Can Bernie win?
Updated: Apr 10
Sanders has had a good week and is in a strong position, but there are many battles to come, argues Kate O'Neil
Never before in American history has a socialist been a more serious contender for the office of US president. This week, Bernie Sanders made an impressive showing in the Iowa Caucus, the first round of state-by-state primary voting to select the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Following days of delay in calculating results due to technical failures, Bernie won the popular vote by 6,000 votes and secured roughly the same number of national convention delegates (26.1) as the politically moderate Pete Buttigieg (26.2).
This is not the first time Sanders has done well at the Iowa Caucus. He only narrowly lost there to Hilary Clinton in 2016. But unlike 2016, the results augur a probable shakeup in the party establishment. The frontrunner, former Vice-President Joe Biden, finished a distant fourth, a devastating defeat from which many commentators suspect he will not recover. Elizabeth Warren, the liberal reformer who has competed with Sanders for votes from the party’s progressive base, placed a distant third. Sanders currently leads in the polls ahead of the next primary in New Hampshire this Tuesday and has also been polling very well nationally. In the weeks leading up to the Iowa Caucus he trailed only the shaky Biden by 5.2 percentage points and led Warren by 7.4 points and Buttigieg by 14.8 points.
Can Bernie actually win the Democratic nomination?
This is the looming question on the American left and is not an easy one to answer. While Sanders is in a good position now electorally, it is early days for the campaign. Iowa represents only 1% of the delegates frontrunner candidates typically win. The first real test of the campaign’s strength will be on 3 March, when 14 states, representing 40% of convention delegates, will ballot. Furthermore, the Sanders project is an unusual and unprecedented one. Unlike Corbyn, Sanders is not running as a socialist on a workers’ party ticket but as a socialist hoping to transform a party of big business. Thus, clinching the nomination will require Sanders not only to win over a majority of primary voters but also to face down opposition by an anti-socialist party leadership.
It is a daunting task, but a number of factors are working in Sanders’s favour.
Sanders’s strengths mirror those of Jeremy Corbyn. A life-long democratic socialist with a record to prove it, he comes across as very genuine and principled. His manifesto is broadly popular in a country thirsting for social change. His ground-breaking Green New Deal, single-payer healthcare system and opposition to US war in Iraq have become standards against which the policies of all other Democratic candidates, jockeying for position to win a progressive base, have had to be measured. And (perhaps unlike the 2019 Corbyn campaign) the Sanders campaign has been able to articulate its message clearly, simply and repetitively so as to distinguish its programme before a wide audience.
His campaign stands out for its grassroots organising model, built around the empowering slogan, ‘Not me. Us.’ And this has been effective. Sanders benefits from a higher level of commitment from his supporters than other candidates and a greater willingness to volunteer for the campaign. According to a recent poll, Sanders backers are more likely to say they have ‘made up their minds’ about their choice of candidate and more likely to call themselves ‘enthusiastic’ about their candidate than supporters of his opponents. Hence, Sanders has been able to draw much larger and livelier crowds to his rallies.
And not only this. Incredibly, Sanders, who refuses to accept large sums of money from wealthy donors, has been the ‘most prodigious fundraiser’ so far this election. In January, the campaign took in $25 million from well over half a million individual donors, especially from working class backgrounds. The largest group of donors identified as teachers, and the most frequently listed employers of the donors were Amazon, Starbucks, Walmart, the U.S. Postal Service and Target.
This should come as no surprise, as these represent sections of the workforce that have been most combative in recent years and are most tied to the left wing of the labour movement. Indeed, a number of prominent unions are backing Sanders: the National Postal Workers Union; National Nurses United; and some well-known union locals, including the Los Angeles teachers union, which won a historic strike last year. It is likely that many more will endorse in the weeks ahead. These ties ultimately reflect the political and organisational strength at the heart of the campaign: the involvement of experienced left-wing activists from unions, socialist groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and others.
The campaign’s strategy relies in large part on ‘expanding the electorate’ to include more marginalised groups. In Iowa, the campaign deployed its superior number of volunteers to out-canvass the opposition. Misty Reyhek, the Iowa state director of the Sanders campaign, describes her experience leading up to the caucus:
At some point, for five consecutive hours, we were knocking two doors every second. I would be very surprised if any other candidate had those same statistics.
Iowa, though a small and overwhelmingly white state, also showed the campaign’s potential to win over new voters from working class communities of colour. This report gives a flavour of some of some of their caucuses:
On Monday night, at the Muslim Community Organization caucus site in Des Moines, 120 votes were cast for various Democratic contenders. Sanders took 115 in the initial round, 119 in the second round, and all the state delegate equivalents.At the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 230 union hall in Ottumwa, where a satellite caucus was held for second-shift workers at a nearby pork processing plant, 14 of 15 votes were cast for Sanders and he won all the delegate equivalents. Sanders supporters canvassed between midnight and 2 am at the plant where many of the workers are immigrants from Latin America and Africa. The majority of those who attended in Ottumwa were first-time caucus participants, including a group of Ethiopian immigrants holding Sanders signs.
In a campaign in which the race, gender and age of the candidates has been highly scrutinised, Bernie, a 78 year-old white male, has been remarkably popular among a wide demographic. He is the favoured candidate among Latinos and has more support among women than Warren, the only remaining female candidate. Biden still polls best among Blacks overall, but Sanders is more popular among Black millennials. Warren and Buttigieg, by contrast, have struggled to attract support from Black communities. Bernie’s growing popularity among women and people of colour is partly due to his progressive social policies and partly due to the fact that the face of the campaign is very diverse. Congresswomen Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Pramila Jayapal, for example, have all endorsed Bernie and become prominent spokespeople for the campaign.
The campaign reckons that drawing new working class and other marginalised voters into the fold demonstrates Sanders’ ‘electability’ in a contest against Trump. Predictably, however, other candidates have chided him for being too left-wing to get elected and have argued that a less ‘divisive’ candidate (read: who can win moderate middle class votes) would have more success. Sanders’ response to this tired approach is compelling. ‘The way you bring people together’ he argued at the recent New Hampshire debate, ‘is by presenting an agenda that works for the working people of this country, not for the billionaire class.’
Ironically, of all the candidates, Sanders may be in the best position to beat Trump, as his ‘class war’ rhetoric appeals to many white working class people who would otherwise vote for Trump. But this presents a conundrum for the Democratic establishment.
As David Brooks, conservative columnist, explains:
Democrats may wind up in a position in which they can’t nominate Bernie Sanders because he’s too far left, and they can’t not nominate him because his followers would bolt from a Biden/Bloomberg/Buttigieg-led party.Only 53% of Sanders voters say they will certainly support whoever is the Democratic nominee. This is no idle threat. In 2016, in Pennsylvania, 117,000 Sanders primary voters went for Trump in the general, and Trump won the state by 44,292 ballots. In Michigan, 48,000 Sanders voters went for Trump, and Trump won the state by 10,704. In Wisconsin, 51,300 Sanders voters went for Trump, and Trump won the state by 22,748. In short, Sanders voters helped elect Trump.
Thus another advantage for the Sanders campaign at this moment is the laggardness of the Democratic Party leadership. In the impeachment fallout, support for Trump has risen to an all-time high--not exactly a confidence boost for the Democratic Party establishment or their strategy for taking down Trump. Moreover, after Clinton’s loss against Trump in 2016 the party leadership has not been able to agree on the lessons of the debacle and coalesce around a single candidate. Instead, Biden, implicated himself in the impeachment scandal, was put forward as a ‘continuity’ candidate. The broader liberal establishment has not seemed to know the way forward either. The New York Times could not decide on a candidate themselves, and instead chose two—Warren and Klobuchar- who are now running third and fifth in the polls!
But despite the relative strengths of the Sanders campaign and the relative weaknesses of the Democratic leadership thus far, we cannot expect the establishment to take a chance on Bernie to defeat Trump. Sanders is a threat to the neoliberal status quo that the party has helped to oversee for a generation. The party and the media will use every method to co-opt, discredit and silence the Sanders campaign, as they did with Corbyn, and activists must be ready to confront their attacks.
Now that the impeachment trial is over, party operatives can focus on unifying behind a more moderate candidate. Whether that is the fresh young Buttigieg, the status quo Biden, a resurgent Klobuchar, the progressive Warren or the billionaire Michael Bloomberg (who joins the race in March), will depend on their performance in the upcoming primaries. Whomever is chosen as the establishment favourite, Bernie’s grassroots campaign will find itself up against a candidate awash in money and big media and establishment endorsements (Obama has not supported anyone yet).
Even if that hurdle is cleared, the Democratic Party ‘machine’ has a long history of backroom deal-making and limiting democratic participation in order to prevent left-wing candidacies. The Sanders campaign got a taste of this in 2016. During the campaign an e-mail leak revealed that top officials of the supposedly neutral Democratic National Committee had shown bias towards Hilary Clinton’s campaign. Broken machines and incomplete voter rolls in Los Angeles primaries may have hurt Bernie’s chances in a delegate-rich area. And at the Democratic National Convention itself, Clinton’s nomination was sealed by overwhelming support from ‘superdelegates’ (unelected party officials who do not represent primary voters but choose for themselves which candidate to support). The event was a pro-Clinton rally at which Sanders supporters could only register their views by holding placards and staging a walkout.
The American left has everything to gain from campaigning all-out for Sanders, and his nomination is not impossible. But getting it will require a movement that can fight for every vote, and fight against the Democratic Party itself.
This article first appeared on the Counterfire Website. Reproduced with the author's permission