vision 2020

What Really Happened to Bernie Sanders’s Campaign

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

The first planning meeting for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, at radio host Bill Press’s Capitol Hill home in mid-2014, still comes up a lot in conversation among that campaign’s original true believers, in part because it predicted so much of what was to come. It’s an old story now: Tad Devine, Sanders’s longtime political consultant and a Democratic strategist who’d worked for presidential candidates since 1980, outlined his vision for how this campaign would look (where it would compete, how much it would need to raise, and so on). Mark Longabaugh, Devine’s business partner and another veteran party operative, told the senator he could beat Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. They both said it was a nonstarter if he ran as an independent, not a Democrat. Four years later, gathered in another home in Washington on the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Longabaugh pulled up a PowerPoint presentation for the 2018 version of the talk — what the path through the crowded primary would look like now that Sanders was a front-runner, what pitfalls seemed likely, how another well-funded campaign could again use blockbuster TV ads to break through — to kick off Sanders’s 2020 planning. Their third business partner, ad-maker Julian Mulvey, who was, with the others, behind the campaign’s hugely successful ads like the Simon and Garfunkel–backed “America” spot, was there, too.

At the time, and from the outside, it all felt obvious: Bernie was getting the band back together for Political Revolution, Part Two. Last Tuesday, he announced he was running. On Saturday, Sanders’s team said he’d be formally kicking off his campaign next weekend with rallies in Brooklyn and Chicago. On Monday, they revealed he’d raised $10 million in his first week as an official candidate, a show-stopping number unlike anything seen before in American politics. On Tuesday, Devine, Mulvey, and Longabaugh announced their split from Bernie 2020.

The story of what happened behind the scenes was, depending on who you listen to, either a massive loss for Sanders or an overplayed blip on the way to a historic victory, but it’s undeniably a moment that marks an inflection point. No one familiar with his campaign doubts the trio played a central, and at times campaign-saving, role in 2016. But that campaign was also free-wheeling and disorganized as it scaled up, and its digital program, rallies, and — of course — message were key to its successes, too. Sanders’s orbit has seen considerable turnover in the last two years — including his former chief of staff, who quietly departed last year to become a lobbyist for a firm whose client list has included Boeing, Google, Halliburton, JP Morgan, Koch, Northrop Grumman, and the NRA — and Tuesday’s move was the clearest sign yet that, in 2020, Sanders will steer clear of the traditional television-advertising-based kind of campaign he relied on so heavily in 2016. It is also evidence that over the last two years much of his trust has shifted to a new set of advisers.

Though Devine had largely stopped speaking with Sanders in the wake of a disagreement over how to handle the wind-down of the 2016 campaign once it became clear Clinton would win, Longabaugh and Mulvey were involved in the run-up to 2020’s launch, both in producing the announcement video and helping plan the kickoff events. But their exact role in 2020 strategy was still unsettled as Sanders announced his candidacy last week. Longabaugh also wasn’t the only one to make a presentation at the 2018 meeting, which was held at the home of Ari Rabin-Havt, a senior Sanders adviser who joined his office after leaving Harry Reid’s following 2016. Pollster Ben Tulchin and digital strategist Tim Tagaris spoke, too.

In the ensuing months, as Sanders met with advisers new and old, he began talking about running a more organized campaign. He wanted an effort that was less reliant on consultants — and pointedly refused to stop making jabbing jokes, or cutting non-jokes, about them and their fondness for expensive television ads. He believed Devine and Longabaugh’s expertise was sorely needed in 2016, but would be less valuable this time around, now that he’d already run a campaign. Neither traveled with Sanders as he campaigned around the country ahead of the midterms. Sanders and his wife, Jane, spoke less directly with the trio over time, as the 2020 decision neared, and the strategists connected more often with Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s closest aide, who grew close with Longabaugh in 2016. Weaver is still very much in the senator’s inner circle, but early this year, Sanders’s team made it known that he would not reprise his role as campaign manager. Soon, Sanders hired a new manager, former ACLU political director and Reid alum Faiz Shakir, who didn’t really know the consultants before coming onboard.

Devine, Mulvey, and Longabaugh decided to leave late last week, as the rest of the political world reckoned with Sanders’s apparent strength. Not only did Sanders raise more money than anyone could have expected, he signed on significant support from people who hadn’t voted for him in 2016, and secured over $1 million worth of donations that would recur every month. Morning Consult’s tracking survey showed him receiving a six-point polling bump, putting Joe Biden within reach. Still fond of Sanders, the consultants didn’t want to make his CNN town hall on Monday uncomfortable, so they held off on making their departure official until Tuesday morning, when Longabaugh called the candidate to inform him. (The essence of the announcement: “We are leaving because we believe that Sen. Sanders deserves to have media consultants who share his creative vision for the campaign.”)

Some of Sanders’s remaining advisers, however, were frustrated the departure came so soon after the announcement of the campaign’s gangbusters fundraising haul. They also rejected the New York Times’ subsequent description of the strategists as “architects” of Sanders’s 2016 success.

In public, the remaining Sanders team offered only a brief statement. “The campaign appreciates all the good work DML has done and wishes them well,” Shakir said.

Late last September, I sat down with Sanders in his Senate office while reporting a profile of him as he considered whether to run in 2020. As I wrote then, he laughed when asked what would be different this time, compared to the last campaign. “It’s almost personally embarrassing to tell you how little we knew. We knew nothing about how you run a presidential election, and we were able to attract some very good people,” he said. Eventually, he identified his new digital-media operation as a significant change that would reorder the way he went about communicating.

In 2016, Sanders went viral early and often, frequently with highly produced videos produced by his team of consultants, but often with organic moments on the trail, too. Since that election, he’s built up his internal video operation considerably, viewing it as the purest and most potent way to share his message with his massive audience. It wasn’t always clear how, exactly, that was going to fit into Sanders’s 2020 plans, but in recent months his top advisers, remaining and new, have sketched out a vision of a campaign that relies far more on digital advertising and organizing than the previous one, along with a heavier emphasis on a more tightly planned field program. The vision Longabaugh presented in his 2018 Power Point hasn’t always been part of that conversation. Of course, his firm’s traditional-media advertising, a calling card of the last effort, is now out of the picture entirely.

It was always inevitable that 2020 would look different from 2016. For one, Sanders is now a — if not the — front-runner. For another, the field of candidates could reach two dozen names. (Devine Mulvey Longabaugh didn’t immediately sign on with any other campaign after leaving Sanders, though the trio will certainly receive calls.) And whereas Sanders was often dismissed by Establishment Democrats as an ideological fringe-dweller last time, many of his views are now firmly in the party’s mainstream, or at least fantastically popular among both primary voters and a healthy cadre of his rivals.

What’s undeniable is that much of his team’s backbone has been replaced. Even beyond the consultants, the team is more diverse, after the last one was dominated by white men, more attuned to sexual harassment after revelations about misconduct in his ranks in 2016, and more explicitly focused on reaching out to groups of voters who Sanders didn’t win last time — most prominently African-Americans.

A big question for Sanders, however, was always how, or whether, he would think about this go-round differently. This week’s news didn’t provide a definitive answer, but it did give us a hint.

What Really Happened to Bernie Sanders’s Campaign