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.

Bernie Sanders’ Southern Whitewash

The Sunday before the raucous Democratic  debate in Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulos to discuss the race and his conviction that he is the better general election candidate than Hillary Clinton. As he was channeling his inner Bob Dole to make the point that “Bernie Sanders is the stronger candidate,” Stephanopoulos interjected to point out that Clinton is getting more votes than him. Sanders paused briefly before brushing off the point by saying “Well, she’s getting more votes. A lot of that came from the South.”

On its surface, this seems like a curious retort. In a national primary, it doesn’t matter which region a candidates’ support comes from; all that matters is how many votes and delegates they win. Sanders, however, followed up on this line of thinking in the debate four days later, saying that the South is “the most conservative part of this great country”  before downplaying Clinton’s large margins there. While minimizing your opponent’s victories is no political novelty, there are two problems with this argument. The first is that it is completely misleading; the conservative voters Sanders is alluding to are not voting in a Democratic primary. The second is that he’s diminishing the vote of black Southerners, the most historically disenfranchised group of voters in the country.

Contrary to the talking points of Sanders and his surrogates, the voters who turn out in the southern primaries are not conservative representatives of the “Old South.” In the Mississippi primary, 71 percent of voters were black, and African-Americans also accounted for the majority of voters in the Alabama, Georgia ,and Louisiana contests. In every southern primary, the share of black voters participating is substantially higher than their overall share of the population, and in all these states Clinton won at least 80% of their vote.

Sanders is surely aware that these primaries are dominated by black voters, particularly since his campaign essentially ceded most of them to Clinton due to his poor poll numbers with that group. It’s unlikely of course that Sanders, who was a civil rights organizer, is attempting to sound the alarm about black voters. Instead, he’s trying to capitalize on more general cultural prejudices about the south. Given the crimson red conservatism of many southern states, voters naturally assume that their primaries would reflect that to some degree and Sanders is likely trying to evoke the image of Confederate-clad Southern conservatives marching to the polls in support of Clinton. Unsurprisingly, a quick a look at the exit polls shows that Sanders did far better with southern whites than he did with minority voters. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it belies his disingenuous insinuation that Clinton is winning the south because of its conservative bent. Perhaps Sanders should focus on broadening his coalition instead of diminishing voters who aren’t supporting him.

The Fading Revolution

Since his New Hampshire victory, Bernie Sanders has slowly faded as a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton and regressed to the role of a beloved but unlikely candidate for the nomination. As Clinton has piled up endorsements from superdelegates and alternated between shaky and convincing victories, there has been no small amount of indignation from Sanders’ supporters over the various injustices and conspiracies that have detoured his path to the nomination. There have been many grievances aired on social media over a variety of issues, from the kerfuffle over coin flips in Iowa to the complaints about the “undemocratic” nature of the primary (see delegates, super) to the apparently serious suggestion that The Onion, having been bought by a company owned by a major Hillary supporter, was now a pro-Hillary outlet.

It’s not unusual for the supporters of a candidate to complain about the process or perceived wrongs committed against their steed. In this case, however, they ignore a fairly obvious point, which is that Sanders actually was in a position to challenge and even win the nomination. Although Hillary may have gotten some breaks along the way, more endorsements, and a friendly story in The Onion, none of that should take away from the fact that the nomination is slipping away from Sanders not because it’s being stolen, but because of the simplest possible reason: he isn’t winning enough votes.

Before and after his convincing New Hampshire win, Sanders had chances to win critical states and feed the innate media desire for a hotly contested primary. His 0.3 percent loss in Iowa, though insignificant in terms of delegates, denied him bragging rights for winning the first two states. After New Hampshire, Sanders had a winnable contest in Nevada, where the final Real Clear Politics polling average had Clinton up by 2.4 points, but Clinton more than doubled that margin before absolutely crushing Sanders a week later in South Carolina. By the time results came in on Super Tuesday, it was clear that Sanders, despite a few wins that night, had stalled on his narrow path to the nomination. Sanders has won three of the past four states since then, but Clinton won the biggest delegate prize of the group by taking Louisiana.

As the delegate math has gradually made Sanders’ nomination less likely, many liberal voters and writers have turned their ire on the system. The New York Daily News, Huffington Post, and other liberal outlets have carried stories on the “rigged” Democratic primary process, while a MoveOn petition decrying the role of superdelegates has collected nearly 200,000 signatures.

This narrative of woe ignores the fact Sanders isn’t winning the popular vote. In states that have voted or caucused so far, Clinton has won 4.2 million votes, compared to 2.7 million for Sanders (excluding Iowa, which doesn’t release raw vote totals for its caucus). This is hardly an insignificant margin. On top of that, despite winning 61.1% of votes cast, Clinton has actually only claimed 58.5% of the pledged delegates (which are delegates allocated based on vote/caucus totals). There’s no conspiracy behind this statistical quirk, but it certainly belies the notion that Sanders is being cheated when he’s losing the popular vote and receiving delegates at a slightly higher proportion than his opponent. Far from being an aggrieved underdog, Sanders is a formidable opponent who’s raised tremendous amounts  of money, run a great campaign, but simply isn’t beating Clinton at the ballot box.

As for the superdelegates who currently account for most of Clinton’s massive lead in delegates, it should be remembered that a primary election is a party function, not an election for public office, and it can be carried out however those in the party deem fit. In the past, the process was almost entirely dictated by party insiders and, after years of complaints, both parties have moved to comparatively democratic systems. However, in the Democratic process, party insiders still obviously maintain a certain a degree of influence. That said, if Sanders was winning state after state, it is unlikely that they would be able to deny him the nomination. Hillary Clinton tried to use superdelegates to eke past Obama in 2008 but failed due to his popularity at the voting booth. It should also be remembered that, for all the grumbling about the system, there are reasons to leave a role for party heavyweights. The Republican Party right now surely wishes it had a firewall of superdelegates capable of impeding Donald Trump’s belligerent march to the nomination (as FiveThirtyEight noted today).

The most critical impetus for Sanders deflating nomination is the fact that he hasn’t won over critical groups in the Democratic coalition, most notably African-American voters. While it may be frustrating to his supporters that the former Civil Rights activist is losing the black vote to a woman who many associate with mass incarceration, for whatever reason Sanders has simply been unable to gain much traction in states that aren’t overwhelmingly white. There’s no trickery behind the huge margins of victory in South Carolina and elsewhere. The Democratic electorate, for now at least, is simply saying to Sanders, “You don’t have the votes.” It’s a message he was going to hear one day or another, either during the election or from Paul Ryan on his first day in the White House.