Bernie Busted

In the wake of Donald Trump’s widely unanticipated victory over Hillary Clinton, many liberal commentators have speculated that Bernie Sanders would have fared better in the general election than she did, had he been the one to receive the Democratic nomination. It is impossible for them to make this assertion with any certainty, but polling on the matter agrees with them and has since long before the end of the primaries. The RealClearPolitics average of the last available polls (from May) for a general election between Sanders and Trump had Sanders ahead by 10.4%; an average of analogous polls had Clinton ahead only 3.5% over Trump. Moreover, a poll conducted two days before election day by Gravis found that Sanders would have received 56% of the vote compared to Trump’s 44%.

I believe Sanders would have won the general election against any Republican candidate, and especially Trump. I was, and continue to be, furious at how the Democratic party conducted their primaries. However, I also recognize that Sanders is partially to blame for Clinton’s loss.

During the primaries, Sanders’s supporters fought for him with a zeal unparalleled in Democratic politics. This feature of the Sanders campaign explains why he utterly dominated in caucuses, which tend to favor candidates with staunch, energetic bases, while struggling in other primary formats. The intense loyalty that Sanders inculcated in his followers eventually gave rise to the “Bernie-or-Bust” movement: a sizable number of his proponents, largely comprised of millennials, explicitly refused to support anyone other than him in the general election. To them, Sanders was unique among all the presidential candidates of both major parties in terms of the authenticity of his ideals, raging against a political establishment which was beset by corporate America’s corrupting influence and to which his rival candidates belonged.

The Bernie-or-Bust movement culminated in the shocking moment when, at a Philadelphia rally on July 25, just hours prior to the Democratic convention, a crowd of his devotees loudly booed in response to his appeal that they vote for Clinton. This historic spectacle serves as the basis for two key judgments. First, the only source of greater passion for the Bernie-or-Busters than their admiration for their eponymous leader was their contempt for Clinton and the dishonest brand of politics that they believed she represented. Second, and more importantly, Sanders’s popularity among even his most steadfast supporters did not equate to control over them as a voting bloc.

Sanders consciously ignored the danger posed by the protest-minded faction of his supporters—the danger of electing Donald Trump, which has now been realized—when it was strategically advantageous for him to do so and despite vehemently disagreeing with their refusal to vote for Clinton in the general election. He did this for noble reasons and to great effect, ultimately forcing Clinton to embrace a more progressive policy agenda. But by cutting the brakes of his supporters and failing to nudge them early on to vote for Clinton, Sanders gave up control of the movement which he had started, contributing to the low liberal turnout that undermined the Democratic Party’s “blue wall” and therefore ultimately to Trump’s victory.

During the heat of the primaries, and particularly from March until the convention, Sanders made fewer positive statements about Clinton than at the start of his campaign, focusing more on highlighting their differences. One could argue that a candidate should be expected to eventually make such an adjustment during the inherently competitive primary season. Yet it appears that Sanders changed strategy halfway through his campaign in a way that went over and beyond this standard rhetorical shift. He realized that he could gain leverage over Clinton by failing to distinguish between her and Republican candidates—by even equating Clinton with them—in a way that ultimately led some of his enthusiasts to consider her flaws equivalent to those of her conservative opponents.

For instance, at a rally in Philadelphia on April 6, Sanders said of Clinton: “I don’t believe that she is qualified if she is through her super PAC taking tens of millions of dollars in special-interest funds.” In an NBC interview with Clinton days later, Matt Lauer read this comment aloud and followed up with the question: “Is he qualified to be President?” Clinton responded that she would “take Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump or Ted Cruz any time.”

Sanders, in fairness, expressed similar thoughts about Clinton early in his campaign. Back in November 2015, during an ABC interview, Sanders stated without prompt that, “Hillary Clinton will be an infinitely better candidate and President than the Republican candidate on his best day.” Similarly, when he endorsed Clinton in July, he spoke glowingly of her qualifications, principles, and ability to lead the country. He continued to do so up until November 8, but the damage was already done: many of Sanders’ supporters considered Clinton too moderate—that is, too conservative—to vote for.

Sanders’s failure to neutralize the Bernie-or-Bust crusade at its genesis did not come from a place of obliviousness or hostility. On the contrary, during a critical period of the general election season, Sanders chose his words and actions rather carefully, neither pacifying nor aggravating the concerns that this group had with Clinton. In this timeframe, Sanders leveraged this group to push a more progressive Democratic platform on Clinton and force her to concede on certain policy disagreements that she had with him.

From late April until early July, for example, when it was inevitable that Clinton would be the Democratic nominee, Sanders withheld his endorsement. By comparison, in the 2008 Democratic primaries, Clinton endorsed Obama in early June, as soon as it was clear he would be the party’s nominee. Think of the 2016 primaries as a game of chicken, in which both candidates wanted Clinton to have the full voting power of the party behind her, but disagreed about which policies she should take. For Clinton, the “swerve” in this game-theoretic model would have been to move toward a more progressive stance on certain policies; for Sanders, it would have been to endorse her without having any of his demands for more progressive policies met. Neither of them preferred to swerve, but would have rather done that than have her simply not receive his endorsement.

In an MSNBC interview on April 25, Sanders suggested that it was Clinton’s responsibility to win over his supporters. He responded rather deliberately to a question regarding whether his campaign would support whoever clinched the nomination, saying: “We are not a movement where I can snap my fingers and say to you or to anybody else what you should do, because you won’t listen to me. You shouldn’t. You’ll make these decisions yourself.” By empowering voters to make their own decisions, he forced Clinton to chase after their votes by shifting her policies, as opposed to simply securing his endorsement. He forced Hillary to swerve—to the left, instead of the usual rightward turn to the center that the Democratic

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