With only 14 out of 57 contests remaining, the struggle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party is reaching its final stage. Barring something unpredictable before the party’s convention in late July (like criminal charges being filed over Clinton’s exclusive use of a private email server for her public duties as head of the State Department), she is the likely victor.
For the political revolution Sanders jump-started to continue electing progressives, it is critical to assess why he was unable to best Clinton despite beating her in fund-raising and paid advertising, fielding a 400,000-strong army of grassroots volunteers, and consistently out-polling her against potential Republican nominees. In any normal election cycled these would be the front-runner’s achievements and not the insurgent’s.
Three major factors caused Sanders to come up short in this struggle:
3. Running as the Change Candidate in the Party of the Status Quo
The 2016 presidential election will go down in history as anything but a normal election cycle — it was the year of the outsider. Professional pundits and the political establishment of both parties arrogantly dismissed both Donald Trump and Sanders as fringe candidates and were completely blindsided when voters in large numbers disagreed.
But the year of the outsider meant two different things for the two major parties.
Republican primary turnouts in 2016 were almost equal to the historic Democratic primary turnouts of 2008. “Very enthusiastic” about the presidential election is how 36% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters described themselves while just 19% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters said the same. Republican presidential debate viewership easily exceeded viewership of the Democratic debates (rigged scheduling was only part of the problem). Under Barack Obama’s two-term presidency and leadership of the Democratic Party, Democratic power imploded as the party lost 13 U.S. Senate seats, 69 House seats, 913 state legislative seats, 11 governorships, and 32 state legislative chambers to Republican control and yet, despite this historic success, Washington Republicans were unable to repeal Obamacare, block the nuclear deal with Iran, or do anything the party’s base desired. The fury that resulted from this contradiction catapulted Trump to victory over a cluttered field of failed establishment Republican candidates.
On the Democratic side, almost 90% of Democratic voters approve of Obama’s job performance. Roughly two-thirds of Democratic voters want Obama’s successor to continue his policies while the remaining one-third are split between those that want a “more liberal” and those that want a “less liberal” president. Because Democratic voters are not rising in revolt against the Democratic establishment as during the Viet-Nam war, Sanders has been unable to win closed primaries where independent and Republican voters cannot vote for him and against Clinton.
2. The Black Vote
The corporate media and establishment liberals like Joan Walsh have race-baited Sanders for almost a year by claiming he cannot win what they call diverse electorates. They conveniently ignore the fact that he won the only state with a non-white majority — Hawaii — by a landslide and that the Latino vote is basically split between Clinton and Sanders.
Where Sanders got killed and continues to get killed is among Black voters. Black voters consistently chose Clinton by margins of no less than two-thirds, three-quarters, and nine-tenths in region after region, from Michigan to the Deep South. Clinton amassed a massive pledged delegate lead of over 300 coming out of South Carolina and the first Super Tuesday thanks to ‘yooj’ margins among Black voters even though Sanders spent over $10 million on advertising and staff in South Carolina.
The difference between Sanders’ success with Latino voters compared to his failure with Black voters is partly a function of the difference in their relationship with the Democratic Party and the Democratic establishment. Running as Obama’s third term is a winning strategy among Black voters but a losing strategy among Latino voters when he is popularly derided as the deporter-in-chief, especially given Clinton’s opposition to giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and her support for deporting undocumented children fleeing the violence overwhelming Central America.
The major factor that hampered Sanders with Black voters is the utter absence of any long-standing relationship between the two. Even the politically conscious activist rapper Killer Mike who supports Sanders had no idea who he was or what he stood for prior to the presidential campaign. This absence stemmed not from some sort of idiotic prioritization of class over race but from the fact that only 1% of Vermont’s population is Black and therefore Sanders was not a prominent ally in Black struggles (with notable the exception of the 1980s Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns) where he could have developed a name for himself in the Black community they way he did among union activists. Relationships take time to develop and Sanders could not cultivate in months what the Clintons developed over decades to the point where Bill was known jokingly as the first Black president.
Sanders lost the Black vote but at least he maintained his dignity by not pandering like Obama did when he ditched basketball for bowling to gain favor with working-class white voters in Pennsylvania.
1. Too Consistent Too Often
The first two major factors that worked against Sanders were beyond his (or really anyone’s) control, but the same cannot be said of the last factor that hamstrung his campaign — his dogged consistency.
But consistency becomes stubbornness when conditions demand a major course correction.
Such a point was reached after the first Super Tuesday when it became clear that Sanders had to expand his coalition beyond young voters to cut down Clinton’s advantage among older voters in he wanted to win. Instead of abandoning his failed strategy of expanding the electorate and fighting for a bigger share of the actually-existing electorate by going after Clinton aggressively on the issue of pragmatism he stubbornly doubled down on his message of “think big, not small.” The result? Second-place finishes in state after state.
Sanders’ unwillingness to change and adapt to the rigors of a serious presidential campaign also undermined the early phase of the campaign:
“Despite the urging of some advisers, Mr. Sanders refused last fall and early winter to criticize Mrs. Clinton over her $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, an issue that he now targets almost daily. He also gave her a pass on her use of private email as secretary of state, even though some allies wanted him to exploit it. And he insisted on devoting time to his job as a senator from Vermont last year rather than matching Mrs. Clinton’s all-out effort to capture the nomination. Some advisers now say that if he had campaigned more in Iowa, he might have avoided his critical loss there.
“All those decisions stemmed in part from Mr. Sanders’s outlook on the race. He was originally skeptical that he could beat Mrs. Clinton, and his mission in 2015 was to spread his political message about a rigged America rather than do whatever it took to win the nomination. By the time he caught fire with voters this winter and personally began to believe he could defeat Mrs. Clinton, she was already on her way to building an all but insurmountable delegate lead.
“Competing aggressively against Mrs. Clinton in 2015 was not part of the Sanders strategy when he announced his candidacy last April. Rather, in early campaign planning meetings, Mr. Sanders made it clear that he was focused on bringing his liberal message to cities and towns across America while also fulfilling his duties in the Senate. Advisers said they warned him about the travel demands that a serious presidential bid would entail. They noted that Mrs. Clinton, who had left the State Department, would be working around the clock to campaign, raise money, nail down endorsements and develop policy plans.
“But Mr. Sanders did not intend to match her schedule. He never considered resigning his seat, advisers said, and he thought he could compete effectively by campaigning about three days a week while the Senate was in session and then making weeklong trips when Congress was on break. As a result, he had limited time to campaign in crucial states like South Carolina; he canceled a visit to Charleston in mid-June after the church shootings there, and he did not return to the city until late August.”
These were rookie mistakes but Sanders could barely afford to make any mistakes running against a veteran presidential candidate like Clinton. Even if he turned in a flawless performance it still would have not offset the inherent strategic disadvantages he faced running as the change candidate in the party of the status quo where Black voters form a crucial voting bloc.