In the end, Bernie racked up about 1000 fewer delegates than Hilary during the 2016 primaries. In anyone’s book that is a pretty convincing result from a race that at one point looked much closer. Indeed, Hilary won 3.5 million more votes, 12.1% more than Sanders. Despite this, there is still talk about how Hilary used her support from super-delegates to push her over the line. Yes, Hilary got more of their endorsement that Sanders (nearly 14 times more) but that would not have stopped her winning the nomination. A focus on this will harm Bernie’s campaign should he run again.
Moreover, it is hardly surprising. He is not a big D, Democrat, and has actually benefited from that position, not suffered. But with the freedom that being an independent brings, it also sacrifices party loyalty. Hilary is, for better or for worse, the establishment figure. It played to her determent during the general election but she worked it during the primaries. Arguments put forward by Bernie fans about the 2016 primaries probably do touch on inherent unfairness of how the elections are run; but often the rules have been cemented in state law for a sufficiently long time as to demean any idea it was a 2016 plot to stop Bernie Sanders.
Fast forward three years and he is actually sitting quite pretty having avoided a probable defeat by Trump in the general. Aside from Biden, who dominates the polls and has done for a while, Bernie comes a consistent second place. The fact he has polled three, four, or even five times as well as Warren — probably the candidate ideologically closest to him — makes for positive reading also. Over the last few months there has also been some OK noise coming from New Hampshire, the state where he won by over 60% in the 2016 primary. And, even more reassuring reading, a poll by Emerson found he’d only lose to Trump by 1 point in Iowa.
I also don’t think you can overstate either the impact Bernie has had on the party’s ideological centre or just how radical it was that a major party came within touching distance of nominating an outwardly socialist small I, independent as their representative. The problem he now faces is — if he runs, how does he genuinely build on this position and do better?
A old phrase is that a week is a long time in politics … and three years is a different era entirely. The playing field that Bernie performed on in 2016 has changed radically and the opposition have caught up. They will all pose a different challenge from that of Hilary.
Bernie Vs Clinton was about a clearer choice Democrat voters could get in a primary race. Bernie was unashamedly the candidate from the left. This time is will be different though. Take Bernie Vs Warren, for example, the candidates are not a million miles apart ideologically and with Warren not exactly polling badly in New Hampshire either, she would cause him some trouble there.
Even if Warren is not the front-runner, across the entire field candidates are chomping at the bit to embrace ‘progressive’ policies that would otherwise have been reserved exclusively for Bernie’s wing of the party. Medicare For All, a Green New Deal, significant rise in the minimum wage combined with a near-party wide zero-tolerance attitude to perpetrators of #MeToo and momentum around the Black Lives Matter movement, the party has shifted its entire narrative and brought some major candidates under its umbrella.
This point is perhaps best illustrated by the refusal of all candidates in the 2008 debates to confirm their support for same-sex marriage. There is no doubt still a long way to go, but imagine that happening this cycle?
Not only does this threaten to affect the mathematical chance of Bernie winning the primary, i.e. splitting the vote into smaller shares, ideological assimilation forces voters to consider personalities more.
Examining Bernie through that lens, then, he is an old white guy; hardly the currency of the Democrat party at the moment. In a field with younger, fresher, and more diverse faces, many of whom are willing to run on policies Bernie is known for, Sanders loses another edge. In 2016 he was the undisputed King of the progressive agenda; championing policy and grasping the narrative. A week is a long time in politics and Bernie’s reign is under threat.
Another area that Bernie performed well on, compared to Hilary at least, was his style of campaigning and the demographic this appealed to. In quite a similar way that Momentum has done with the Labour Party in the UK, Sanders’ team have the excellent Armand Aviram in charge of his media content. On top of that, the crucial army of high-skilled volunteers are willing to put in the leg-work needed for little or no financial cost to the campaign.
But everyone else is moving on at a rapid rate, too, and Sanders will not have the monopoly on good social media content this time around. You can guarantee that every other candidate in the field will be well equipped to use this tool well; I mean, just look at how well Beto optimised social media, and to an even greater extend, look at what AOC is doing with it after she has been elected and not just during her campaign. Bernie was always on the front foot with social media and every time Hilary tried to respond or match him, she was ridiculed (see here). He will not have that unrivalled luxury this time around. At best, the competition will force him to raise his game, but ultimately dilute his impact, and at worst, he will lose a valuable asset and get beaten.
Linked to Sanders’ ideological purity was his ability to do extremely well amongst grassroots fundraisers. In a time when most Americans want to get big money out of politics, he was up against possibly the biggest money in the Democrat Party, Hilary, and it was easy for him to position himself as the ardent opponent. In fairness, this was the correct thing for him to do, and I do not question his sincerity. But, as with the rest of the party, it’s another area that his colleagues are closing in on.
Elizabeth Warren, far from being just ideologically similar to Sander, is a phenomenal grassroots fundraiser; rivalling the very best. On the day she announced her exploratory committee, she raked in nearly $300,000 made up of 8000 donations averaging $37 per donation. In the lead up to the midterms, too, she was hitting $1 million per month, comfortably. Interestingly, her vocal claim that she would not be exploring or accepting PACs didn’t really give her any boost in popularity, suggesting voters are less and less impressed by a candidates’ principled position on campaign finance; instead it will become the norm and not a vote winning approach that Sanders could latch onto.
Specifically, as the DNC has announced, there will be no minimum financial contribution to a campaign needed in order to help them qualify for the debates. This ‘quantity or over quality’ approach will mean all candidates in the field will be raising their grassroots fundraising game.
One of the benefits Bernie has as an independent is that his supports have a strong sense of personal loyalty towards him. He is able to create an excitement that not all politicians can, especially not Hillary. The party loyalty was inevitably tested during the general election and it turned out that something like 1 in 10 of his supports turned their back on the party and voted for Trump instead. This might give the Sanders camp some joy — but it can work both ways and potentially pose danger.
Irrespective of who ends up as the front-runners, the field is way more crowded than it was in 2016 and as such the voters have more choice. As I mention above, this means that Sanders will lose some of the edge he had against Hillary. However, with 2016’s contest fresh in the mind of some, there is nothing to guarantee that the supporters of Biden, Harris, Klobuchar, Booker (the more ‘moderate’ candidates) will flock over to his side should their preferred candidate withdraw or be defeated. Matching the expectation amongst a number of Sanders supports that they would not support Hilary once he was defeated.
Wait, he’s not even running…(yet)
Bernie Sanders has not even said he would run yet. But his candidacy is attracting attention because he is polling well and he has strong name recognition, but also because there is a genuine belief that he was unfairly beaten by HRC in 2016. As a side note, it is worth saying that seeing a ‘Bernie’ sticker on someone’s laptop in a UK office is not uncommon; I cannot, yet, imagine the same happening for Biden, Harris etc. And I never saw one for Hilary. Sadly, you don’t win on laptop stickers alone.
There are certain aspects of the race that are out of Sanders’ control, especially in a crowded field, and if they fall into place then the picture is suddenly much more attractive for him. Bernie could absolutely have a very strong shot of the nomination, but he and his campaign have to learn the lessons from three years ago. A week is a long time in politics… and three years is a different era.