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Shanmugam '23: Why the Sanders campaign fell short, and what it says about elections in America

On Feb. 21, Bernie Sanders tweeted a defiant message to political power brokers:

“I’ve got news for the Republican establishment. I’ve got news for the Democratic establishment. They can’t stop us.” 

Less than 24 hours later, Sanders’ self-confidence seemed justified. His democratic socialist campaign had scored a decisive victory in the Nevada caucuses. It seemed that enough Americans were “Feeling the Bern” to give Bernie a strong shot at winning the nomination — an almost 60 percent chance, according to betting markets at the time. 

One week later, the Sanders campaign was routed by Joe Biden’s performance in South Carolina. The trend continued on Super Tuesday; Sanders declared victory in just four states compared to Biden’s 10. March 3 was the nail in the statistical coffin for the Vermont senator’s campaign, a damaging loss that moved the nomination largely out of reach. 

What changed?

The demise of one of the most paradigm-shifting campaigns in recent memory has no singular explanation. Sanders' supporters might blame the Democratic establishment, which coalesced against him. To their point, Sanders has consistently lagged behind rivals in securing endorsements – even Kamala Harris, who dropped out in December, received more

But Sanders himself bears a great deal of responsibility for the failure of his campaign, too. America’s most famous independent politician lost because of a combination of establishment opposition and his own overestimation of the political organization he headed. Still, his movement is far from finished.

Sanders was unwilling to make the concessions that could have secured him more endorsements from influential Democrats. In order to secure these endorsements, it is likely that his positions on issues such as incarcerated voting would have had to move more toward the center, a compromise of ideological purity that Sanders was not willing to make. 

Pundits also continue to debate whether an endorsement – or pre-Super Tuesday exit – from Elizabeth Warren would have produced a political coalition powerful enough to defeat Biden. Even if only a portion of Warren supporters had thrown their weight behind Sanders, they argue, Super Tuesday could have gone a lot differently. 

In some sense, then, Sanders was a victim of bad luck. Yet at times, his goals, from universal healthcare to free college tuition, seemed out of focus for Democrats who overwhelmingly prioritized one thing: defeating Donald Trump. This aim could have made Democratic voters less likely to take risks by voting for a candidate perceived – rightfully or not – as less electable. Indeed, exit polls from the Michigan primary showed that 57 percent of Democratic primary voters prioritized beating Trump over policy issues; 61 percent of Biden’s supporters voted for him on those grounds. 

Moreover, Sanders misfired by betting on energizing new voters, especially young ones. His talk of a turnout revolution never panned out. In many Super Tuesday States, turnout did increase – 300,000 more votes were cast in Michigan this year than in 2016 – but among groups that broke for Biden, not Sanders. Those voters helped propel Biden to a win in a state thought to be reliably in Sanders’ purview. In some states, youth turnout even decreased from 2016 – from 16 percent to 14 percent in Missouri

Even if Sanders’ candidacy had been enough to drive young voters to the polls in the primaries, that would not have been enough to compensate for the moderates that it would have driven away in the general election. Research from David Broockman and Joshua Kalla of Yale finds that Sanders would have had to increase youth turnout by 11 percent to account for the swing voters that his rhetoric drives away. That’s a higher increase in political participation than Barack Obama drove among African American voters in 2008 – an unrealistic goal for a demographic that consistently disappoints Democrats in turning out to vote. 

We also have to reconsider how attractive Sanders was in the 2016 primaries to white, working class voters. Back in 2016, Sanders’ win in Michigan was taken as evidence that he resonated with white, working class voters in the Rust Belt — the very population that carried Trump to victory in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. But the results of Michigan’s 2020 primary call Sander’s appeal into question. The counties that Sanders had decisively won over Hillary Clinton in 2016 firmly voted for Joe Biden. That raises another question: Was Sanders’ 2016 Michigan win a working-class mandate for his dreams of structural reform, or a mere rejection of Clinton, an unpopular politician and perennial target of Republican ad strategists? 

Even outside of Michigan, mapping out the Democratic primary using data from April 1 – by which point the race was effectively a battle between Biden and Sanders – suggests the latter. Unsurprisingly, 916 counties that voted for Clinton in 2016 voted for Biden in 2020; these are voters who chose the establishment four years ago, and they made the same choice as they went to the polls earlier this year. But more interestingly, 348 counties that Sanders won in 2016 – 83 percent of them – shifted to Biden in 2020. Sanders retained just 66 counties from his 2016 run. We can’t draw a monolithic conclusion from this data. But we can say, at the least, that Sanders’ working class revolution was not as broad in its appeal as his campaign had hoped.

The Sanders campaign struggled because it got the math wrong. The coalition it built wasn’t nearly as wide-reaching as it needed to be, and it concentrated too heavily on energizing its own dedicated base instead of reaching out to other groups of voters. Its failure to galvanize African American voters as successfully as Biden was fatal in a Democratic primary electorate where over one in five voters are black. In the Democratic primary, where most states award delegates proportionally to vote-getting, the Sanders plan to eke out plurality-based wins with its unwavering base makes little sense retrospectively. His aides spoke of victory in a divided field, and of only needing “30 percent to make it happen,” but the numbers didn’t add up once the field winnowed

The biggest political failure of the movement he built, then, was failing to build bridges between Democratic groups that would have granted him a coalition large enough to compete. In a noble – and arguably, righteous – quest for ideological purity and independence from conventional arbiters of political power, Sanders was unable to gain endorsements from key figures and support from key groups of voters. It isn’t a sexy explanation – but it is the truth.

Failure, of course, is relative. Even as Sanders’ White House hopes went up in flames, his impact on his party is obvious. He made support for single-payer and universal health care prerequisite to success as a progressive candidate. For better or worse, he established the growing left-wing of the Democratic party as a powerful counterweight to the DNC. And he will likely use his pledged delegates to exert influence at the Democratic National Convention this fall.

But Sanders’ electoral shortcomings make clear that winning elections in America is still about reaching out to a wide range of voters, including moderates. His strategy of turning out the fringes has drastically changed the way that many Americans understand the role of government. But it still failed to put a democratic socialist in the White House.

Arjun Shanmugam ’23 can be reached at
arjun_shanmugam@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to
letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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