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.
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. Vox’s 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.