Anik Joshi: Bernie 2016, 2020 and beyond

Monday, April 13, 2020 - 6:04pm

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., will not be the Democratic nominee for president in 2020, just as he wasn’t the nominee in 2016. The 2016 run was the first time a number of left-wing ideas were reintroduced in the public square and they (and Sanders) consistently polled well. Though Hillary Clinton won the race, some Sanders supporters saw a moral victory and many saw better odds for him in 2020; he was seen as one of the frontrunners from the first day of speculation surrounding this race.

How did it all fall apart? A primary reason is that people drew the wrong conclusions from the 2016 primary and thus went into 2020 with a misshapen strategy. 2016 was a unique primary for the Democrats — no one except Clinton was really in it. She immediately cleared the field as the Clintons have been bastions of Democratic politics since the 1980s, and there was no reason for people to risk crossing her when, in all likelihood, she would come out on top. Hillary and more broadly, the Clintons, were well-liked within the party apparatus but she was thought to be better liked by the voters within the party than she actually was.

In other words, she was something of a paper tiger which Sanders (and his campaign) readily took advantage of. Photos of Sanders’s 2015 announcement of his first run are incredible in how sparsely attended they are. Within a year of this conference, Sanders was able to summon ten thousand to an arena with three days notice. Sanders wasn’t especially known but he was also not especially hidden — he had been on The Daily Show back when Jon Stewart was hosting it.

Sanders won more than 20 contests in the 2016 primary but still lost by millions of votes nationwide. Because he was seen to have performed so strongly, there was immediate speculation about his 2020 plans. As the most left-wing candidate since George McGovern in the 1970s, Sanders was seen by many to be a frontrunner from nearly the day he entered the race. However, it faded slowly and eventually, former Vice President Joe Biden effectively locked up the nomination after a triumphant victory in South Carolina and a strong Super Tuesday showing.

The problem with Sanders’s 2020 campaign was that it was built off the presumption that he did well in 2016 because people liked him. While this was part of it, a much bigger part of his support seemed to come from those seeking “ABC,” or “Anyone But Clinton.” The problem with building a strategy centered around having an incredibly unpopular person as the frontrunner is that it only works when there is an incredibly unpopular person as the frontrunner. There was one of those in 2016 but there wasn’t one in 2020 and as a result, Sanders saw far worse results.

Beyond this, the Sanders campaign was built on an expectation that the splintered field would endure far longer than it actually did. President Donald Trump was able to win the nomination in 2016 because there was no single anti-Trump candidate. There was former Gov. of Ohio John Kasich, Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and so many more. None of them were able or willing to exit the race and so they continued splintering the vote. That wasn’t a problem on the Democratic side this year. Right before the start of Super Tuesday a number of moderate candidates who would have split Biden’s vote dropped out, including former Mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. After this, Biden held a Texas rally where many former candidates (including ones that had dropped out earlier) endorsed him. This support, combined with Biden’s strong Super Tuesday showing ensured he would be the nominee.

Looking forward however, not all is lost. Biden will probably have a more liberal platform than either of the previous times he was on the top of the ticket. Consequently, his governance will in all likelihood be to the left of Barack Obama. But, if Sanders (or someone subscribing to his theory of politics) is to run and win, they must first accept that both a strategy of having an unpopular avatar for middlebrow liberalism and a strategy of counting on a splintered field are good ideas in theory, but don’t tend to hold in practice.

Anik Joshi can be reached at anikj@umich.edu.