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Whatever way you look at it, Bernie Sanders' campaign has now stalled — and insiders don't expect it to recover

'Riling up the base and using anger and fear to turn out people works better for Republicans than it does for Democrats'

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Wednesday 04 March 2020 23:44 GMT
Sanders got about a million fewer votes than Biden on Super Tuesday
Sanders got about a million fewer votes than Biden on Super Tuesday (AP)

Joe Biden was in the middle of delivering the victory speech of his life late Tuesday night when a pair of animal rights protesters thought they'd steal the spotlight.

As the former Vice President spoke, the duo jumped into the stage alongside him, waving signs and shouting: "Dairy must die”.

Their moment of glory didn't last long. One protester found herself being pushed back by none other than the ex-Veep's wife, Dr Jill Biden, while the other was all but tackled by Symone Sanders, one of Biden's top staffers and an ex-Bernie press sec. Within seconds, the stage was clear and Biden was back at it.

Biden was kept safe by the quick reflexes of women, and the same can now be said for his presidential ambitions.

Of the 14 states which held nominating contests on "Super Tuesday, Biden won nine of them by pulling together the same coalition of suburban voters, black voters, and women who'd revived his once-moribund campaign with a blowout win in the Palmetto State's primary just three days earlier. He successfully extended his South Carolina "firewall" into a big, beautiful wall of Trumpian proportions, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico

The message voters sent on Tuesday wasn't lost on former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who on Wednesday announced that he was ending his quest to be moderate Democrats' white knight after only managing to win the primary in American Samoa, where his sprawling operation had more people on staff than there were delegates to win.

The massive apparatus Bloomberg had built over a three-month span will now turn its attention to bolstering the fortunes of Biden, who Bloomberg endorsed as he exited the race.

And while Senator Sanders, his next-closest rival, came out on top in California, Colorado, Utah, and his home state of Vermont, it was Biden who emerged with a mandate from the voters who catapulted him to the vice-presidency as Barack Obama's trusted wingman just over a decade ago.

Tuesday's results were a massive refutation of Sanders strategy, which posits that a "political revolution" can be brought about by bringing in scores of previously unengaged voters to punch a ticket for him.

But hours after Bloomberg bowed out of the race, Sanders defiantly vowed to press on in his quest when he appeared at his Vermont headquarters for a "campaign update" Wednesday afternoon.

"I haven't seen the latest delegate count, but my guess is that after California is thrown into the hopper, it's going to be pretty close. We may be off by a few, but I think we go forward, basically neck-and-neck. And I very much look forward to getting on a plane tomorrow, going out west, and campaigning," he said.

Sanders predicted that the message of his "unprecedented" campaign would resonate with voters in states like Michigan because he is taking on "the entire corporate establishment" and the "entire political establishment which is "working frantically to try and defeat us."

He then lifted a page from Donald Trump's own playbook by launching into an attack against the assembled press.

"There has not been a campaign that has been having to deal with the kind of venom we're seeing from some in the corporate media," he said before deriding the most recent Democratic debate (hosted by CBS) as "insulting to the American people" and "a food fight about who could yell the loudest."

Continuing, Sanders railed against Biden, who he said is "obviously heavily supported by the corporate establishment," including "at least 60 billionaires” — though the Vermont senator did not acknowledge that under US campaign finance laws, each of those billionaires is subject to the same limits on individual campaign contributions as any of his donors.

"Does anyone seriously believe that a president backed by the corporate world is going to bring about the changes in this country that working families and the middle class and low-income people desperately need?" he asked. Sanders also slammed Biden's support for improving the 2009 Affordable Care Act, which he said was evidence that the former Vice President "wants to maintain what I consider to be a dysfunctional and cruel healthcare system."

Asked about Bloomberg's exit, Sanders said the attention given Bloomberg was part of a media-led focus on stopping his "movement of working people and low-income people," and suggested that this morning's positive stock market numbers were the result of Biden's wins placating Wall Street.

Sanders continues to insist that his message will eventually result in massive turnout for his campaign. But Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist who studies voter turnout models, told me that the large number of voters who turned out for Biden this year were a result of negative partisanship: the idea that voters turn out not to vote for a candidate, but against a candidate's opponent.

Bitecofer said Biden's landslide win in Virginia came by way of the large population of suburban, millennial, Generation Z, and college-educated voters there who make it fertile ground for Democrats looking to make Donald Trump a one-term president.

"It's basically patient zero for negative partisanship, and you can can see how that came alive last night," she said. "Turnout basically doubles over 2016. And the reason of course is because of Trump backlash."

"It's not because voters are inspired by Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders — it has nothing to the candidates," Bitecofer continued before adding that Virginia voters' preference for Biden stemmed from being “risk-averse” and "looking for stability and risk mitigation in terms of who they want to go up against Trump."

Super Tuesday: Bernie Sanders speaks about winning the democratic nomination

"That's why we see this big preference for a moderate candidate, somebody who's well-positioned to take on Trump," she said, before adding that what is harming Sanders with voters is his insistence on labeling himself a "socialist."

"What really is harming Sanders is that ‘socialist' is a step too far," she explained. "If Sanders could have fairly similar policy positions, be unabashedly liberal… and not have that baggage of a 'socialist' label, I think he would have been in a better position."

"In 2016, having been in power for eight years, with the sense of inevitability for Democrats that they would stay in power, revolution was more attractive," she continued. "Being out of power, struggling to get back into power, facing a presidency that is as grating upon the institutional norms and the status quo as Trump's is, Democrats are much less inclined towards revolution [and] are looking much more towards a return to stability."

Michael Starr Hopkins, a Democratic strategist who served on former Maryland Congressman John Delaney's quixotic presidential campaign, said Democratic voters — particularly African American voters — coalesced around Biden because his recent debate performance and South Carolina victory eased the fears of those who'd been looking to Michael Bloomberg or Pete Buttigieg to carry the party's banner.

"If you look at the poll numbers, Biden is performing at 60 per cent-plus in African American communities all across the country. He's now winning suburban women. He's winning college-aged white women, he's winning older Latinos. That's the coalition that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012," he said. "Biden's ability to put that coalition back together is launching him, while Sanders' inability to build a coalition outside of his supporters is what cost him in 2016 and what is now going to cost him in 2020."

Hopkins said that what is stopping Sanders from performing better among minority voters is his rigid insistence on ideological purity.

"I agree with Bernie Sanders on probably 60 to 70 per cent of the issues. I think that income inequality is a huge problem. I think the lack of healthcare and access to healthcare in our country is a huge problem. But there's this notion among Sanders supporters and in Sanders world that if you don't agree with everything that he says, then somehow you're a corporatist or you're part of this 'establishment,' and as someone who is running for Senate in Vermont as an independent while also running for president as a Democrat, that's hypocrisy at its best. It also creates a scenario where it becomes more difficult to bring in new voters," he said.

"You can't have a broad coalition made of people who agree with you 100 per cent of the time. That's not how coalitions work — there has to be some compromise."

Hopkins also slammed Sanders for tolerating figures in his orbit who engage in conspiratorial thinking and make wild accusations about "the establishment" conspiring against him.

"The idea that there is a conspiracy to stop Bernie Sanders from becoming the nominee is bulls**t,” he said.

"Senator Sanders has more money than Joe Biden and a better ground game than Joe Biden, but what he doesn't have is a support of a large swath of Democrats. And as Michael Bloomberg proved, you can have the best ground game and you can have all the money, but if you don't have the support and the voters, you can’t win. Bernie Sanders has historically shown that he has been unable to expand his support beyond his own supporters."

"When you have Shaun King and Nina Turner telling everyone who doesn't fall in line that somehow we are sellouts or somehow we're not real Democrats, it doesn't get you any goodwill," he added. “You can't just be the Sanders party — you have to be part of the Democratic Party."

Hopkins added that Sanders' grievance-heavy strategy won't bear fruit with the kinds of voters he will need to win enough delegates to be Democratic nominee.

"Riling up the base and using anger and fear to turn out people works better for Republicans than it does for Democrats because in this cycle, we know that we're going to have to win by getting independents, by getting some disillusioned Republicans, and by turning out moderates who either stayed home last time or voted Trump," he said. "Sanders has been unable to get that coalition and his biggest problem, I think, is his belief that black people would turn out for him 'just because’."

Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic strategist who advised Sanders during his first presidential campaign, said that Sanders' constant attacks on "the establishment" and tolerance of conspiracy theories were not going to be any more effective now than they have been at bringing in a majority of voters so far.

Devine said the argument that "the establishment" is out to cheat Sanders of the nomination is "preposterous" because the Senator's own people were intimately involved in crafting the rules for this year's contest, and because Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez has bent over backwards to be fair.

"I think the Democratic Party as an institution has been more than fair, in terms of trying to accommodate the changes that Bernie wanted to make in the nominating process," he said, particularly the elimination of "superdelegates" — elected officials and party elders — on the first convention ballot.

"To take the superdelegates away from the first ballot, that's a gigantic change," he continued. "Some of the other procedural changes that they adopted to allow more participation by more people in the primary process are really big changes, so to suggest somehow that the process is unfair now, I just don't think those kind of charges have any credibility at all."

Devine also criticized Sanders for suggesting that the departure of Bloomberg and other so-called moderate candidates from the race was part of a deliberate ploy to rig the remaining primary contests.

"I just don't buy into this — I think Bernie is getting a fair shake. I think Tom Perez has done an excellent job as party chairman. They made the rules fair so that people could get in not just by their standing in the polls, but also by the measure of participation of people in their campaigns by contributing to it," he said. "So I think… to suggest that this is somehow rigged or unfair, it's just wrong."

"I have tremendous respect for Bernie for what he's done. I think it's incredible, the issues that he's brought to the fore of the last campaign and to this one. But the voters get to decide this, and I think he's had a fair process."

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