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Lessons learned from Bernie’s defeat

| Friday, April 17, 2020

After the Nevada caucuses, virtually everyone considered Bernie Sanders the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Last Wednesday, Sanders yielded the race to the once-doomed moderate Joe Biden. To quote Hillary Clinton: What happened?

The simple answer is that Biden’s moderate opponents coordinated to drop out and endorse the former vice president. This explanation, however, incorrectly absolves Sanders of responsibility for his downfall. The consolidation around Biden reflects a larger, fatal flaw in Sanders’s campaigning strategy. One bitter fact stands: Sanders had the lead and lost it. To win in the future, progressives need to learn from this defeat. With so much at stake, we can’t surrender ourselves to unproductive anger.

Sanders, of course, faced difficulties outside of his control. His campaign was uniquely challenged by media bias, voter suppression and ruthless elite opposition. So, I plan to focus on the changes Sanders could make if he had a time machine. Sanders needed to overcome, not ignore, the deck that was stacked against him. This meant courting the Democratic Party rather than relying on a divided race for victory.

Sanders hoped to overturn electoral norms by mobilizing young voters around his insurgent campaign. According to Super Tuesday exit polls, voters under 30 accounted for 15% or less of the electorate in most states. Young people didn’t turn out — and they never do. Candidates should continue reaching out to young people, but it’s ahistorical to rely on them for victory. In an ironic twist, voters aged 45-65 and 65+ turned out in large numbers. These older voters carried Biden to victory. Biden did particularly well amongst older black voters, a crucial demographic in the South.

Sanders also struggled with these moderate voting groups in 2016. No doubt, he expected to compensate by winning white voters without college degrees. The white working class helped Sanders run competitively against Clinton, but this time around, they voted for Biden by a wide margin. Sanders actually lost ground in states like Wisconsin and Michigan, which had seemingly affirmed his anti-establishment message in 2016. In reality, the white working class probably just cast anti-Clinton votes.

A socialist should be able to win over most of the working class, but 2020 complicated that logic. Cultural concerns sometimes override economic ones, and Sanders verbalized greater support for intersectional social justice during this primary. This change, along with Clinton’s absence, ensured that Sanders had to look beyond the white working class for victory.

In short, the voting groups targeted by Sanders either didn’t turn out or supported Biden. Perhaps Sanders’s strategy could work under different circumstances, but Biden’s presence left him with only one path to victory. Sanders needed to appeal to mainstream Democrats without disaffecting his staunch supporters.

Fortunately, Sanders could accomplish this while maintaining his far-left views. Exit polls suggest his policies, including the “controversial” Medicare-for-All, are popular with Democrats. Rather, Sanders fell into the electability trap. He didn’t convince moderates that he could beat Trump.

I see Sanders’s defeat as a failure in messaging. He probably agrees. After Super Tuesday, Sanders released a commercial with Obama’s praise as the central focus — “feel the Bern,” the former president exclaims. I respond: too little, too late. Many moderates and older voters feel at home with the Democratic establishment. They admire Sanders’s record and conviction, yet recoil at harsh critiques of the status quo. Sanders, however, was never going to burn the system to the ground. Why didn’t he say so? After New Hampshire, at the latest, Sanders should’ve started loudly signaling his eagerness to work with the establishment. This also would’ve helped mitigate media hysteria.

At the same time, Sanders needed to emphasize the unelectability of his “good friend” Joe Biden. Biden is Clinton without the money, debating skill and enthusiastic supporters. He has, arguably, even more baggage than her. And yet, Sanders only started contrasting himself with Biden after losing on Super Tuesday. Sanders serves as an excellent foil for a proponent of the Iraq War and a once-enemy of Social Security. A whopping 48% of Biden’s Super Tuesday voters decided on him in the days before the election, so Sanders wouldn’t have alienated a diehard base with his critiques.

If Sanders “cozying up” to the establishment bothers you, I get it. Still, polling validates my call for a radical pivot in strategy. When Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Bloomberg dropped out, Biden ate up most of their support. In doing so, Biden built the popular movement that the populist promised. Keep in mind, Warren’s base almost definitely wouldn’t have carried Sanders to victory on or after Super Tuesday.

“But the moderate wing forcibly rallied their supporters around Biden!” Yes, this is precisely the point. Sanders didn’t build a winning coalition. Instead, he just hoped that the people who opposed him wouldn’t unite to stop him. This was a really, really irresponsible strategy. The only surprise here is that they didn’t consolidate sooner. Sanders tried to push past the Democratic Party rather than winning it over. It backfired.

Whatever phone calls Biden made to capture most of the party’s support, Sanders should’ve done the same. Presidents pass legislation by piecing together disparate politicians into a majority. In this regard, Biden proved himself more presidential than Sanders. Stonewalling the establishment “on principle” means nothing if people will die because the president can’t pass healthcare reform.

In conclusion, I couldn’t address every mistake of the Sanders campaign. That being said, Sanders achieved a lot during the 2020 primary. He brought more young people into politics, shifted the Overton window further left and sold many voters on progressivism. I hope his defeat encourages deep introspection. After all, you can’t pass a Green New Deal by losing elections. Candidates need to play the cards dealt to them by the electorate.

Some supporters are already calling the primary “rigged.” Sure, Sanders faced unique obstacles, but don’t discredit him. He led the national polls for a month. He made several miscalculations, all fixable without abandoning the core parts of his platform. Sanders’s political revolution is the future, but we need to revolutionize our electoral strategy to bring that future to fruition.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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