Nearly every Bernie Sanders supporter I speak to these days exists on the same strange plane of existence. They are optimistically terrified, warily thrilled, uneasily cheerful. Why? Their candidate is the clear front-runner to secure the presidential nomination for a Democratic Party whose core establishment wants nothing more than to stop him in his tracks.
Fueling the Sanders camp’s fears, and dampening their pleasure, is the very real concern that the party might thwart his nomination at the convention. The party has the tools to do it if the pieces fall into place just so. This unsteady situation would leave anyone in disorder.
Here is but one example of the nonsense fueling this binary state of being: The Democratic establishment types who have been trying to convince people that Sanders’s successes in Iowa and New Hampshire are meaningless are the same ones arguing that those successes amount to a complete capitulation to Donald Trump in November.
If you want to have a cake, you can’t eat it, because if you eat it, you don’t have it anymore. Children understand this idiom better than the leadership of the Democratic Party. This nonsense is flowing entirely from the party’s establishment wing and is being magnified to a full-throated roar by their hyperventilating mouthpieces in the news media.
The latest line of attack on Sanders has been that he “has a ceiling,” that he cannot expand his base beyond angry college students who want free everything and boorish Twitter warriors who may or may not be paid Russian trolls. “Sanders Sends Democratic Establishment Into Panic Mode,” reads a Monday morning Politico headline. “[M]oderates firmly believe a Sanders primary win would seal Donald Trump’s reelection,” explains the article.
And yet, within that very same Politico piece, there is this: “It was not just Sanders’ victory, but the lopsidedness of the outcome that struck fear into moderate Democrats. In one day, Sanders proved that he could broaden his coalition beyond the narrow base that many assumed would limit his appeal. In 2016, Sanders struggled with African American voters. But now he’s narrowing the gap between himself and Biden in South Carolina” (emphasis added). The idea that Sanders could be a truly formidable national candidate is beginning to penetrate the fog of establishment Democratic disquiet.
The numbers out of Nevada bear the strength of Sanders’s standing out in explicit detail. Sanders prevailed in virtually every category required to burst through that “ceiling” the Democratic establishment would have us believe constrains his national chances: Latinx voters, white voters, women, men, union voters, non-union voters, and every age group except 65 and older. While Biden outperformed Sanders among Black voters in Nevada, it was not by a great margin, and Sanders has been making steady gains with that group. His strength with Black voters will meet a sterner test in South Carolina.
Perhaps most importantly, Sanders is capturing the allegiance of voters who don’t often participate or have never participated before. Nearly half the country stayed home in 2016. If Sanders is the candidate who can bring them to the voting booth, that final piece establishes an overwhelmingly powerful and comprehensive coalition. Put another way, Sanders is constructing a coalition that looks like what the Democratic Party advertises itself as: Diverse across a vast swath of demographics and age groups.
If Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar or Tom Steyer were pulling down numbers like Sanders, the party would be building statues in their honor outside Democratic National Committee headquarters. Yet with all the pieces Sanders has in place, all the momentum he enjoys and all the polling leads he holds, it is “Bernie Can’t Win” from the establishment wing almost across the board. The New York Times, MSNBC, The Washington Post, and other publications and outlets all echo a similar theme.
If Elizabeth Warren or Tulsi Gabbard were standing in Sanders’s place, we would be having virtually the same conversation. This is the present truth facing any progressive candidate seeking the Democratic nomination. The party has been violently allergic to such candidates since the McGovern debacle in 1972, and even more so since the Reagan “revolution” in 1980. After the Clintons took over the party in 1992, their elixir was to lean right so as to bring in “moderate” Republican voters.
As the GOP has moved farther to the right, however, the Democrats have moved with them so as to mollify voters who would today find a Republican like Richard Nixon intolerably liberal. It is a recipe for failure, and the results have become obvious. Hillary Clinton’s weak showing was not some black swan outlier event, but a bright red warning light the Democratic establishment refuses to heed.
When half the country refuses to vote — even as the oceans rise, the cost of health care explodes, and the fiction of the “healthy” economy becomes more obvious by the hour — it means you are doing it wrong.
There are some in the news media who argue that the Democratic Party will come around, that winning will be its own elixir if Sanders is able to continue with his success. Fears of down-ticket losses will be offset by gains in places the Democrats have long feared to tread, such as Georgia, Texas and Nevada. The energy of the 2018 midterms has not abated, and the word “socialist” simply isn’t as scary as it used to be, especially among the young voters who will make or break this contest.
Yet there is a reason why Biden, Bloomberg, Klobuchar and Buttigieg will not abandon their campaigns any time soon. That reason is the convention. If Sanders does not have enough of a delegate lead, the party’s nomination rules will allow so-called superdelegates to tilt the nomination away from the candidate with a clear majority of delegates. This quartet of establishment candidates will stay in for as long as they can, because they see the possibility of becoming the nominee if the party decides it cannot abide Sanders. If Warren somehow surges past Sanders in the coming contests, she will face the same convention dilemma; the Wall Street money fueling the Democratic establishment fears her as much as they do Sanders, if not more.
This is hardly without precedent. The Democratic Party bosses withheld their support from McGovern in 1972, in that instance after he secured the nomination, because they made a very cynical calculation: In their minds, a second Nixon term was preferable to losing control of the party.
Will the powers that be within the Democratic establishment make the same calculation at the convention in Wisconsin this summer? They might. They can, if Sanders fails to capture a dominant majority of delegates during the primaries and caucuses. It’s the rules.
There is a scene in the baseball movie Major League when the team finds out the owner is doing everything she can to make them lose for her own financial gain. “Well then, I guess there’s only one thing left to do,” says the catcher played by Tom Berenger. “Win the whole fucking thing.”
For Bernie Sanders, his campaign, and his supporters, that is the best and only answer. If Sanders arrives at the convention with a clear majority of delegates, it will be hard to deny him the nomination. Such a broad-daylight betrayal would shatter the Democratic Party in a way that even the most cynical establishment stalwarts should rightly fear to contemplate.
Things are not all sunshine and roses for the senator from Vermont. His fumbled answer to a question on the CBS News program 60 Minutes asking how he intends to pay for his ambitious programs opened an avenue of attack from his rivals. His refusal to fall into Cold War absolutism regarding Fidel Castro has become grist for the conservative mill, and raises concerns about his ability to win Florida come November. Mike Bloomberg is dipping into his bottomless fortune to pay for a massive ad buy attacking Sanders on all fronts.
Such is the life of a presidential frontrunner in the 21st century. The Sanders campaign will be required to rise to these challenges, and the others which will undoubtedly follow, if they wish to sustain the momentum that has carried them to this point.
Even with these bumps in the road, the overall campaign trends are moving in Sanders’s favor: He stands a decent chance of defeating Joe Biden in South Carolina on Saturday, according to the latest CBS News poll, and is positioned to make a dominant showing nationally on Super Tuesday. His coalition is broad and expanding. He is the favored candidate for a huge segment of voters who have not been participating because their Democratic choices have been candidates in the failed “centrist” vein of Biden and Hillary Clinton. He leads Trump in a head-to-head matchup according to the last 10 national polls.
Sanders’s most immediate impediment is the party whose nomination he seeks. The term “Vote Blue No Matter Who” was much favored in establishment Democratic circles back when Joe Biden was leading the race. If the establishment is not able — or willing — to ensure that the slogan applies to Sanders, too, the party could face the kind of conflagration it may never recover from.