Updated: May 4
Prior to 2015, Bernie Sanders was a relatively unknown senator from Vermont, most noteworthy for being one of just two independent members of the United States Senate. When he announced his intention to contest the Presidency from within the Democratic party, few thought he would make waves. With little name recognition, no money, and fighting against Hillary Clinton and her political war machine, very few people would have bet on Bernie in May 2015. In spite of the odds, Bernie Sanders fought a campaign which came within inches of victory, winning some 43% of the popular vote. For an unknown candidate to run Hillary Clinton so close, was a victory of sorts in and of itself. Come 2019 and with the benefit of years of preparation, Bernie enjoyed national name recognition, more money than his campaign could spend and an army of volunteers. Yet for all these new found advantages, Bernie was forced to drop out in a race against Joe Biden, having only won 23% of the popular vote. How could this have happened?
To get the obvious point out of the way; there were 7 significant candidates in 2020 vis a vis just 2 in 2016. Even with this 7-way split, Bernie performed well in the early states, winning a plurality of the vote in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, with 27%, 26% and 40.5% respectively. After the early states, all major players in the Democratic field, bar Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg dropped out of the race, and most endorsed Joe Biden. Come super Tuesday Bernie was roundly trounced, winning just 4 states to Biden’s 10. There has been considerable debate as to the extent to which Elizabeth Warren split the ‘left vote’ and as a consequence ceded states to Biden that could otherwise have been won by Bernie. If we are to consider that we must look to the extent Bloomberg split the ‘moderate’ vote, and in so doing we find the collective ‘moderate’ vote to outnumber the ‘left’ vote in virtually every case, bar California. I say this to dispel the myth that the defeat of the Sanders campaign can be laid at the hands of Elizabeth Warren. In any case we can look at subsequent states, in which just Bernie and Biden competed and observe this new mano et mano phase of the competition provided no respite for the Sanders campaign. The following week a slate of states returned to the polls, including many in the Mid-West, terrain for which the Sanders campaign ought to have been well suited to fight on. In the wake of the Super Tuesday losses, victories here could have served to revitalise the Bernie campaign. Yet from Michigan to Wisconsin, to Washington and through to the South, Biden easily sailed to victory. Tuesday the 10th of March 2020 marked the end of the Sander’s campaign, and the unofficial anointing of Joe Biden as the Democratic Presidential nominee.
The reason for this spectacular failure on the part of the Bernie campaign was wholly self-inflicted. Sanders and his team consciously chose to eschew virtually all of the things which had made him so popular. Bernie was unique in his ability to appeal to voters on both sides of the political aisle. In 2016 he was lax in relation to gun control, and spoke out about the right to bear arms and hunt, as he said many of his constituents in rural Vermont do. He argued that ‘open borders’ was a “Koch brothers’ proposal” or in other words, a policy which would serve capitalists. Indeed, his voting history in the Senate demonstrates a conservatism on immigration spanning many decades. Additionally, he railed against the free trade agreements that successive US governments had signed, many of which came at the cost of blue-collar manufacturing jobs. Yet in addition to all this he loudly advocated health care for all, maternity and paternity leave, and a $15 minimum wage. These policies made him wildly popular amongst both Democrats and Republicans, which is one of the reasons why Bernie performed so well in the Open Primaries.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the general election, elements of the media and the Democratic establishment sought to lay the blame at Bernie’s feet. He was said too have been too critical of Clinton, and his supporters (which the media labelled ‘Bernie Bro’s’) were said to be misogynistic. Talking heads from MSNBC and the New York Times claimed Bernie had not paid enough heed to the rights of minority groups, and was too afraid to be tough on guns. Instead of robustly defending himself, Sanders capitulated in the face of every charge, and worse still effectively joined the Democratic establishment from 2016 onwards. Despite the fact Super Delegates pledged for Clinton before a vote was cast, that Clinton was fed debate questions, that emails show the DNC actively working to elect Hillary, Bernie warmly embraced the very establishment he had just been railing against.
When Bernie returned to fight the 2020 primaries, he was a different candidate. He could no longer credibly claim to be fighting the establishment, having nominally joined it for the past 4 years. He no longer had moderate positions on border control which enjoyed bi-partisan support, on the contrary he now called for a moratorium on deportations, and for illegal border crossings to be decriminalised. He constantly lambasted his own record on guns, and talked about how he had previously cast ‘bad votes’. Every speech felt as though he were rebutting the ‘Bernie Bro’ critique before he could begin to adumbrate his policies, he would talk at length about how his movement was a coalition of African Americans, Hispanics, Transgender people, Gay people, Women, Young people and so on. His speeches had become much lighter on economic policy, and increasingly concerned with the type of social liberalism more associated with the coastal states and student activists. The effect on the results is glaringly apparent: Bernie lost California in 2016 to Hillary Clinton, and won the Mid-West, but in 2020 he won California, and lost the Mid-West. One of the most mind-boggling elements of the Sander’s strategy was to repeatedly lambast President Trump as a racist and a liar. Knowing as Bernie did, the cross party appeal his messages enjoy, it made no strategic sense to adopt these kinds of hyper partisan attacks which only serve to dissuade shaky Republicans, or floating voters.
To surmise, Bernie Sanders and his campaign moved away from the economic issues which energised all Americans, of any colour or creed and moved toward social liberalism. In so doing he alienated his patriotic blue-collar support, which moved to Biden in droves. There are of course other factors, and all analysis should be multivariate. The impact of Warren’s vote splitting on Super Tuesday cannot be discounted, Biden was a more popular candidate than Clinton, and there were organisational mis steps on the part of the Sanders campaign. Fundamentally however, Sander’s defeat mirrors trend evident in left wing movements across the world. Shifts to the intellectual or so-called Brahmin left alienate blue collar workers, and invariably lead to defeat. Many have claimed it was the vote splitting that in the end did it for Bernie, arguing that his failure to win big deflated his momentum coming out of Super Tuesday. But the opposite is actually true, once all other candidates had dropped out, the dire failure to build a genuinely broad coalition under the Sanders banner was glaringly exposed, and it was in the end Joe Biden who proved his movement to be genuinely broad, genuinely multi-racial, and one which drew on support from both the suburbs and working class areas.