We Need Sanders and Warren to Cooperate in the Primary

The real fight is for progressive power in the Democratic Party.

Julian Brave NoiseCat January 13, 2020

Unity is the way to win in 2020. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Since the 2018 elec­tion of Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, Queens, New York has stood on the cut­ting edge of left pol­i­tics because the borough’s pro­gres­sives have devel­oped effec­tive strate­gies to take on estab­lish­ment insti­tu­tions and win. When, in Decem­ber 2019, activists who sup­port Bernie Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren caught wind of back­room deals in the Queens Coun­ty Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to back Joe Biden, they held a ral­ly that suc­cess­ful­ly fore­stalled an endorse­ment. The protest revealed some­thing that is easy to miss on Twit­ter: For the Left, the real fight isn’t just for the nom­i­na­tion — it’s for pro­gres­sive pow­er in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

Before the Left can control committees, whip votes and pass laws, we will need to perfect this dance with the establishment—to strategically use the threat of protest, division, bad press and primaries to strike better deals for the working and disenfranchised people of this country.

If a sin­gle can­di­date could con­sol­i­date the Sanders and War­ren con­stituen­cies, that cam­paign would be about 5 points ahead of Biden nation­al­ly. Sanders, War­ren and their sup­port­ers broad­ly want the same things — Medicare for All, free pub­lic col­lege, a Green New Deal — but they are vying for many of the same pri­ma­ry vot­ers. The suc­cess of the pro­gres­sive move­ment in 2020 is, to a cer­tain extent, con­tin­gent on that com­pe­ti­tion not under­min­ing the broad­er Left. 

Accord­ing to a Decem­ber YouGov Blue sur­vey, 51% of War­ren sup­port­ers said they were also con­sid­er­ing Sanders, and near­ly the same (48%) were con­sid­er­ing front-run­ner Biden; 64% of Sanders sup­port­ers said they were also con­sid­er­ing War­ren, and 46% con­sid­er­ing Biden. Sanders and War­ren are pop­u­lar with each other’s sup­port­ers — mak­ing it unwise for one to direct­ly attack the oth­er — even though they need to com­pete for the same votes. 

If either fails to make a strong show­ing in the first three pri­maries — sig­nal­ing they have no real chance at the nom­i­na­tion — they should prob­a­bly drop out and throw their sup­port to the other.

How­ev­er, while both are in the race, there are ways they can team up. The most imme­di­ate and obvi­ous way is to con­tin­ue dunk­ing on their oppo­si­tion — think Bernie’s 44 bil­lion­aires” attack on Biden and Warren’s wine cave” jab at May­or Pete. And both should endorse down-bal­lot pri­ma­ry chal­lengers like Jes­si­ca Cis­neros in TX-28 and Mor­gan Harp­er in OH‑3, to bring allies to Capi­tol Hill and pres­sure mod­er­ate incum­bents to move left.

But here’s where things get inter­est­ing: The Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee is ulti­mate­ly not select­ed by vot­ers but by con­ven­tion del­e­gates. A campaign
has to reach a 15% thresh­old with­in the state to win state-lev­el del­e­gates, and the same thresh­old in each dis­trict to win dis­trict-lev­el delegates.

Polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Josh Put­nam says a cam­paign polling sig­nif­i­cant­ly below 15% could urge their sup­port­ers to shift to their sec­ond choice (though an orga­niz­er with the War­ren cam­paign told me this is eas­i­er said than done, even in a cau­cus like Iowa where vot­ers phys­i­cal­ly gath­er to dis­cuss, and would be espe­cial­ly dif­fi­cult on tra­di­tion­al bal­lots). John Edwards and Den­nis Kucinich struck a deal like this in Iowa in 2004, with some ben­e­fit to the for­mer. War­ren and Sanders should con­sid­er a sim­i­lar arrange­ment, at least in the Hawk­eye State.

A con­test­ed con­ven­tion, though unlike­ly, offers oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties to join forces. Say Sanders and War­ren amass del­e­gates in pro­por­tion to their cur­rent nation­al polling — about 20% and 15%, respec­tive­ly — while a mod­er­ate like Joe Biden pulls sig­nif­i­cant­ly short of 50%. In this sce­nario, nei­ther Sanders nor War­ren can win, but the two could lever­age del­e­gates in exchange for con­ces­sions in the par­ty plat­form and pro­gres­sive picks for vice pres­i­dent and cab­i­net positions.

The last thing par­ty lead­er­ship wants is to head into the gen­er­al elec­tion against Trump with Team Blue divid­ed. Dis­uni­ty is itself a form of lever­age, as Seth Mas­ket, a polit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­ver, point­ed out to me. 

We may yet get a pro­gres­sive pres­i­dent in 2021 — and even pro­gres­sive Sen­ate and House lead­er­ship in the years to come. But before the Left can con­trol com­mit­tees, whip votes and pass laws, we will need to per­fect this dance with the estab­lish­ment — to strate­gi­cal­ly use the threat of protest, divi­sion, bad press and pri­maries to strike bet­ter deals for the work­ing and dis­en­fran­chised peo­ple of this country. 

It’s work­ing in Queens. Moumi­ta Ahmed, 29, is a co-founder of the New Reform­ers PAC and a 2016 Bernie del­e­gate (and 2020 del­e­gate can­di­date). She helped orga­nize the protest in Queens, and told me that War­ren and Sanders sup­port­ers can work togeth­er on this issue of, Does our par­ty sup­port grass­roots democracy?’”

A sim­i­lar approach could work in Mil­wau­kee this sum­mer and even in Wash­ing­ton in 2021.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office

For anoth­er per­spec­tive, read A Pri­ma­ry Is a Com­pe­ti­tion. Bernie Should Play To Win. by Carl Beijer.

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