Mid-February feels like a long time ago. At the time Covid-19 was, at least in Britain, a peripheral concern which might — if worst came to worst — lead to restrictions on mass gatherings and international travel. Few expected Britain and large swathes of America to be fully locked down for weeks and months at a time.
Another assumption widely held just two months ago was that Bernie Sanders was set to win the Democratic nomination. As I wrote at the time, following the Nevada caucus in which Sanders triumphed, the campaign of his nearest rival Joe Biden appeared to be “visibly flailing”. Indeed, a Democratic Party voter had made headlines by asking Biden bluntly during an event in Nevada “What the hell is going on with your campaign?” This seemed to capture the prevailing mood.
The answer was, in fact: quite a lot, it just hadn’t fed through into the results yet. Once the nomination process became a one-on-one contest after Super Tuesday, Biden thrashed the Vermont senator, leaving Bernie trailing by 311 delegates. There was no coming back after that and Sanders consequently dropped out of the race for the nomination. In the space of just two months the contest was turned upside down, so that it is Joe Biden who will now take on Donald Trump in November’s election.
So how did Sanders sink so rapidly from the favourite to dropping out of the race altogether?
First, it is worth highlighting where commentators went wrong. We put too much stock in the results coming out of states such as Iowa and Nevada while underestimating just how poorly Sanders would do in delegate-rich Super Tuesday states like Texas and Virginia. Of course, I was not alone in getting it wrong before Joe Bidden “shocked the world” on 3 March.
Leading statician Nate Silver had predicted that Sanders “has by far the best chance of any candidate to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president”; the Guardian’s Richard Wolffe had predicted that “Bernie Sanders is cruising towards the Democratic nomination; while ITV’s Robert Moore had suggested that Bernie “is already the clear favourite to win the Democratic nomination and within ten days he may become unstoppable”.
There were more concrete reasons why the Sanders campaign tanked after winning Nevada, however. For one thing, Sanders provoked unnecessary headlines for the wrong reasons after praising literacy campaigns in Cuba under the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know?” Sanders said in an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes. “When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?” Sanders added, rather unhelpfully.
When criticised for the remarks, the senator doubled down, telling a town hall audience in South Carolina that “truth is truth”.
Predictably this went down badly with the Democratic establishment, and not without cause. Many of Cuba’s schools were built using prison labour and the dictatorship’s literacy programme is rather less impressive in a context where the state decides what a person can and cannot read. This isn’t Cold War propaganda: outside the fringes of the far-Left the argument about the Cuban regime — good or bad — was settled half a century ago. Sanders looked like a political dinosaur.
Moreover, Sanders’ comments about Cuba were foolish from a purely pragmatic point of view, spooking moderate Democrats as well as Latino voters in states such as Florida, where a third are of Cuban origin. Sanders relied upon Latinos for early campaign wins in states such as Nevada, but following his — albeit tempered — praise for Castro there was little hope of Latino voters coming to the rescue in Florida. Rather unsurpisingly, polling showed that Sanders fared worse among Cubans than among other Latinos.
Sanders is not an apologist for dictatorship — his Cuba comments were prefaced by a rejection of the island’s authoritarian system. But his poorly calibrated statements reflected the politics of many of the people he surrounded himself with. To nominate a candidate with this weakness when the cost of failure was another four years of Trump would have been a huge gamble for more centrist Democrats. Ultimately, it was a gamble they weren’t willing to take.
The real problems with the Sanders campaign were largely of a more domestic aspect, however. In 2016 Sanders did well with white voters without a college degree, but this time around he did far less well, with Biden having a comfortable lead over Sanders among this section of the electorate in Michigan. In hindsight, it looks as if many of the 2016 white non-college educated voters who flocked to Sanders were motivated more by animosity toward Hillary Clinton than genuine enthusiasm for the Vermont senator.
Much like the Corbyn campaign in the recent UK General Election, the Sanders team was banking on a surge in the non-voter and youth turnout. Presented with a genuine alternative, those who would normally stay at home during the election cycle would be enthused enough by the radicalism on offer to actually get out and vote. Or so the theory went.
Unfortunately for Sanders and his team this failed to transpire. Indeed, the failure on the part of Sanders to expand the Democratic base was apparent even while Sanders was romping home in New Hampshire and Nevada. Young voters made up a smaller share of the primary electorate than they did in 2016 in every primary state apart from Iowa.
Much of the fallout from Sanders’s campaign defeat has focused on his failure to win over African-American Democrats. The argument goes that Sanders’s emphasis on class politics has little appeal to those for whom identity is a bigger driver in terms of voter loyalty than social class.
There is some truth to this. In South Carolina black voters backed Biden over Sanders by 61% to 17% according to network exit polls, and this gap — or something close to it — was replicated in other primary states. Because the first three states in the nomination race did not have many black voters, so this consequently created a false impression of how Sanders would perform as the contest progressed.
That Sander’s poor performance among black voters was due to his “class reductionism” is probably exaggerated, however. Indeed, this is a convenient criticism for affluent liberals who feel more comfortable with a form of identity politics that seeks to push what the black American scholar Adolph Reed has termed “a particularist, elite-driven politics”. As Reed puts it:
“Class reductionism, again, is a myth. But like other myths, it reveals a great deal about our deeper systems of belief. Even if it tells us nothing about the people who are accused of it, it tells us a great deal about the accusers — the professional-managerial guardians of elite discourse.”
Sanders’s more significant mistake was arguably to continue to run on an independent ticket and rally against the Democratic establishment. Sanders’s outsider status had served him well — until it didn’t. This was especially true in terms of Sanders’s offering to black voters. As Zack Beauchamp has written for Vox, affiliation to the Democratic Party is “understood among African-Americans as a vital part of being committed to racial progress and in-group solidarity”.
In other words, Sanders’s positioning as an outsider may have been his undoing not only among more centrist Democrats, but also among black voters.
His failed campaign holds lessons for progressives of all stripes. Both Corbyn and Sanders have placed their hopes in a forlorn belief that disenfranchised non-voters would break the habit of a lifetime and turn out to vote when presented with a “genuine alternative” (as their supporters are fond of saying).
It is an assumption built on a hackneyed and romantic view of the working class: once a politician emerges who represents their real interests, they will invariably slough off apathy and dash to their nearest polling station. This theory has been found wanting in both the United Kingdom and the United States in recent times. Non-voters tend — as you’d expect — not to vote.
Nor are young ethnic minorities all wildly left-wing, which seems to be a prevailing assumption among the Left on social media platforms. Material interests matter to voters, but they are one factor among many. Group identity is important too.
The fondness among supporters of both Corbyn and Sanders for authoritarian “anti-imperialist” movements is also extremely off-putting for moderates. Corbyn was viewed as a terrorist sympathiser on the doorstep last December, while Bernie’s comments about Castro, albeit more forgivable than many of Corbyn’s dalliances, will have spooked many potential voters. And for what gain? If the Left is to move forward it needs to drop such illusions and rid itself of this Achilles’ heel.
Following the stalemate in Iowa, it was hoped that Sanders would reach out to the Democratic mainstream, to return to the fold, and adopt a more conciliatory tone. Instead he gave his usual stump speech, positioned himself as the consummate outsider who would take on the ‘Establishment’ (read: the Democratic establishment) and ‘the 1%’. But by this point that strategy had outlived its usefulness.
And like Corbyn here in Britain, Bernie Sanders discovered that there is only so much traction to be had in running against the mainstream — at some point you must join it.