A Short History of the Media Smugly Dismissing Bernie Sanders’ Campaign at Every Step of the Way

Despite the fact that Sanders’ campaign has only grown larger and larger, the media always bends over backwards to dismiss him.

Branko Marcetic April 5, 2016

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) railed against renewing the Bush tax cuts for more than eight hours on Friday.

Bernie Sanders’ cam­paign may be one of the best argu­ments for the point­less­ness of pre­dic­tive pun­dit­ry. From the day he announced his run to today, for much of the media, no loss was too small a set­back for Sanders, no moment too ear­ly to call the race for Clinton.

Despite being repeatedly proved wrong, pundits have continued to confidently assert predictions as fact and what appears to at times be little more than gut instinct as gospel.

The Hillary Clin­ton of April 2016 — who was wal­loped by Sanders recent­ly in three states and spent the last week try­ing to deny him a debate before the New York pri­ma­ry — might be sur­prised to learn Sanders doesn’t actu­al­ly rep­re­sent a threat to her nom­i­na­tion chances at all. That was the media con­sen­sus when Sanders announced his cam­paign back in May 2015, when a rash of arti­cles con­fi­dent­ly declared that not only would Sanders lose, he wouldn’t even come close.

In a May 4 arti­cle, The Week’s Peter Weber dubbed Sanders the Ron Paul of 2016,” refer­ring to the lib­er­tar­i­an for­mer Texas Rep­re­sen­ta­tive who excelled at fir­ing up the Repub­li­can base but rarely got much trac­tion in the polls. Bernie Sanders could very well run one hell of a pop­ulist barn­burn­er of a cam­paign, but he won’t be the next pres­i­dent,” he asserted.

Sim­i­lar arti­cles abound­ed. He won’t win, so why is Bernie Sanders run­ning?” asked Newsweek. Bernie Sanders: Why the guy who won’t win mat­ters,” report­ed the LA Times. Sanders is une­lec­table,” said New York Times colum­nist David Brooks. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont is almost cer­tain­ly not going to be the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee for pres­i­dent in 2016,” wrote FiveThirtyEight’s Har­ry Enten, cit­ing polls that put him well behind Clin­ton in Iowa, New Hamp­shire and nation­al­ly. It would take a tru­ly spe­cial can­di­date to defeat her,” he explained, and Sanders … is not the politi­cian for the job.”

NBC was sim­i­lar­ly dis­mis­sive. Bernie Sanders has almost no chance of win­ning the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion, but he is like­ly to delight par­ty activists as he takes unabashed­ly lib­er­al stances and tries to push Hillary Clin­ton to adopt them,” the news out­let report­ed. In an inver­sion of the stock nar­ra­tive applied to Sanders now, this report explained that Sanders does not play the part of the typ­i­cal pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, both because of his age and his style, which leans toward long, dense pol­i­cy speech­es instead of the more aspi­ra­tional rhetoric of Oba­ma.” Today it’s the exact oppo­site, with Clin­ton cast as the detail-ori­ent­ed pol­i­cy wonk and Sanders as the inspi­ra­tional speechifier.

Soon after this, as vot­ers began learn­ing more about the Ver­mont Sen­a­tor, Sanders began draw­ing mas­sive crowds at his cam­paign ral­lies, receiv­ing record amounts of small dol­lar dona­tions and climb­ing in the polls in Iowa and New Hamp­shire. Nonethe­less, for the media, this was mere­ly a short-lived novelty.

The Sanders surge’ isn’t actu­al­ly threat­en­ing Hillary Clin­ton,” the U.S. News & World Report assured its read­ers. Bernie’s recent surge’ is large­ly a case of a can­di­date secur­ing his nat­ur­al coali­tion of sup­port,” it went on, defin­ing that coali­tion as one of aging Grate­ful Dead hip­sters, envi­ron­men­tal­ists and pro­fes­sors.” This was before Sanders’ huge lead among young vot­ers became a sto­ry, at which point dis­mis­sive stereo­types about his sup­port­ers would be tweaked to ones of clue­less, free-load­ing Millennials.

Har­ry Enten was also unim­pressed by Sanders’ surge, and wrote that Clin­ton might actu­al­ly be relieved to be chal­lenged by some­one who has so lit­tle chance at win­ning the nom­i­na­tion.” Will he win?” asked CNN. Prob­a­bly not. Hillary Clin­ton will embrace many of these themes and speak more vocal­ly about these issues.”

Mean­while, in June, the Wash­ing­ton Post reg­is­tered its skep­ti­cism over Sanders’ abil­i­ty to beat Clin­ton in New Hamp­shire. Ref­er­enc­ing a line from a speech by Sanders in which he told the crowd a secret” (that he was going to win New Hamp­shire), the Post’s head­line blared: We have a secret of our own for Bernie Sanders: Your odds in New Hamp­shire aren’t that good.” Sanders, of course, end­ed up beat­ing Clin­ton in New Hamp­shire, at which point the nar­ra­tive switched to the idea that Sanders was always going to win because Ver­mont is right next door.

By Sep­tem­ber, Sanders was lead­ing in New Hamp­shire and clos­ing the gap in Iowa. With Sanders con­tin­u­ing to steadi­ly climb in the polls between June 2015 and Feb­ru­ary 2016, arti­cles dis­miss­ing his cam­paign start­ed to lev­el off. Nonethe­less, even on the eve of the Iowa cau­cus­es, some com­men­ta­tors couldn’t help themselves.

Bernie Sanders will not be pres­i­dent,” Damon Link­er stat­ed plain­ly in The Week, argu­ing that in big­ger and more diverse states in the South, West and Mid­west, Clin­ton is quite like­ly to come out on top over and over again.” It’s a nice thought, but Bernie Sanders can’t win,” lament­ed Eric Zorn in the Chica­go Tri­bune. “[T]here’s enough ageism, reli­gious big­otry and reflex­ive hor­ror at the idea of social­ism among the broad elec­torate that, if he wins the nom­i­na­tion, Sanders would prob­a­bly lose every state — even his home state of Ver­mont,” he explained.

I just can’t see Bernie Sanders win­ning a gen­er­al elec­tion,” wrote The Dai­ly Beast’s Michael Tomasky on Jan­u­ary 28. Three months ago, I thought it might be pos­si­ble, maybe. But watch­ing the cam­paign unfold as it has, and giv­en some time to pon­der how cir­cum­stances might play them­selves out, I’ve become less con­vinced that he could beat any of the Repub­li­cans.” This was some­what puz­zling giv­en that around this same time, polls had come out show­ing Sanders beat­ing Repub­li­can can­di­dates head-to-head in nation­al polls, some­times with big­ger mar­gins than Clinton.

Sanders’ win in New Hamp­shire and what was for all intents and pur­pos­es a tie in Iowa changed the nar­ra­tive for a few weeks, where com­men­ta­tors began talk­ing about Sanders’ surg­ing” cam­paign and not­ed that he had estab­lished him­self as a bonafide con­tender” (although Har­ry Enten omi­nous­ly warned that Bernie Sanders needs more than the tie he got in Iowa”). This would not last, how­ev­er, as after Sanders’ ten­ta­tive loss­es in Neva­da (which he has now nar­rowed to some­thing clos­er to a tie) and South Car­oli­na, and with polls look­ing bad for Sanders on Super Tues­day, pun­dits declared the race over.

Hillary Clin­ton is final­ly on a path to vic­to­ry,” stat­ed a Feb­ru­ary 28 McClatchy report. Hillary Clin­ton is all but guar­an­teed the nom­i­na­tion,” declared the UK’s New States­man the next day. South Car­oli­na may be the begin­ning of the end for Sanders,” wrote Har­ry Enten. The wide mar­gin of her South Car­oli­na vic­to­ry accel­er­ates her tran­si­tion to the gen­er­al elec­tion,” report­ed CNN, quot­ing Clinton’s asser­tion that tomor­row, this cam­paign goes nation­al.” Note that by the time South Car­oli­na vot­ed, only a mere four of the 57 pri­maries had actu­al­ly been held. 

Goldie Tay­lor at the Dai­ly Beast didn’t even need to wait for the South Car­oli­na pri­ma­ry to call the race for Clin­ton. In a Feb­ru­ary 22 piece titled This is the Date Bernie Sanders Berns Out,” she sug­gest­ed that a win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty [for Sanders] slammed shut Sun­day night in Neva­da” — in which, again, Sanders ulti­mate­ly only received one less del­e­gate as of two days ago — and that the upcom­ing race in South Car­oli­na is the prover­bial kit­ty-bar.” Tay­lor went on to pre­dict that, with the excep­tion of Mass­a­chu­setts, Ver­mont and Wis­con­sin, Sanders would like­ly keep los­ing through April.” In fact, Sanders went on to win 14 total con­tests going into April.

Pre­dic­tions of the demise of Sanders’ cam­paign reached fever pitch after Super Tues­day, which, to be fair, was a wal­lop­ing for Sanders. How­ev­er, rather than point­ing out that the Super Tues­day states were heav­i­ly weight­ed in the South where Clin­ton has a major advan­tage, or the fact that there were still 37 pri­maries to go with 3,030 del­e­gates at play, much of the media again con­fi­dent­ly deemed the race finished.

Bernie Sanders is slip slidin’ away on Super Tues­day,” said the New Repub­lic, which stat­ed that Sanders had peaked short­ly before the Neva­da cau­cus.” Sanders cam­paign will trav­el on, but path to vic­to­ry is all but blocked,” assert­ed the New York Times. Why did Bernie Sanders fail?” asked the Chica­go Tri­bune, which insist­ed that he has no real chance of wrest­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion from Hillary Clin­ton.” Hillary Clinton’s got this,” wrote Har­ry Enten, who argued that only some­thing tru­ly crazy” could deliv­er the nom­i­na­tion to Sanders, and that Clin­ton would win in Flori­da and Michi­gan. (Spoil­er: She lost the latter).

As the Clin­ton and Trump cam­paigns attempt­ed to piv­ot to the gen­er­al elec­tion, a num­ber of media out­lets fol­lowed their lead. It’s game over for Bernie Sanders,” decreed the Guardian’s Richard Wolffe, who wrote that, It may be pre­ma­ture to expect Sanders to con­cede to real­i­ty. But it’s nev­er too ear­ly for Hillary Clin­ton to piv­ot to the gen­er­al elec­tion.” Michael Tomasky told Sanders to get in line” and lay off the attacks on Hillary Clin­ton, the Gold­man Sachs speech­es and all the rest. Even­tu­al­ly, he’s going to lose. She’s going to win.”

Newsweek, mean­while, pro­claimed that Super Tues­day was the first night of the gen­er­al elec­tion, and Don­ald Trump won.” Super Tues­day 2016 will be remem­bered as the night Hillary Clin­ton and Trump won their par­ties’ nom­i­na­tions,” it told read­ers, assert­ing that Sanders lacked a path to the nom­i­na­tion and would only be able to win states that are heavy on whites, cau­cus­es and weed.”

This nar­ra­tive shift­ed some­what fol­low­ing Sanders’ wins in Nebras­ka, Maine and Kansas, and his upset in Michi­gan, which polls had him los­ing by 20 points or more. One com­men­ta­tor talked about a Sanders bounce-back,” while the Michi­gan win led ana­lysts like Har­ry Enten, who admit­ted he was now eat­ing a stack of hum­ble pie,” to recon­sid­er whether polls in oth­er Mid­west­ern states sched­uled for March 15 could be wrong. Sanders’s show­ing tonight means he isn’t going any­where: The pri­ma­ry could go until May, or lat­er,” said the New Repub­lic.

This was not enough for oth­er com­men­ta­tors. It is worth not­ing that these states don’t gen­er­al­ly vote for Democ­rats in the gen­er­al elec­tion,” For­tune qual­i­fied, a point few made about Clinton’s sweep of the south­ern states four days ear­li­er. Despite her nar­row loss in Michi­gan, Hillary Clin­ton still has Bernie Sanders on the ropes and is pro­ject­ed to cruise to at least four lop­sided pri­ma­ry wins next week,” the Boston Her­ald warned on March 9. This would put her in a posi­tion to close out the Ver­mont U.S. sen­a­tor by the end of the month,” pre­sum­ably the same way Clin­ton was meant to have closed him out at the end of the pre­vi­ous month.

Clin­ton did indeed cruise to four wins on March 15, and a vir­tu­al tie in Mis­souri, which became the lat­est death knell for the Sanders cam­paign. The jig may be up for Bernie Sanders,” ran the head­line in For­tune. The Bern has been felt, to be sure, but the oint­ment has been applied and it turned out not to be as seri­ous as we orig­i­nal­ly thought,” the piece con­tin­ued. Sanders ran a mirac­u­lous cam­paign, but his mag­ic is fad­ing.” Hillary Clin­ton’s March 15 sweep … effec­tive­ly slammed the door” on Sanders, argued the Chica­go Tri­bune. Quartz deemed Clin­ton unstop­pable,” while the Wash­ing­ton Post declared her del­e­gate lead almost insur­mount­able.” Sanders had lost the white Mid­west, his nat­ur­al con­stituen­cy, and now the race was over.

Except no, it turns out it wasn’t, because over the next 11 days, Sanders went on to win six of sev­en pri­ma­ry con­tests, includ­ing the very not-white states of Hawaii, Alas­ka and Wash­ing­ton. But pre­sum­ably because, as peo­ple had been told over and over again, the race was over, the media large­ly ignored this devel­op­ment. Oth­ers were more explic­it­ly dis­mis­sive. Voxs Matthew Ygle­sias — who pri­or to Sanders’ upset in Michi­gan tweet­ed, Where did the Sanders cam­paign get this idea that he can win Michi­gan?” — post­ed an arti­cle head­lined: Bernie Sanders just won land­slides in 3 diverse states. He’s still toast.”

By my count, from the announce­ment of Sanders’ cam­paign to today, this marks at least six dis­tinct times that media com­men­ta­tors have declared the Sanders cam­paign dead in the water. Despite being repeat­ed­ly proved wrong, pun­dits have con­tin­ued to con­fi­dent­ly assert pre­dic­tions as fact and what appears to at times be lit­tle more than gut instinct as gospel.

What is the point of such pre­dic­tive horse-race pun­dit­ry? What, if any, val­ue does it add to the nation­al polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion? Giv­en that fore­casts have been con­sis­tent­ly wrong, and dis­count­ing the fact that they serve as fod­der for writ­ers like myself, could jour­nal­is­tic resources not be bet­ter put to use for some­thing — any­thing — else?

This isn’t just an issue when it comes to the Sanders cam­paign. Much has been writ­ten about the media’s sim­i­lar­ly repeat­ed dis­missals of Trump, who has been declared to have no shot at the pres­i­den­cy at least as many times as — if not more than — Sanders, most recent­ly due to his poor stand­ing among women in nation­al polls. Yet the elec­tion is still a whole sev­en months away, and a lot can change in that time. It seems to me that for the most part, we have very lit­tle to gain, and much to lose, from such pre­dic­tive journalism.

In 1981, Duke Uni­ver­si­ty and the Woodrow Wil­son Inter­na­tion­al Cen­ter for Schol­ars pro­duced a joint study on pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tions that raised con­cerns about the way media cov­er­age shapes nom­i­na­tion races. Its words are just as prophet­ic today:

Win­ners of ear­ly pri­maries quick­ly become front-run­ners” with sub­se­quent increas­es in media atten­tion; losers, despite sub­stan­tial promis­es of sup­port in lat­er pri­maries, are quick­ly rel­e­gat­ed to the cat­e­go­ry of also-rans and have dif­fi­cul­ty rais­ing mon­ey and attract­ing volunteers…the par­tic­i­pants in Iowa’s cau­cus­es or New Hampshire’s pri­ma­ry have a much greater say in the selec­tion of the major par­ty pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee than do vot­ers of, for instance, New Jer­sey or California.

Among oth­er things, the study sug­gest­ed that media avoid label­ing every pri­ma­ry the make-it-or-break-it election.”

Here is where things stand as of April 5: Clin­ton leads Sanders by 228 pledged del­e­gates. There are 22 pri­ma­ry con­tests left, with 2,073 del­e­gates up for grabs, includ­ing the del­e­gate-rich states of New York, Cal­i­for­nia, New Jer­sey and Penn­syl­va­nia. Polls show that the upcom­ing con­test in Wis­con­sin could be close, while Clin­ton holds a nar­row­ing lead in New York. Jour­nal­ists should let these facts speak for them­selves instead of inces­sant­ly attempt­ing to impose a pre-ordained nar­ra­tive onto the race. 

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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