As New Hampshire results come in, Bernie Sanders' online army is doing everything it can to hurt his chances

Senior Democratic Party operatives are concerned about Sanders' fans' receptiveness to conspiracy theories — but concede that they do have some reason to be concerned

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Tuesday 11 February 2020 16:53 GMT
Final results from the primary will be out overnight on Tuesday
Final results from the primary will be out overnight on Tuesday (REUTERS)

It’s New Hampshire primary day!

The Granite State's first-in-the-nation primary has long been a place for upsets and comebacks. It's where proto-Trumpian Republican pundit Pat Buchanan upset then-President George H W Bush in 1992, and where the man who would beat him that November, then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, dubbed himself "The Comeback Kid" on the strength of his second-place finish to Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas.

It's also the state where both President Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders each got their first taste of victory in presidential politics, after losing to Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton in the previous week's Iowa caucus.

And while New Hampshire's official motto is "Live Free or Die," for presidential candidates it might as well be "Run Hard but Get Surprised," because when it comes to the second Tuesday in February, anything can happen.

That unpredictability was on full display in the town of Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, where for decades, voters there have cast their first votes at midnight.

The winner in Dixville Notch? Surprise! Of the five votes cast — four in the Democratic primary and one in the Republican contest — the winner of both was ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Two other midnight voting sites produced another surprise, with Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar emerging victorious in both Hart's Location and Millsfield.

Whether Klobuchar, ex-South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, or former Vice President Joe Biden will be able to take down the reigning New Hampshire champion Sanders will be known by the end of the day on Tuesday, but by the time the votes are all counted, 2020 candidates will have their attention to next Saturday's Nevada caucus and South Carolina primary. Those two states, each boasting electorates far more diverse than the mostly white voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, are where the direction of the Democratic Party's fight against Donald Trump will truly begin to take shape.

But Nevada's upcoming caucus is already causing some of the same headaches that Democrats felt after last week's Iowa contest. While the Nevada State Democratic Party has already ditched plans to make use of a smartphone app similar to the one used in Iowa to compile caucus results, it hasn't stopped Bernie Sanders supporters and surrogates from spreading baseless conspiracy theories.

The target of Sanders stans' ire this time was Emily Goldman, a University of Michigan-educated attorney who recently took a job as the NSDP's Voter Protection Director. Goldman's new position is part of a joint venture between NSDP and Fair Fight Action, the voting rights protection group founded by former Georgia Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and will reportedly entail "study[ing] Nevada’s election laws and work[ing] to spread awareness about voter rights ahead of the November 2020 election."

Goldman's work experience makes her well-qualified for the position. In 2017, she was part of a pro bono legal team that helped block an attempt by Georgia election officials to unlawfully prevent new voters from registering before a hotly contested special election for that state's 6th Congressional District.

But Goldman's qualifications and demonstrated commitment to protecting Americans' right to vote wasn't enough to shield her from attacks after a Sanders supporter — a Seton Hall University law student, no less — discovered that she'd briefly worked as a field organizer for the Buttigieg campaign in Iowa.

"The Nevada Democratic Party just hired a paid Buttigieg organizer to be their ‘Voter Protection Director’," he wrote in a tweet accompanied by screenshots of Goldman’s LinkedIn profile (with photo). In subsequent tweets, he bragged that she'd locked down her social media accounts (a common defense mechanism by those who've been targeted by online mobs), and within a short time the law student's tweet had been rebroadcast by a number of top Sanders' supporters, including at least one official campaign surrogate.

Four hours later, after thousands upon thousands of pro-Sanders accounts had amplified the baseless accusation, the Senator's campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, made an attempt to calm his candidate's online base.

"Appreciate the concerns here. We've spoken with the Nevada party, which has assured us that this individual does not have decision-making authority over the caucus count. [Please] know we are working hard with the party to get every assurance that mistakes of Iowa are not repeated," he tweeted while quoting the original accusatory tweet by the law student.

While Shakir's tweet was rebroadcast by several Sanders staffers, it only received a fraction of the attention the original tweet garnered.

One Nevada Democratic operative saw Shakir's attempt to pour cold water on the rumors as less than helpful in the wake of the conspiracy theories other Sanders surrogates stoked after Iowa.

"It still implied that there was still some sort of collusion [between the NSDP and the Buttigieg campaign] aspect to it," said the operative, a longtime player in Nevada politics. "I think that's incredibly dangerous… that to some extent what they're trying to do is continue to sow distrust in this caucus."

"They could use far stronger language if they truly wanted to shut this down," the operative continued, adding that it's “disappointing" because Shakir — a former adviser to ex-Nevada Senator Harry Reid — should know better than to give oxygen to such claims: ”He of all people should know that there's nothing going on. People jump from campaigns to party infrastructure, to independent groups, and back to campaigns all the time. This is just the nature of the game, and even if people on Twitter don't understand it, he does."

Asked whether the Sanders campaign appeared to be cultivating an environment in which Sanders supporters would judge any outcome not favorable to him to have been "rigged," the operative replied: "I would agree with that premise."

But another top Democratic consultant conceded that Sanders' team has at least some reason to be concerned about the Nevada caucus because of the way things played out in 2016. That year, Reid’s formidable political machine pulled out all the stops to back former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Sanders, a longtime independent who was then a newcomer to Democratic presidential politics.

"The Sanders team and the Bernie online army is going to have a long memory when it comes to Nevada because of all the problems that the caucus had in 2016, so to the extent they have concerns that there will be shenanigans at play in Nevada, they are valid," he said, adding that in the wake of 2016, Reid's people said it had taken "everything" to deliver Nevada's delegates to Clinton.

"The Nevada caucus was a real mess last time, so I think that there's a tremendous sensitivity to more caucus problems," he said, but conceded that Sanders' "gigantic online army" continues to be a "minus" for his candidacy because of its susceptibility to conspiracy theories.

"I think it's self-organizing to some extent, and people online who are supporters infer all kinds of stuff, then that starts to spread like wildfire," he said, adding that he believes Sanders campaign officials believe the support base which the Senator's Saturday Night Live doppelgänger referred to as a "troll army" is one of their candidate's strengths, even as he acknowledged that the Sanders campaign doesn't know how to control it.

However, another veteran strategist who lived through 2016 said he thinks there is still an element of "foreign actors" once again whipping up divisions among Democrats in the same way he believes Russia's Internet Research Agency worked to boost Sanders' candidacy in 2016.

He posited that Sanders' advisers decision to cast their campaign as constantly doing battle against the entire Democratic Party has made it easier for those malign actors to stoke divisions by making his supporters that much more receptive to conspiracy theories.

"When you have a campaign that's constantly running against the DNC, this is part of the unintended — maybe unintended — consequences of doing pitched battle against institutions. It begs the question of how they are going to put the party back together in the long run...I wouldn't be surprised if they had no plan," he said. "It's not ideal, but it's not unusual for campaigns to only see six minutes in front of their face."

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