We Need Sanders and Warren to Cooperate in the Primary

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

Julian Brave NoiseCat

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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