The first in what is (now) a three part series looking at how each remaining candidate could lose the election and trends to keep an eye on going forward.
This is the easy one. Sanders will lose, in fact he’s already lost, but like the chicken with its head cut off he continues to run around. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing, which I’ll get to in a second, but first the losing.
Sanders outperformed just about anyone’s expectations of how he would do in this race (including I’d suspect his own) by not just being competitive for a long period of time, but also by winning a number of states he was not thought to be able to win.
Sander’s problems can be boiled down to a handful of issues however:
- he didn’t win enough or by large enough margins
- he’s not really a Democrat
- Oligarchy baby!
- the ‘grassroots’ problem
- no media game
He didn’t win enough or by large enough margins
The win enough, and by large enough margins, are the simple math parts that so many people seem to have trouble coming to grips with. Even though Sanders won states, they were never the big states (Michigan was his biggest win, and it’s the 10th largest state, and only five of the nineteen states he’s won are in the top 25 in terms of population) and in a contest where delegates are dependent on population, that’s a recipe for losing. The other issues is that even when he won, it wasn’t by enough. The proportional assignment of delegates meant that already smaller delegate pools got smaller when they had to be split, this didn’t cut the other way as often since in larger states Clinton seemed to win by larger margins.
He’s not really a Democrat
All of this was largely academic from the outset however because Sanders is not, and was not, a large D Democrat.This matters because he’s running as the presumptive Democratic candidate, but was never really able to budget he super delegates. This is largely due to the fact that the super delegates are party loyalists, often chosen because of the time and effort they have put into supporting the party, who were never going to be charitably inclined towards an outsider coming into their party and trying to take over.
One of the more interesting things to watch has been the dance both Clinton and Sanders supporters have done regarding these super delegates. On the Sanders side there has been outrage at the fact that that a traditional oligarchy (in the form of a political party) would act like, well, an oligarchy. This is a system that has served it’s internal constituents well, and expecting those constituents to suddenly throw their hard won political capital and system position to the wind is incredibly naive. Especially for a dude who only recently, and quite reluctantly, started calling himself a Democrat. Here’s the deal, most of the high muckity mucks in the Democratic party got there by eating shit and doing what the party wanted even when they often didn’t want to (for instance listen to any interview Howard Dean has given recently, you can almost here him grinding his teeth) so they’re not going to throw that away for an outsider who’s has explicitly stated he’s going to shake things up.
The response from Clinton partisans has been equally amusing to watch as they seem to regard the super delegates as something of an embarrassment that is better avoided in polite conversation. My guess is that everyone who is not a super delegate kind of finds the idea of a non-democratic institution like the super delegates to be a bit inconvenient and would rather talk about things like states won and elect-ability in the Fall.
The ‘grassroots’ problem
I was going to call this ‘the social movement problem’ but Sander’s campaign’s problem isn’t that it’s a social movement, it’s that it’s a grassroots movement. Now grassroots movements can be fun, and they’re really exciting, and they get people super duper motivated to DO THINGS! But, and this is a big but, they often have trouble with a lot of the institutional things that longer term successful social movements have to do, particularly in the resource and organizational departments. While Sanders’ campaign was able to raise a lot of money they’ve often fallen short on other types of resources, and thing about grassroots campaigns is that while they got a lot of passion, they often fall short on making hard decisions and planning out a longer-term strategy.
We’re seeing this now, at a time when the Sanders campaign should be trying to transition the energy and enthusiasm into something enduring and productive, they are still mostly talking about delegates and the nomination. And hey, I’m a guy who has studies a lot of grassroots movements, and let me tell you that when these things implode they often do so quickly and spectacularly. You can already see the sharks circling; Stein and the Green Party have been courting certain Sander supporters for weeks now, and even Trump has been making a play for a certain segment of Sanders supporters.
No media game
Oh my god you guys, this has been the hardest thing to watch, both as someone who follows politics, but also someone who teaches courses on media literacy and the sociology of media. Guys, Sanders is so bad, so very very bad at the media game it almost boggles my mind he’s been able to get as far as he has (no not really, I actually understand the role that alternative and online media play and how they can, to a limited degree, circumvent certain functions of mainstream corporate media).
Here’s the thing, Sanders media strategy has been… non-existent? Anemic? Naive? Somewhere in the venn diagram of where those three meet I think. And most of the media supporting him, which is, as mentioned above, mostly alternative and underground/internet sources, have done him no favors. Here’s the thing, you can bitch and moan all you want about corporate media, and it’s true to an extent, the media does cover a very narrow range of topics and it is mostly controlled by a handful of companies. But they don’t take the kind of conspiratorial day to day editorial control I’ve seen a lot of people positing. Even Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model didn’t go that far.
This path has lead to a certain type of conspiratorial thinking, which we typically see on the right, but which has recently emerged on the left, that sees enemies everywhere. You know what makes journalists disinclined to cover you and your candidate? When you’re calling them shills and tools (not gonna link but you can Google and see it’s fairly common) and telling them how to do their jobs. People love that. And look, I’m not going to pretend there isn’t bias here, but it’s the bias of flak, not of malice against a candidate, most news outlets recognized months ago that Hillary was taking this nomination and decided not to rock that boat. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s self-interest, don’t confuse the two.
So now what?
The good news, if you can call it such, for Sanders and his supporters is that he will roll in to the convention with a large amount of support in his pocket. This means he can demand, and have a reasonable expectation to be granted, some major boons. This may be a prime speaking slot, or a plank in the party platform, a promise of a position in the cabinet, or even support for candidates he favors in down ticket races. I’d be very much surprised if he snagged the VP nod. While it looks like Clinton should be able to clobber Trump in the electoral map I think the party still goes with a VP nod in a contested state to possibly boost some House, Senate, or Gubernatorial races. Vermont doesn’t really bring much to the table in that respect (sorry Vermonsters).
The other thing that we can possibly draw from this is the 2020 and beyond races. I think the Democratic party ignores Sanders and what he represents at their own peril. The comparison between Sanders and Trump is often made, but I think that’s the wrong comparison. Sanders is more like Ron Paul in the way that he’s staged a successful insurgency within a party he’s only nominally aligned with. And one of the major reasons we have Trump is because of the two outsider campaigns Paul ran where he laid the groundwork for the kind of populism that Trump is now exploiting.
The GOP ignored Paul, and the millions of supporters he had, to their detriment and is now reaping the bitter fruits of that dismissal. If the Sanders people are not brought in, and in a meaningful non-token way, I can very easily see them running an insurgent campaign to Clinton’s left in the 2020 election, and building upon the mechanisms that come from successive national campaigns to make the kind of push in the Democratic party in 2024 that Trump is making today for the GOP.
And who knows, Clinton seems to be surrounding herself with the same sorts of ethically challenged people her husband did, so we’re probably looking at four years of scandal if she wins. This could be enough to force a one term and out situation, especially if it looks like the Republican party can’t get it’s shit together, and the Democratic party would rather push her out than have her impeached and allow the R’s to build momentum off a drawn out battle. Or Clinton could lose, not likely but it’s a long time to November still. If that’s the case I think the backlash alone is enough to force a more left-leaning candidate in 2020.
The other thing to consider is that maybe Sanders doesn’t continue to play footsie with the Democratic party. As mentioned above they’ve not treated him particularly well, and what he has could be turned into a social movement, or even a third party with some careful planning. However there’s been little evidence that this is the pathway they want to go down (and a lot of Democratic party stalwarts have been trying very very hard to forestall this kind of path).