Monday, June 06, 2016

The Reason Sanders Wouldn't Have Won Lives in the White House

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published a long retrospective article on the Sanders presidential campaign entitled "How Bernie Sanders Missed His Chance to Beat Hillary Clinton." While the story departs from the official Sanders campaign line in conceding that the Democratic nomination race is effectively over, it is otherwise an extremely sympathetic account told from the perspective of Sanders, his wife, and his top advisors.

These figures—and, by extension, the Post writers—characterize the election as a tantalizing near-miss for Sanders, who supposedly fell just short of victory due to a variety of relatively minor factors under his own control. The article suggests that if Sanders had started just a bit earlier in building a national campaign infrastructure, in forging an appeal to black and Latino Democrats, in criticizing Hillary Clinton, and in (I'm not kidding here) posing for more selfies with voters at his rallies, he might have pulled off an astounding upset victory over Clinton.

It's only natural for a candidate in Sanders's current position to engage in this sort of "if-we-had-only-done-X" thinking, but the understandable frustrations produced by electoral defeat do not necessarily lead to sound analysis. In particular, a stronger Sanders campaign would have provoked a more formidable strategic response from Clinton, who more or less coasted after Super Tuesday (and especially after her March 15 victories) on a secure delegate lead rather than directly engage in counterattacks on Sanders. Nate Silver noted that the Clinton campaign and pro-Clinton super PACs have about $77 million in cash that could have been spent against Sanders had he continued to pose a threat to her nomination.

What would an anti-Sanders rhetorical offensive have looked like, and how effective would it have been? Sanders has various political vulnerabilities, but surely the biggest in this particular race would have been his longstanding ambivalence about the Obama presidency. Sanders has smartly avoided direct criticism of Obama during his run—though, as Clinton noted from time to time, some of his attacks on her served as implicit rebukes to the sitting president as well—but he was on record suggesting that Obama should be opposed from the left prior to the 2012 election. Retrospective analyses like the Post's that lament the time it took for Sanders to become comfortable speaking in black churches and discussing racial issues—suggesting that he could have seriously competed with Clinton for black support had he only found his footing a bit earlier—need to contend with the likely effect that a hypothetical television ad based on film of Sanders criticizing Obama and encouraging a primary challenge would have had on his popularity among African-American voters.

If Clinton had really found herself in trouble, she would have been able to call on campaign help from Obama himself. Obama has chosen to formally remain on the sidelines so far, but it is hard to believe that he would have refused to come to Clinton's aid against Sanders had the need arisen. Indeed, he is preparing to do so once she reaches the required number of delegates to secure the nomination, and will work to begin unifying the Democratic Party behind her despite Sanders's pledge to soldier on to the convention in July.

Given Obama's popularity among Democrats, it is difficult to see how it would have benefited Sanders had the race become anything like a referendum on the incumbent's performance. Sanders ran an impressive campaign and far exceeded initial expectations, but he never had much chance of actually winning the Democratic nomination.