After being almost entirely written off a mere month ago, Joe Biden has pulled off what may well be the greatest comeback in the history of presidential primaries. As another round of voting concluded on Tuesday, the former Vice President has won at least four more states, opening up a near-insurmountable lead. It will now take nothing short of a miracle for Bernie Sanders to win the nomination.
Yet the Vermont Senator was a heavy favourite as recently as two weeks ago. His campaign boasted a formidable grassroots fundraising base, an unrivalled ground game and top tier name recognition. So where did it all go wrong? Truth be told, ever since he first ran for president in 2016, Sanders’s campaign had made a series of major strategic errors. Here are five.
One. He should never have called himself a Democratic Socialist. In June 2015, when the last primary season was getting into swing, a GALLUP poll asked Americans whether they would vote for ‘A generally well-qualified person’ if they happened to hold certain characteristics. More than nine in ten respondents said they would vote for a woman, a catholic or a black person. More than seven in ten would be prepared to vote for someone who is gay or lesbian. Only one option failed to gain majority appeal – ‘A socialist’.
There are reasons to believe that these attitudes have changed over the past five years, but by adopting the ‘socialist’ label Sanders was still disqualifying himself for a significant portion of the primary electorate. Safe to say, this was a complete own goal. Sanders had no reason to call himself a socialist since, by many metrics, he really isn’t one. ‘Social Democrat’ would have been more accurate and infinitely more palatable. Even better to use a term that would directly resonate with primary voters. An ‘FDR Democrat’ or ‘New Deal Democrat’ would still have emphasised his radicalism while rooting it in party history.
Two. He should have refrained from the language of ‘revolution’. As many Sanders supporters would love to remind you, his grand plans are actually quite popular. So why did ‘Medicare for All’ consistently poll better than the candidate that ran on it? Why did so many Americans express a desire for reform but could not bring themselves to vote for the reformer?
In short, they liked the ideas but not so much the package. A huge number of Americans are exasperated at the state of private healthcare and crushing student debt. Yet the economy is doing well, unemployment is low and wages are growing. While most Americans might approve of individual reforms, they remain sceptical of revolutionary change. Change is scary, especially for the majority of the country who are mostly getting along just fine.
Donald Trump’s election sent shockwaves through moderate, liberal America. They detest his character, his nativism, lies, corruption and disregard for basic human decency. And what they want above all is a return to normality, not another revolution. To be clear, Bernie Sanders could not be more different from Trump. Nonetheless, it remains hard to see how this kind of rhetoric appealed beyond Sanders’s core base.
Three. He should not have pitched his candidacy as a crusade against the Democratic ‘establishment’. The President, or presidential nominee, is the de-facto leader of their respective party. And yet, despite twice running for the Democratic nomination, it rarely seemed like Sanders wanted anything to do with them.
Above all else, primary elections test a candidate’s ability to build a broad winning coalition. And while Sanders had a low floor, he always remained a factional candidate. To that effect, he never attempted to unify the whole party behind him. He referred to the Democratic establishment in the same disparaging tone as the Republican establishment. Yet Twitter radicals are few and far between among real voters. Most Democrats don’t exactly love the Democratic National Committee (DNC), but neither do they wish to burn it down.
From the moment he announced his candidacy a little over a year ago, the Sanders campaign worked under the assumption that, amid a crowded field, all they needed to win was 30% of the vote and a plurality of delegates. It was an inherently flawed strategy. The number of candidates running was always going to reduce to a mere handful once people actually started voting. Moreover, if he hoped to win during a contested convention, Sanders would inevitably need to extend an olive branch to the wider party.
Sanders supporters were despondent after establishment Democrats rallied behind Joe Biden following the latter’s blowout win in South Carolina. But why shouldn’t they have, when his opponent had effectively declared war on them?
It did not have to be this way. After his narrow victory in New Hampshire and a landslide in Nevada, Sanders had a real opportunity to appeal for unity. The establishment was panicking and the rest of the field was in total chaos. Sanders, now a clear frontrunner, could have pivoted towards a conciliatory tone. He could have made a direct pitch to moderate voters. He should have offered Elizabeth Warren the vice presidency. One could argue that party elites would never have accepted him. But Sanders never even tried.
Four. He failed to make a strong case on electability. If there was ever a consistent theme across all primary exit polls, it was that the number one consideration among Democratic voters was – ‘which candidate can beat Donald Trump’. Moderate candidates, particularly Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden, made electability the central focus of their campaign. Sanders did not.
This was a major error for two reasons. First, Sanders’s decision to call himself a socialist and to embrace a radical policy programme inevitably raised concerns around electability. And so he needed to preempt the impending debate attack lines, instead of constantly having to play defence.
Second, Sanders’s electability case is potentially very convincing. He consistently beats Donald Trump in head to head matchups across both national and state polls. His radical agenda could have lured Republicans into discussing the issues they are weakest on, particularly healthcare. His opposition to NAFTA, the TPP and a preference towards protectionist trade policy made him a serious contender in the Rust Belt. His strength among Latino voters could have elevated Democrats in the South West, including in Texas and Arizona.
Sanders’s campaign simply did not do enough to present their candidate as the safest pair of hands heading into November. Granted, this was always going to be difficult as electability arguments naturally favour moderates. But there was no avoiding this topic. Once again, Sanders barely tried, and not before it was too late.
Five. He chose mobilisation over persuasion. Politics is turbulent, yet some basic truisms stand the test of time. The economy is king, opinion polling is imperfect, and young people do not vote. Many a left of centre campaign had doomed itself by thinking that, if only (insert low turnout demographic) could finally be persuaded to vote, victory is assured. Followers of the British Labour Party are well accustomed to this ill-fated logic.
In a way, the problem here is mathematical. Two people voting for the first time are worth the same as one switcher, as you are not only adding a vote to your pile but also taking it off the other. And that’s assuming your strategy even works.
History tells us that allocating massive resources towards persuading people who don’t vote is a very bad idea. To that effect, Sanders’s hopes rested on voters under 30 (the lowest turnout age demographic) and Latinos (the lowest turnout ethnic demographic). His outreach towards the latter group arguably won him California, but it hardly made a difference in Maine, Massachusetts or in the Deep South.
Do you know who does vote? College-educated women, a crucial group with which Sanders underperformed. In fact, turnout was up substantially in most ‘Super Tuesday’ states, except they were voting for Joe Biden. Let this forever be a lesson that the size of crowds at rallies does not translate into electoral success.
If the American left ever wants to win in the future, they first have to start being honest with themselves. Joe Biden will not win the primary because of DNC meddling or because the media has brainwashed low information voters. Most people do not actively follow politics but neither are they robots. In truth, a majority of Democratic voters simply did not want to vote for Bernie Sanders. The Vermont Senator ran a good campaign. It also happened to be the wrong one.
Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flikr.