest that when it comes to health­care — which Democ­rats con­sis­tent­ly rank as their most impor­tant issue — the Left has large­ly won the debate. A major­i­ty of the party’s vot­ers believe that health­care should be a human right, guar­an­teed by the gov­ern­ment free of cost to all peo­ple regard­less of income or sta­tion in life. Such a devel­op­ment car­ries the promise of reori­ent­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics away from the mar­ket-based solu­tions that have been cen­tral to main­stream health­care pol­i­cy for decades, and final­ly mov­ing instead toward a humane sys­tem premised on pro­vid­ing care rather than suck­ing up profits. 

Yet these same vot­ers also chose a can­di­date in Biden who not only isn’t run­ning on Medicare for All, but actu­al­ly sug­gest­ed he may veto the pol­i­cy as pres­i­dent even if it passed through a Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­gress. How to make sense of such an appar­ent con­tra­dic­tion? Just look at exit polls from the states that vot­ed on Tues­day in which vot­ers said choos­ing some­one who can beat Trump is more impor­tant than nom­i­nat­ing a can­di­date who agrees with them on the issues.

Even here there is a ten­sion, as polls con­sis­tent­ly show Sanders would defeat Trump, both nation­al­ly and in swing states such as Michi­gan. Yet for the bet­ter part of the past year, the main­stream media has pushed Biden and his cen­trist pol­i­tics as the safe choice” while rais­ing red flags about Sanders’ sup­pos­ed­ly rad­i­cal” poli­cies and his demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist label.

To take just one exam­ple, at MSNBC, the most pop­u­lar net­work among Democ­rats, for­mer anchor Chris Matthews told view­ers on Feb­ru­ary 3 that Bernie Sanders is not going to be pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, okay?” — com­par­ing Sanders to failed 1972 can­di­date George McGov­ern and ring­ing alarm bells about social­ism. Such a com­ment wasn’t an out­lier, but rather has col­ored much of the network’s cov­er­age. In the face of such warn­ings, in Michi­gan, 82% of Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers said Biden could unseat Trump, com­pared to 63% for Sanders. 

Such a mar­gin illus­trates the prodi­gious chal­lenge fac­ing Sanders this cycle. He has few allies in either the media or polit­i­cal class­es to make his case for him, and he’s large­ly framed his cam­paign as a direct chal­lenge to the elites at all lev­els of soci­ety. That pos­ture has allowed him to pow­er his insur­gent run through dona­tions from work­ing-class Amer­i­cans and a mas­sive vol­un­teer oper­a­tion. But the Unit­ed States is a vast coun­try where estab­lish­ment politi­cians and pun­dits still hold immense sway over the elec­torate. Con­vinc­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers that he was the more elec­table can­di­date than the establishment’s choice — who also hap­pened to serve as vice pres­i­dent to the still very pop­u­lar Barack Oba­ma — was always going to be an uphill battle. 

Still, Biden isn’t yet even halfway to the del­e­gate count need­ed to win the nom­i­na­tion. While Sanders’ chances have been great­ly dimin­ished, the race isn’t over, regard­less of what the pun­dit­ry would have you believe. And Sanders’ mes­sage of empow­er­ing the work­ing class is gain­ing in popularity.

Accord­ing to ear­ly exit polls, in Michi­gan, 49% of Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers said they favor a com­plete over­haul” of the country’s eco­nom­ic sys­tem, com­pared to 39% who think it needs minor changes. In Cal­i­for­nia, Texas, Ten­nessee and North Car­oli­na — states where the ques­tion was asked — a plu­ral­i­ty of vot­ers held favor­able opin­ions of social­ism. And over­all, a clear major­i­ty of Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry vot­ers now think the party’s nom­i­nee should run on a more pro­gres­sive agen­da than Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, while just 46% want a nom­i­nee who will return the coun­try to the way it was before Trump took office.” 

Through­out his run, Sanders has railed against an eco­nom­ic sys­tem that leaves mil­lions of work­ing peo­ple behind while the super-rich gob­ble up more and more of the gains, lead­ing to bar­barous lev­els of income and wealth inequal­i­ty. He’s point­ed to not just the bil­lion­aire class but also its allies in the halls of cor­po­rate pow­er and media indus­try as bar­ri­ers to upend­ing this unequal sta­tus quo. And he’s made an unequiv­o­cal case for enact­ing sweep­ing pro­gres­sive mea­sures to tip the bal­ance toward the work­ing class. Clear­ly, vot­ers have paid attention. 

Vot­er behav­ior is com­plex and does not always fall eas­i­ly on a Left vs. Right spec­trum. But one thing is clear from the 2020 pri­maries: Democ­rats want real change that will improve their lives, and are ungrat­i­fied with the cur­rent state of affairs. Nowhere is that clear­er than with younger vot­ers, who in state after state have over­whelm­ing­ly cho­sen Sanders as their pre­ferred can­di­date. In Michi­gan, vot­ers under 45 went 64%-32% for Sanders, where­as those over 45 went 66%-25% for Biden — a stun­ning spread.

Biden famous­ly said in 2018 that he has no empa­thy” for mil­len­ni­als who speak out against sky­rock­et­ing debt and the lack of job oppor­tu­ni­ties. But it is these younger vot­ers who will inher­it not just the plan­et that’s see­ing its cli­mate rav­aged by fos­sil fuel emis­sions, but also the very Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that Biden is aim­ing to lead.

No mat­ter what hap­pens dur­ing the rest of the pri­ma­ry cam­paign, the results from Michi­gan and oth­er states show that Democ­rats want poli­cies such as Medicare for All that will take basic ser­vices like health­care off of the mar­ket­place and instead guar­an­tee them as rights. Who­ev­er becomes the nom­i­nee will face a grow­ing move­ment that is mobi­lized, moti­vat­ed and deter­mined to win.

Dis­clo­sure: The author of this piece has vol­un­teered for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 cam­paign. Views expressed are those of the writer. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose any can­di­date for pub­lic office.

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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