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Is Bernie Bust?

His newly announced 2020 campaign includes him among the ranks of high-profile liberals vying for the Democratic nomination — but Bernie’s road to the White House (or even the nomination) already looks like a progressive pipe dream.

“Secretary Clinton has won the Democratic nomination and I congratulate her for that.” Bernie Sanders’ first endorsement of Hillary Clinton felt notably cold, almost resentful, as the lack of chemistry or co-operation between the 2016 Democratic candidates was paraded in front of the crowds in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The state had decisively voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary just 154 days earlier, surprising analysts and Clinton’s campaign staff who had assumed the nomination was simply hers for the taking — as was the case, Clinton taking a majority of the vote during the primary season. Sanders’ failed “revolution” was impactful even so, laying the groundwork for a public shift of Democratic leadership to the left. Two years later, talk of Green New Deals and serious progressive legislation is mainstream — which Sanders obviously sees as his opportunity. If Democratic voters rejected him in 2016, surely they’d endorse his 2020 bid — after all, his flagship policies are now commonly mentioned in Congress, right?

Sanders announced his second run at the nomination in an email to supporters following an interview on Vermont Public Radio. Three years ago he was an independent, challenging an establishment Democrat for the nomination and putting up a good fight. Now, Sanders is a well-known figure with a large and strong base —with plenty of campaign infrastructure to back his cause already established. Furthermore, his position as a strong and determined progressive has been well established (unlike some of his fellow candidates) and his fundraising ability has been demonstrated as more than impressive — and yet despite a nationwide anti-Trump mood and a greater than usual hunger for leftism and progressive policies, Sanders looks unlikely to clinch the nomination. His opponents aren’t the only thing standing in his way: many of the party’s voters hold a justified hostility to his candidacy. Past actions and past regrets mean that the only issue standing in the way of Bernie Sanders’ nomination may be Bernie Sanders.

His actions during the 2016 primaries and during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign probably seemed well-thought-out and rightfully “rebellious” at the time (as part of his general backlash against the establishment) — but his position as a 2020 frontrunner opens him up to a variety of new attacks and tactics that weren’t utilised by Clinton’s campaign in combatting an ‘underdog’ — and his revolutionary platform that took his underdog status to that of a serious contender is neither unique to him nor exceptionally popular among Democratic voters away from the coasts or the general electorate come November 2020.

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Controversy in campaigning legacy

Sanders did little to put down dissent against Hillary Clinton after he had lost the nomination, with Clinton becoming the presumptive nominee quite a while before he gathered up the courage to half-heartedly endorse her. Sanders’ propagation of his “cult of personality” saw many publicly pledging to write him in at the ballot box in the absence of any vigorous push or campaign to swing his voters into the tallies for his Democratic opponent.

To win the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders needs the votes of Democrats (obviously). That’s unfortunate for him: after his refusal to absolutely throw the weight of his base behind Clinton, many of her voters (55% of the 2016 Democratic field) now have plenty of reasons not to like him. In a field with plenty of other candidates, why should they support the man who quietly seemed to resent their nominee for the previous presidential election?

And now that Sanders is running, the troubling legacy of the “Bernie-or-bust” movement promises to resurface, as do the accusations of DNC favouritism against Sanders (and while true it is still important to note that the DNC did not actually rig the primaries). Loose analysis of states that Hillary Clinton notably lost — Wisconsin, Michigan, Pensylvania — all show that Trump’s winning margin was less than the number of Sanders primary voters that later defected to Trump. Obviously, the impact that the “Bernie-or-bust” movement or Sanders’ refusal to energetically endorse Clinton had on voters is up for debate (the fact that an unusually high proportion of Sanders’ primary voters were Republican-leaning certainly had an impact, for example) but Trump himself has shown all too clearly that the niche details and smaller statistics take a backseat when up against hard-hitting headlines and firmly held ideals.

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Bernie’s revolutionary platform is no longer unique to him, leaving his platform without the progressive glow it was granted in 2016. Will his “cult of personality” be enough to save him in 2020?

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His 2016 record among nonwhite voters also stands as a testament to how doomed his 2020 attempt may be. Polling from YouGov showed that Bernie Sanders trailed far, far behind Clinton among non-white voters — especially those above 45. The only respite for Sanders in this field was a strong narrowing of the gap among nonwhite 18–44-year-olds towards the end of the primaries, in which he gained support among younger voters. While Sanders holds a strong lead among white voters aged 18–44, his support among older white voters is also bleak — Clinton maintained a gap in support throughout the primary season.

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Nonwhite voters form a major stumbling block for Sanders. Polling and graphic from YouGov.

Of course, the colour of any person’s skin shouldn’t dictate their electability or support — and yet for some voters it certainly does. If Bernie Sanders couldn’t win nonwhite support against a neoliberal, old white woman from New York, what hope does he have winning it against dynamic, young black women from California or a passionate Samoan woman from Hawaii? Especially now that Harris and Gabbard are endorsing progressive beliefs — Kamala Harris, for example, is an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal — what reason is there to support the ageing, marginally unpopular candidate over any of the countless others that follow the same platform?

Even Bernie Sanders’ best quality in terms of his electoral viability is weak: he was incredibly popular with young voters in 2016. While being popular among any group of voters is never a bad thing, Sanders’ popularity definitely lies in the unluckiest demographic a candidate can get. Youth turnout is drastically lower than that of older ages and so immense popularity rarely turns into actual votes when elections swing around.

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Bernie’s road to the Democratic nomination already looks a little like a progressive pipe dream. No longer is he up against an old white woman who struggles to energise people or connect with the progressive left. No longer is he the only viable candidate with a fiercely liberal platform. No longer is he a fun outsider trying to topple the Democratic establishment — and while his strong initial fundraising performance may offset early worries of any easy defeat, the path ahead is clearly foggy and bleak.

Bernie’s road to the White House is laden with potholes, pitfalls and problems. His past may come back to haunt him, especially when confronted with a field already ridden with slight animosity — and a field in which he is no longer a unique candidate. For the “Bernie-or-bust” movement, it may be time to accept that the progressive momentum that drove his campaign is no longer unique to him.

And after 4 years of mulling another presidential run, Bernie’s campaign — and his hopes for the White House — may ultimately be bust.

I am occasionally someone who writes things, more often at www.michaelrh04.co.uk. Leftist.

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