Five Theories on Bernie’s End Game

In the aftermath of a chaotic Nevada state convention and rhetoric from Bernie Sanders that belies his near-zero chance at securing the nomination, it’s hard to tell what the end game is for the Sanders campaign. Here are a few theories from one of America’s least relevant political blogs on what he’s after.

The Rick Astley  / Wistful Bernie Theory

In virtually every Bernie Sanders stump speech, he’ll take his listeners back to “when we started this campaign” and recall the single-digit poll numbers and equally low expectations from which he launched his presidential bid. Although Sanders never led in pledged delegates after the Nevada caucus on February 20th and never consistently led Clinton in national polls, there were plenty of moments in the campaign when it looked like the perpetual underdog surely had the momentum and, in the eyes of his supporters if not the pundits, a legitimate chance at securing the nomination.

Even when Clinton seemed about to close the door, for months Sanders was able to pry it open with timely wins that cast doubt on whether the race was really over. After the ups and downs of that ride and months of defying expectations, it has to be hard for Sanders to admit that the door may have really closed, particularly since, at 74 years old, this is likely his first and last bid at the White House. On top of that, there are millions of Sanders supporters who emphatically want him to take the race all the way to the convention, and Bernie might have political incentives to do just that. Also, the cheering crowds and continuing enthusiasm for Bernie makes it clear, particularly from the vantage point of the podium, that he still has a receptive audience for his message.

The Bernie Sanders Is Pissed and Now a Source of Nihilistic Rage Theory

Another feature in virtually every Sanders stump speech is his denunciation of The Establishment and a riff on the allegedly crooked process that has obstructed his path to the nomination. This is politically valuable in the sense that, in spite of substantial deficits in the delegate count and popular vote for much of the race, Sanders has been able to keep alive the idea that he is the true tribune of the people. However, just because this message helps Sanders’ political narrative doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it. Oftentimes Sanders sounds legitimately embittered and convinced that he has been denied a fair shot at the nomination. Is it possible that he’s angry enough to widen the split in the Democratic Party in the name of ornery New England spite?

The cold water on this theory is the simple fact that Sanders is an astute politician who’s unlikely to throw away his political capital for a kamikaze attack on the Democratic Party. Also, a casual jaunt through grainy clips of Sanders speeches from years past leaves one with the blindingly obvious impression that Sanders has been angry at The Establishment for years, so this isn’t a new concept for him. Finally, Sanders has regularly said that any Democratic nominee is far better than a Republican in the White House, so he’s unlikely to undercut that to settle a personal grudge.

The Power of the Healer Theory

Perhaps the most compelling theory is that Sanders benefits politically from maintaining something of a gulf between his supporters and the Democratic Party. Had Sanders read the writing on the wall after his crushing loss in New York and decided  to march gently into the good night, the Democratic Party would be more unified today, but such a move would sharply diminish Sanders’ clout. He would have a good speaking slot at the convention and might be holding unity rallies with Clinton, but his ability to push the party left and influence its platform would be fading by the day. By keeping his campaign alive into June, Sanders maintains his influence and heightens his ability to extract concessions from the party. Also, to borrow from the last two theories, this enables him to stay on the trail and, if he’s so inclined, air a few grievances.

If this is indeed Sanders’ strategy, it’s a dangerous one for the Democrats since each day of party disunity benefits Donald Trump. However, Sanders is undoubtedly aware of Trump’s astronomically high unfavorable ratings, decades of incendiary quotes, and problematic relationships with nearly every demographic group the Census Bureau acknowledges. With what looks like a winnable race for Clinton, Sanders might feel he can afford to push her and the Democratic Party to the left for a few more weeks.

The Valley of the Polls Theory

One has to believe that, behind closed doors, Bernie is aware that his chances of winning are virtually non-existent. However, one argument he’s been making for months is that, because of his better poll numbers against Trump, superdelegates should read the political tea leaves and award him the nomination. Since that would involve a complete repudiation of the popular vote, this is highly unlikely to happen, and Bernie’s tenuous relationship with the Democratic Party makes this hail-mary effort even more of a long shot. Still, a mass defection of superdelegates is the only chance Sanders has at this point, so by delaying party unity and denying Clinton a bump in the polls as the party coalesces around her, Bernie keeps his negligible chances of winning on life support.

The this-won’t-happen-BUT-OH-MY-GOD-WHAT-IF-IT-DOES Theory

If Trump has astronomically high unfavorables right now, Hillary Clinton’s negatives are at least adrift in the stratosphere. Clinton’s profile is likely more fixable than Trump’s since many of her negative storylines are old news that has been in the papers since the previous century, while Trump on the other hand is about to face a level of scrutiny that far surpasses what he encountered during the primary or during earlier flirtations with higher office. On top of that, the Democrats will soon dust off their opposition research file on Trump, which surely rivals War & Peace in both length and narrative complexity. However, if Sanders has truly ventured into the political wilderness he might read into the unfavorable ratings of  the two presumptive nominees and see a narrow path to the nomination on the third party track. The chances of this, while infinitesimal, are just enough to sustain a paragraph of wild speculation.

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Despite the bitter conclusion to this year’s Democratic primary and Sanders’ obstinate refusal to yield to the cold realities of delegate math, Sanders has repeatedly indicated that he will support the Democratic nominee. While it remains to be seen whether he will be an enthusiastic supporter of Clinton (as she was of Obama in 2008) or a lukewarm endorser (in the mold of Ted Kennedy in 1980), the  most likely outcome is that Sanders will endorse Hillary and muster a reasonable level of enthusiasm while seeking to capitalize on his newfound profile. Whether he does that in the Senate or attempts to sustain the movement he spearheaded in less traditional ways will be interesting to watch, but he is surely ready to serve as an antagonist to whoever is elected to the White House.