Why Bernie Sanders Lost, and How the Next Progressive Challenger Can Win

Lessons from a campaign that outperformed expectations but still came up short.

Christopher Hass August 4, 2016

Bernie Sanders brings his campaign to a close at the first day of the Democratic National Convention on July 25. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

I’ve come not to bury Bernie Sanders, but to praise him. In his 15-month run for the White House, Sanders shook up the estab­lish­ment and shift­ed the bound­aries of the polit­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble in Amer­i­ca. He assem­bled a coali­tion of vot­ers that is younger, more pro­gres­sive and more numer­ous than any­one could have imag­ined. As a result, both the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s plat­form and its nominee’s posi­tions have shift­ed left. More impor­tant­ly, Bernie Sanders has set the terms of the debate about the future of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty mov­ing forward.

The first and possibly fatal misstep Sanders and his campaign made was failing to realize that he could win.

What he did not do is win. As Sanders him­self said in his con­ven­tion speech, No one is more dis­ap­point­ed than I am.”

But he came close — so close that mil­lions of his sup­port­ers could taste it. I got drawn in, too, stay­ing up late into the night in a hotel room in Feb­ru­ary, jug­gling spread­sheets and old exit polls, hunt­ing for a plau­si­ble path to vic­to­ry. I even thought I’d found it, and I wasn’t alone.

Had it not been for the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment,” Sanders advi­sor Lar­ry Cohen, the for­mer pres­i­dent of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, says, Bernie would have won the nomination.”

It’s true that few seri­ous chal­lengers have ever had so many pow­er­ful ele­ments with­in their own par­ty aligned against them. When Wik­iLeaks unleashed a trove of near­ly 20,000 inter­nal emails between Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee staffers mock­ing Sanders and, at times, out­right con­spir­ing against him, it seemed to con­firm the worst of his sup­port­ers’ sus­pi­cions that the game was rigged from the start.

But Sanders’ cam­paign against Hillary Clin­ton was less a civ­il war with­in the par­ty than an attempt­ed hos­tile takeover. To argue that an anti-estab­lish­ment can­di­date lost because the estab­lish­ment was against him is to close off the pos­si­bil­i­ty of ever suc­cess­ful­ly chal­leng­ing that estab­lish­ment — and that would be a deep dis­ser­vice to Sanders, his sup­port­ers and all they accomplished.

Instead, it seems worth ask­ing why exact­ly he came up short, and what it might take, next time, for some­one to chal­lenge the estab­lish­ment and win.

The first and pos­si­bly fatal mis­step Sanders and his cam­paign made was fail­ing to real­ize that he could win. You can’t blame them, though — Hillary Clin­ton spent years prepar­ing for this elec­tion, and Sanders entered the race as the longest of long shots.

Whether win­ning” was the goal at all was an open ques­tion in the begin­ning, even with­in the cam­paign itself. Cohen describes the ear­ly days of the cam­paign as run­ning on two tracks — a tra­di­tion­al track to rack up del­e­gates and a sep­a­rate track to build a move­ment for eco­nom­ic jus­tice. “[Ear­ly on] I would have thought that the move­ment-build­ing was the main track,” he says. It turned out that the more tra­di­tion­al track was clear­ly with­in reach.”

Pil­ing up 2,026 pledged del­e­gates across 57 indi­vid­ual pri­maries and cau­cus­es is a vast­ly dif­fer­ent endeav­or than wag­ing a broad cam­paign for eco­nom­ic jus­tice, and the tac­tics and strate­gies to get there are vast­ly dif­fer­ent as well. Sanders spent the first part of the race cam­paign­ing in white, lib­er­al col­lege towns where he drew huge crowds with a mes­sage that was laser-focused on eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, often to the obvi­ous and awk­ward exclu­sion of oth­er issues. In many ways, it was the per­fect strat­e­gy to draw atten­tion to a mes­sage, but it result­ed in a coali­tion that was deep (and deeply pas­sion­ate) but narrow.

The key to win­ning a close del­e­gate fight in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry is to win big where you can and to keep your loss­es close. Sanders did the oppo­site — his wins were often nar­row, and his loss­es were too often blowouts. Nowhere was that more true than in South­ern states with large African-Amer­i­can populations.

Much has been writ­ten about why Sanders failed to con­nect with African-Amer­i­can vot­ers, and there’s no sug­ar-coat­ing the num­bers: 76 per­cent for Clin­ton to 23 per­cent for Sanders (among white vot­ers, the two fin­ished dead even). For Sanders sup­port­er Bill Fletch­er Jr., a labor activist, for­mer pres­i­dent of TransAfrica and mem­ber of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, this was less a fail­ure of effort than a blind spot ear­ly on. The cam­paign com­plete­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and com­plete­ly down­played the rela­tion­ship between racial jus­tice, gen­der jus­tice and eco­nom­ic jus­tice,” he says. I think those two points were fatal.”

Sanders wait­ed three and a half months after declar­ing his can­di­da­cy before mak­ing his first cam­paign stop in South Car­oli­na. In addi­tion, he made the deci­sion ear­ly on to run not just against Hillary Clin­ton, but against Pres­i­dent Oba­ma. Instead of argu­ing that it was he and not Clin­ton who was bet­ter suit­ed to build on the Oba­ma lega­cy — for exam­ple, using Oba­macare as a foun­da­tion to get to sin­gle pay­er, instead of scrap­ping the president’s health reform law alto­geth­er — he let Clin­ton claim the man­tle of Obama’s suc­ces­sor. This is a pres­i­dent whose approval rat­ing tops 90 per­cent among African Amer­i­cans. These are vot­ers who were nev­er going to vote for Bernie if that meant turn­ing against Barack.

In the end, Sanders came up short by more than 3 mil­lion votes — though not enough to pre­vent many sup­port­ers from claim­ing that it was a com­bi­na­tion of elec­tion irreg­u­lar­i­ties and vot­er sup­pres­sion that cost him the elec­tion. But closed pri­maries are not the same as vot­er sup­pres­sion. It’s true that our sys­tems for vot­ing — espe­cial­ly in pri­maries, which are built on the assump­tion that not many peo­ple par­tic­i­pate — are habit­u­al­ly under­fund­ed, under­staffed and bad­ly flawed, but there’s no com­pelling evi­dence that they’re rigged.

Whether or not the main­stream media is rigged, on the oth­er hand, is an alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent ques­tion. In Decem­ber, Media Mat­ters report­ed that ABC’s World News Tonight had devot­ed less than one minute to Sanders’ cam­paign in all of 2015, and they weren’t alone in snub­bing him. This despite the fact that Sanders reg­u­lar­ly drew more sup­port than the object of the media’s ear­ly obses­sion, Don­ald Trump. Major news out­lets also spot­ted Clin­ton a 359-del­e­gate lead before the first vote was even cast, by includ­ing superdel­e­gates in their offi­cial results. That helped cre­ate a false impres­sion that endorse­ments from these par­ty insid­ers are part of the del­e­gate count that deter­mines who wins” each state (they aren’t), and a false nar­ra­tive that the race was nev­er close.

But it’s pre­cise­ly because of Sanders’ suc­cess, against all odds, that the next chal­lenger will face a much dif­fer­ent set of assump­tions going in.

What Sanders did was pull back the cur­tain on a com­pla­cent Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment, reveal­ing just how hun­gry peo­ple are — espe­cial­ly young peo­ple — for a more pro­gres­sive and pop­ulist eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy. Sanders’ sup­port­ers and vol­un­teer net­works are now part of every state, and their influ­ence will be felt with­in state par­ties and pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions for a long time to come. If they’re suc­cess­ful, in the future an estab­lish­ment (includ­ing unions and issue-advo­ca­cy groups) that is less com­pla­cent, less com­pro­mis­ing and more recep­tive to the wants of its mem­bers — a more small d” demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment — may not be so quick to close ranks around a pre­sump­tive nominee.

In that envi­ron­ment, a cam­paign that starts ear­ly, with a clear com­mit­ment to win­ning and focus on build­ing a broad and inclu­sive coali­tion, could play out a lot dif­fer­ent­ly. Sanders was right about the eco­nom­ic moment that we live in, but he some­how missed the larg­er social move­ments and forces — includ­ing the strug­gle for racial jus­tice that is being waged in the streets every day.

We have to have a sto­ry­line that talks to reg­u­lar peo­ple about how these things inter­sect,” says Fletch­er. Sim­ply being the can­di­date of eco­nom­ic jus­tice is not enough.” Bernie Sanders had a clear mes­sage, and he mount­ed an inspir­ing cam­paign that he used to com­mu­ni­cate it. The polit­i­cal debate has for­ev­er been altered as a result. But win­ning cam­paigns are about more than just mak­ing a point.

Nao­mi Klein, writ­ing in The Nation, put it this way: We didn’t win, but we could have. We came that close. That’s thrilling. It’s also ter­ri­fy­ing. Because if we can win, it means that we must win. That’s a heavy responsibility.”

Christo­pher Hass is the exec­u­tive pub­lish­er of In These Times. Before join­ing ITT, he spent eight years work­ing on polit­i­cal and advo­ca­cy cam­paigns, includ­ing both the 2008 and 2012 Barack Oba­ma pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. He is also the for­mer edi­tor and pub­lish­er of P8NT Mag­a­zine.

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