The battle royale brewing in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is not just a clash of personalities, it is a contest between two campaigns, two strategies, and two visions. At bottom, this clash is the expression of an unprecedented power struggle between the funding base and the popular base of the Democratic Party.
Which side will win is not set in stone and neither is the path to victory for either side. But what constitutes victory is set in stone: the winning candidate will have the support of at least 2,383 delegates at the Democratic National Convention where the party will rally behind the nominee and kickoff the general election campaign against the Republicans.
There are a variety of scenarios* in which either campaign could arrive at the so-called magic number of 2,383 and that variety makes it impossible to project what the ultimate outcome of the primary will be. But we can discern some likely flash points in the struggle to gain the nomination.
The single most important characteristic of the Clinton-Sanders clash is its protracted nature. It will be a marathon and not a sprint, a hundred years’ war and not a blitzkrieg. Political battles will rage in all 50 states as well as U.S. territories such as American Samoa and Puerto Rico on 28 different calendar days of voting and caucusing over the course of six months.
Which campaign is better prepared to fight a protracted war? Based on the following comparison of each campaign’s staffing deployments, the surprising answer is Sanders:
|Super Tuesday States||12 (+ leadership councils)||60+|
Sanders is out-staffing Clinton in the states that follow the Iowa and New Hampshire contests and is out-spending her on television ads in the first four primary states despite a funding disadvantage. While the Clinton campaign blew 90% of its funds in Iowa and Brooklyn (their headquarters), the Sanders campaign wisely invested its resources in the form of money and personnel more evenly. Instead of ignoring Iowa and neglecting the task of building up a ground game infrastructure there as in 2008, the Clinton campaign made the opposite mistake by putting all of their eggs in the Iowa basket and ignoring the subsequent states. One insider even claims the Clinton campaign is “less prepared” for a protracted primary than in 2008.
Another strategic error is the Clinton campaign’s assumption that Black and Hispanic voters — among whom Clinton leads Sanders by 40 points or more — will serve her as an impenetrable ‘firewall‘ and block Sanders from accumulating the delegates necessary to reach the magic number in the states after Iowa and New Hampshire.
Clinton’s firewall is likely to prove less than Bern-proof for a few reasons:
- Support for Sanders among Latinos in California jumped from 3.2% in May 2015 to 35.3% in January 2016 without the campaign spending a dime on advertising. This indicates two things: he does not have race problem (sorry Ta-Nehisi Coates) and non-white voters are just as likely to support him as white voters (his poll numbers among white voters jumped from single digits to above 30% over the summer and fall of 2015 as his name recognition grew).
- Clinton will never replicate President Barack Obama’s historic turnouts among Black voters and this inability could make a difference in the delegate count. Obama beat Clinton in South Carolina — winning 25 out of 45 of the state’s pledged delegates in 2008 — because Black voters made up something like 50% of the primary electorate while accounting for only 30% of the population. The notion that Black voters will be just as fired up and ready to go for Hillary Clinton as they were to help elect the first Black president of the United States is sheer stupidity.
- Sanders has a big advantage among young voters and if they match or exceed 2008 turnouts, they may counteract Clinton’s race-based firewall.
So Clinton’s vaunted firewall may not be insurmountable because the electorate will not be as non-white as she hopes, non-white voters will not be as pro-Clinton as she expects, and young voters of all races and genders may turn out in droves to match or trump whatever advantage she enjoys among non-white voters.
The most striking thing about the Clinton campaign is that they are making many of the same mistakes as in 2008:
- They continually underestimate the appeal of the insurgent.
- They attack the insurgent on gun control, health care, inexperience(!), and his ‘dangerously naïve‘ foreign policy.
- To combat the threat of hope and the thirst for change among primary voters they promote cynicism and defeatism.
- Their top-heavy consultant-driven campaign machine creates feuds, leaks, and schizophrenic messaging.
- They expect Super Tuesday to be the knock-out punch for the insurgent that all but ends the nomination struggle.
To these three old 2008 mistakes the 2016 Clinton campaign has added new mistakes:
- Running as Obama’s third term in what is clearly a change election.
- Combating high turnout and enthusiasm by promoting low turnout and enthusiasm.
- Investing resources and politically positioning for the general election as if victory in the primary was a foregone conclusion.
The aforementioned strategic and tactical mistakes by the Clinton campaign do not mean that a Sanders victory is likely, but they create opportunities that Sanders and his supporters can take advantage of provided they are organized (click here to get organized and join the political revolution pictured below). It is the successful exploitation of Clinton’s blunders that will make a Sanders upset more likely.
However, the more likely a Sanders upset becomes, the harder the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party establishment will fight to prevent the overthrow of billionaire class rule within the Democratic Party and the dirtier their tactics will become.
As the protracted struggle for the nomination gets underway, here are a few likely flash points Sanders supporters need to prepare for:
- The first real test of the Sanders campaign will not be in Iowa and New Hampshire but in Nevada and South Carolina (as we argued months ago). If Sanders can break even or win the delegate count in either state, Clinton’s so-called firewall will come down like the Berlin Wall and his chances of winning the nomination jump from 1 in 10 to perhaps something like 1 in 3.
- To compete effectively with the Clinton machine in all 12 Super Tuesday states, the Sanders campaign’s fund-raising hauls in the weeks after Iowa and New Hampshire will have to double or triple since the cost of airing ads in a dozen states simultaneously will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million. The 2008 Obama campaign spent $10 million airing ads in Texas alone and this year Texas is a Super Tuesday state. By way of comparison, Sanders raised $15 million in the second quarter of 2015, $25 million in the third quarter, and $33 million in the fourth quarter.
- As both campaigns race to reach the magic number, a struggle is likely to break out over whether the nomination should go to the candidate with the greatest number of delegates (both the superdelegates who are party officials and elected officeholders and the pledged delegates that are allocated based on caucus and primary election results) or to the candidate with the greatest number of pledged delegates i.e. the candidate chosen by the voters. Clinton might even try to declare herself the nominee before primary voting and caucusing are over if she reaches the magic number first thanks to her massive lead among superdelegates. Doing so would trigger a desperate struggle by Sanders and his impressive grassroots army (15,000 volunteers in Iowa alone!) against the superdelegates class and the party’s anti-democratic superdelegate system as a whole. Such a revolt could culminate in a Chicago 1968-style brawl on the convention floor. Sanders supporters must insist as the 2008 Obama campaign did): the nomination rightfully belongs to whichever candidate is chosen by the voters and wins the most pledged delegates!
*A recent analysis by Cook Political Report that split the pledged delegate count evenly between Clinton and Sanders; under this scenario of a tie in pledged delegates between Sanders and Clinton, she would fail to reach the magic number with the support of her current 359 superdelegates which lead to a brokered convention unless 48 undecided superdelegates came over to her side. Politico reports that the Sanders campaign’s scenario for victory consists of winning Iowa and New Hampshire as well as all of the caucus states and then breaking even on Super Tuesday in terms of the delegate count. Then there are surprise scenarios that are completely unpredictable such Clinton or her top aides facing criminal charges over mishandling classified information on her private email server midway through the protracted primary process.