Bernie Sanders Is Going to Win the Democratic Primary, and It’s Going to Be EasyPhoto by Sean Rayford/Getty Politics Features Bernie Sanders
Folks, he’s running.
And before I tell you why he’s going to win, and win easily, let’s get a few things out of the way: I’m not breaking any news when I say that on the political front, Paste is a progressive outlet. We don’t endorse, and there are differing views on the staff, but I personally was a Bernie Sanders supporter in the 2016 primary—I even gave him money!—and I can’t see 2020 being any different barring some drastic change (like a constitutional amendment allowing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run, or Sanders changing his campaign slogan to something like “Billionaires: Actually, I love them”). Hell, I just learned that he cited an article by Paste’s Jacob Weindling in his campaign announcement video. If you want, you can dismiss the thrust of this essay by claiming bias and/or wishful thinking.
But I’ll say this: I never believed that Sanders would win in 2016. Not really. I may have tried to tell myself it was possible, but in the innermost chambers of my heart, there was no faith. Since I’m one of those cliched American dudes who can’t help relating almost everything to sports, I compare it to watching a lovable underdog throw a serious scare into a juggernaut. It’s exciting and dramatic, but deep down you know that Team Juggernaut always wins. They have more experience, they’ll get the important calls (cough DNC cough), and in the end the miracle narrative will be a little too good to be true. So it went: through all the shocking momentum, the massive crowds, and the vicious state-to-state fighting, it was only a matter of time before a night like Super Tuesday came along and crushed our dreams.
This time? It’s still going to be a massive debacle on every front—the Hillary diehards will throw themselves against the padded walls of Twitter with even greater self-destructive velocity, mainstream media will find a way to outdo themselves on the anti-Bernie beat (even if it will be extremely hard to top iconic moments like “16 negative stories in 16 hours”), and when cable news hosts aren’t putting on their most serious faces to ask “but how are you going to pay for it?”, they’ll probably carry water for the desperation storylines we’ve come to expect: Bernie is racist, sexist, whatever-ist, he loves guns, he’s too old, he owns more than one house, his real name is “Venezuela,” etc. Life inside the campaign cycle will be a living nightmare, and we’re going to endure multiple lifetimes of despair between now and the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020…after which, it will get worse.
That said, none of it is going to matter. Barring injury or death or a gaffe of such embarrassing proportions that it’s the equivalent of defecating on the debate stage, Bernie’s going to win. Doubt has been replaced by total belief, and while it may be tempting to view this belief as just a little delusional, I think it’s backed up by the evidence.
Here are a few reasons why:
1. Name recognition plus popularity is the most critical factor
Sanders supporters have a lot of valid gripes about the 2016 primary, from DNC shenanigans to media coverage to dirty tactics from the Clinton campaign itself, but when it comes down to it, Hillary beat Bernie in 2016 because he started with an enormous recognition deficit. He was just some loon from Vermont standing on a patch of grass in D.C. when he announced, and it took a long time for that to change. The story of the primary campaign was one of snowballing momentum on one side and increasing panic on the other, but there simply wasn’t enough time. Clinton was too popular with Democrats, and too famous, to make up that early gap. With three more months, I think Sanders would have won, but then again the campaign is already way too long, and don’t mistake me as someone who wants to extend our time in hell.
This year, everything is different. There are exactly two candidates with the name recognition and popularity to win, and they’re the two candidates who top every poll—Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Nobody else has the national profile to match, and while in theory a dark horse third candidate might stand a chance to catch them, that won’t happen in a stupidly crowded field. Which brings me to my next point…
2. The centrist/mainstream Democrats don’t have a plan
In 2016, the establishment plan was extremely rigid, and executed, if not flawlessly, at least with a clarity of vision. Nobody else, Biden included, even had the courage to run—it was just Clinton, a no-chancer named Martin O’Malley, and a wacko from Vermont. The field was essentially cleared out before the race began.
This time, there’s no unity. It seems like the early signs are pointing to Kamala Harris as the standard bearer for the capital-P Party, but in the meantime, the field is crowded with rivals for that title, from Cory Booker to Amy Klobuchar to Beto O’Rourke to Kirsten Gillibrand to Julian Castro to a slew of smaller names. Importantly, they’re all coming at this race from the right of Bernie Sanders, and the biggest threat of all is Joe Biden. His candidacy remains in the realm of the potential, but if he enters the race, it’s lights out, immediately, for everyone else, including Kamala Harris. (A similar dynamic is in play for Beto O’Rourke—enter, and it immediately creates an enormous problem for the Harris set.) And if Biden doesn’t enter, the coterie of sub-Harris also-rans will seriously dilute any momentum she might gain over the next year, making what is already a longshot campaign (hampered by her questionable record as a prosecutor and attorney general) into a blank impossibility.
A more powerful political machine would have already handled this problem by now, but the truth is that Clinton’s loss to Trump both revealed and augmented the hollowed-out weakness at the core of the of the Democratic party. The role of the superdelegates has been virtually erased, and today, the DNC has no power to anoint a king or queen, and even less courage to do so. This will be the most democratic of the democratic primaries.
3. Bernie is not being challenged from the left…not really
On the left, Bernie only has two potential challengers—Tulsi Gabbard, who nobody seems to like, has zero national profile, and may be a crypto-nationalist, and Elizabeth Warren, who has lots of terrific ideas but seems to have pretty bad political instincts and—let’s be honest—is never going to escape the Native American heritage imbroglio. She reads as fundamentally weak, and what makes Trump’s Twitter salvos so infuriating is that beneath the weird racism and misogyny, there are nuggets of truth—she did screw up the DNA fiasco, and her weird kitchen commercial was awkward and inauthentic.
It’s hard to tell what percentage of voters in the upcoming primary will be “progressive left” versus “center-left,” and that delineation may be arbitrary and unhelpful in the first place, but what we can say is that Sanders won’t fight have to nearly as hard for “his” chunk of the electorate as Harris, Biden, et al. will.
4. The entire field is Bernie Sanders-lite
Guess what most of the candidates support? Universal health care! Guess what else? Higher top level taxes! Cheaper public education! Cheaper (or free) child care! Infrastructure projects to create jobs! Stronger social security! Basically, everything that Sanders advocated for four years ago, and that was called “unrealistic” at the time, is now the party platform. Incrementalism is dead, and the era of the big, transformational idea is upon us.
Here’s the problem for the other candidates, except—in some cases—Elizabeth Warren: Bernie was there first. And since he’s better known, and more popular to begin with, where exactly do the others think they’re going to find their constituency? “I’m Bernie too” is not exactly compelling, so in the next year, you’re going to hear things like “Kamala Harris has been one of the most progressive senators!” Sure, she’s only been a senator since 2017 and her sudden transformation into a Bernie-crat is almost certainly because she wanted to be president and saw which way the wind was blowing. Nevertheless, you’ll be asked not to laugh at these talking points. And you’ll be asked to take their new policy positions at face value, and not wonder whether—for instance—Cory Booker is sincere about universal health care when he’s been a reliable recipient of big pharma donations. Or whether you can trust Gillibrand, who once defended tobacco executives from charges that they lied about the dangers of smoking, to spearhead a real effort to combat climate change.
And even if they can somehow overcome the recognition deficit and convince the electorate that their policy shifts are legitimate, it rebounds to the same problem: There’s already a guy who has staked out this territory. What, exactly, are they offering in return?
5. Barack Obama is not walking through that door
The history of presidential politics is largely the history of party stars, and when an “outsider” has won, it’s usually been someone famous like Ronald Reagan (insofar as he was an outsider at all) or Donald Trump. Barack Obama is one of the few examples of a politician who managed to launch his candidacy with the speed and rapidity that made him famous quickly and overcame the recognition deficit. It was a heady combination of rhetorical skill, charisma, identity, and good timing. He was a once-in-a-lifetime candidate, and Democrats may spend decades chasing that same high. But they’re not going to find it—this year’s crop, especially, contains nobody so “transformational,” even nominally. If, as it appears, Kamala Harris will carry the banner for the Party, it will be a hard-line, ultra-moderate and somewhat cynical face they present to the electorate, with a few late-breaking progressive policies mixed in. That may have been effective in the ‘90s (minus the progressive policies), but in a policy-oriented primary like the one we’re about to endure, it won’t cut the mustard. There is nobody to triangulate, especially in the primary—the people want much more, and merely making paeans to the American way of life while denigrating Trump is a failing strategy, particularly when there’s no one out there who can reach Obama levels of soaring oratory.
If Beto O’Rourke steals the flag, there will be endless comparisons to Obama, but he lacks both the gravitas and the history of winning to actually pull it off. And again, personality without policy isn’t going to work in 2020 the way it might have in 2008, even if Beto can dab his way to the national spotlight.
6. The Biden problem isn’t actually a problem
All of which brings us back to the fundamental truth of this campaign: It’s Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders. So why not Biden? He’s just as popular with black and Latino voters, if not more so, and he does better with working class whites and old people and holds his own among the youth. But Joe Biden has run for president before, and he’s lost before. His popularity now is rub-off popularity from Obama, and based largely on his avuncular bearing and the sense that he represents a return to reason. Will the people like him quite as much when they remember what he did to Anita Hill Or that he voted for the Iraq War? What will they think when they learn he’s the most right-leaning candidate of the group? When he’s casting himself as the “anti-populist”? When he won’t endorse universal healthcare, and opposes net neutrality?
It seems to me that Biden is casting himself against the flow of history, and I agree with Alex Shephard that this as good as it gets. Despite his likeability, there’s nothing of substance that can carry an entire campaign, and we’re past the time when proclaiming yourself the moderate “voice of reason” holds any special appeal. He’s running on a feeling, and it won’t work.
Looking at the entire field, I return again and again to the same conclusion: None of them can beat Bernie Sanders. Which means, if I’m right, that Bernie Sanders can only beat himself. He’ll have a lot of help—corporate media, social media, and his enemies in D.C. will do their utmost to spread the narratives we’ve heard time and again, and to dent his image among key demographics. When poll after poll emerges showing he’s popular with minority voters and women, even more so than white men, this is anathema to the anti-Bernie crowd, and they’ll fight tooth and nail against it. But in the absence of a real contender to fight against him, it’s not hard to read the writing on the wall: This is Bernie’s primary to lose, and smart money says he won’t.