His campaign has all the momentum. But securing the nomination might prove harder than winning the presidency.
During the Democratic primary trail on October 1 last year, Bernie Sanders, 78, suffered a minor heart attack and had two coronary stents put in. Pundits were quick to declare it as the nail in his political coffin. Mainstream media outlets continued their “Bernie blackout” coverage as if he was an irrelevant, foregone conclusion.
Remarkably, that health scare provided jet fuel for his campaign, as Sanders rode a steady surge in the months that followed. As primary voting begins, the self-described democratic socialist is polling in a strong position against presumptive frontrunner and fellow septuagenarian Joe Biden.
Sanders has been a solid second in most national polls behind Biden or within the margin of error, and a recent CNN poll placed him on top. Heading into Iowa (as of this morning, the Iowa caucus results are delayed because of tabulation app difficulties) and New Hampshire, the Sanders campaign is firmly placed with all the momentum.
For the majority of the electorate, the stakes are high. Donald Trump and his administration are framed as the greatest threat to American democracy, its institutions and moral standing in the world. Electability is at the forefront for Democrat voters when considering the candidate best positioned to beat Trump in the general.
Sanders matches up favourably against Trump in head-to-head polls, as does Biden. Any Democrat with a pulse is likely to win the popular vote; the concern is the electoral college vote in key swing states which handed Trump the presidency in 2016.
Forced into taking notice of Sanders at the 11th hour, the Democratic establishment’s belligerence will only accelerate. Given the party’s structural bias against progressive candidates, Sanders’ greatest challenge might not be winning the presidency but securing the nomination at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Convention in July.
Bernie’s case for electability
Sanders declared he would run for president last February and Biden announced in April, as the Democratic field grew increasingly crowded. Various flavours of the month built-up by cable networks – Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris – came and went.
With Biden struggling to form coherent sentences and charmingly anachronistic, higher-educated white liberal voters anxiously continued to shop for a candidate who could combine a technocratic streak while paying lip service to social justice.
Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, brandishing her wonky “I have a plan for that” chops, fit the mould perfectly. Warren looked destined to poach progressives from Sanders after she enjoyed a meteoric rise in the polls well into October. However, her bumbling on Medicare-for-all would land a blow that her campaign never quite recovered from.
But Sanders could only be ignored for so long. Authenticity and consistency remain part of his magnetic appeal. Critics underestimated the ‘stickiness’ of his support and grassroots fundraising prowess. His movement has revolutionised campaign affairs and built an alternative media ecology that bypasses the party machine to hyper-target voters.
The Democratic establishment, much like their Republican counterparts did with Trump in 2016, fail to grasp why his “radical” populist platform – centred around universal healthcare, $15 minimum wage, tuition-free public universities and cancelling student debt – resonates across the country. Climate change is urgently addressed through an ambitious Green New Deal.
Hillary Clinton, devoid of an iota of self-awareness, claimed in an upcoming documentary that “nobody likes him”. While true within establishment circles, it is laughably out of step with the public.
After all, Sanders remains the country’s most popular senator. He is also the most trusted among democratic voters on key issues like healthcare, the economy and the environment.
His campaign has accumulated a war chest of $96 million on the back of small-dollar donations from over five million individual contributors – a record for any presidential contender. Absent of murky super PAC and billionaire dollars, it signals to his supporters that he is not beholden to special interests.
Building upon his upstart candidacy in 2016, Sanders’ ground game has strategically developed an impressive campaign infrastructure with extensive door-knocking operations in the early states and is well-staffed in multiple Super Tuesday states.
Sanders has broadened his support from 2016, which was primarily white and male-centric. His organising strategy reflects how much better he fares with communities of colour: Sanders leads Latino voters, a huge boost ahead of the Nevada caucuses and delegate-rich California. While Biden continues to have high favourables with black voters overall, Sanders is first with young black voters.
Older voters though are less likely to “feel the Bern”: among Gen X and baby boomers, Biden has a commanding lead. To dent that support, Sanders has gone after Biden hard on social security.
Despite frequent gaffes and bouts of geriatric dissonance, Biden has managed to hold steady. His strength with black constituencies combined with the older generation, who tend to be moderate and reliable voters, is Biden’s path to victory.
The Sanders coalition is reflective of the country: young, multi-racial and working class. These constituencies, along with mobilising independent and non-traditional voters, will be the necessary components for the first act of Sanders’ “political revolution” to succeed.
And if he does, it will be in spite of the Beltway class, who will throw everything, including the kitchen sink at his campaign.
The (not-so) dirty secret is that Trump has been great business for the corporate media, and allows them to deflect any responsibility in favour of Russia-obsessed national security posturing and pearl-clutching over civility and norm erosion.
What Sanders’ populist insurgency represents is a direct threat to the Democratic establishment’s class interests and institutional power. Without their DC gig flow under a Sanders administration, a #NeverBernie contingent is sure to emerge, much like it did with Republican #NeverTrump ghouls.
The establishment firewall
Despite losing to Clinton in 2016, Sanders’ impact on the party was far-reaching. Within one election cycle, the Democratic base had moved to the left on a host of issues championed by Sanders.
After a stable of hapless candidates failed to blunt his momentum on any substantive grounds in 2019, the cadre of spin doctors and political operatives masquerading as analysts on cable TV have been summoned to do overtime.
One of the most brazen gambits was CNN’s attempt to deploy Warren to kneecap Sanders by smearing him as sexist. It failed spectacularly as voters saw through the cynical opportunism. Horseshoe-theory comparisons with Trump are laughably peddled as serious commentary. Attack ads have already begun to flow from dark money groups.
When all else fails, the 2016 playbook can be dusted off to peddle the pernicious “Bernie Bro” myth – which caricatures his supporters as antagonistic white dudes who are mean on Twitter. What makes this narrative ludicrous is that women support Sanders just as much as men, and it invisibilises people of colour whom he now enjoys even more popularity with than white people.
What isn’t registering is that every new attack serves to gift Sanders an additional bump in the polls and a windfall of donations. Whether Sanders is teflon like Trump was in 2016, remains to be seen.
As party kingmaker, Obama has privately voiced his disapproval with a Sanders nomination and could consider applying his thumb to the scale. Sanders’ populist movement is premised on transcending the ‘progressive neoliberalism’ of the Obama era, and Obama is deeply aware that a Sanders victory would be a rebuke of his legacy.
If the race remains tight until the July convention in Milwaukee, delegate math becomes crucial. Consider that DNC chair Tom Perez has stacked the nominating committee with an assortment of establishment hacks who could thwart Sanders’ agenda even if he secured enough pledged delegates to win on the first ballot. In the unlikely event of a brokered convention, super delegates then come into play.
The party elite will eschew unity and fight until the bitter end. You can bet on that.
If Sanders is to weather a powerfully orchestrated media onslaught and interventions from Hillary-Obamaworld to win the nomination, there is no reason to believe his bona fides as an economic populist with a vigorous progressive movement behind him won’t be the most potent antidote to Trump(ism) come November.
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