vision 2020

Who’s Afraid of Bernie Sanders?

Senator Bernie Sanders, 2020 presidential candidate, speaks during a Get Out The Vote Rally at Finlay Park in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020.
Senator Bernie Sanders, 2020 presidential candidate, speaks during a Get Out The Vote Rally at Finlay Park in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Photo: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Senator Bernie Sanders has a long road to travel before he becomes the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. But he’s inching closer with each primary result, and most polls predict a strong showing for the Vermont senator on March 3 (a.k.a. Super Tuesday), when a large number of states hold their primaries. Some people, predictably, are freaking out about the prospect of momentum for Sanders. The primary is so crowded that top candidates, including Sanders, have been unable to open up a gap between them and the rest of the field. Even if he does well on Super Tuesday, it’s possible that Sanders could reach the convention with a plurality of delegates, rather than an outright majority. In this scenario, Sanders would not be able to claim the nomination on the first ballot, for which voting is restricted to delegates won during the primaries and caucuses. And in this scenario, some centrists see an opportunity.

On the second ballot, Democratic superdelegates — party members who are permanent delegates and thus not assigned by primaries or caucuses — will be allowed to cast a vote, and dozens of them told the New York Times that they are prepared to try to deny Sanders the nomination if convention voting goes to a second round. The tactic carries with it the stench of desperation, and if carried out, superdelegates could mortally wound a party they claim to want to save. The gap between the average Sanders voter and the average party official looks as wide as it’s ever been.

It is unclear if the faction of superdelegates who will vote against Sanders if he has the most delegates are even capable of making good on their threats. They might not have the numbers, and they don’t have a consensus alternative, either. The Times interviewed 93 of the party’s 771 superdelegates — a minority. Of those, 84 agreed that the party should not guarantee Sanders the nomination if he reaches the convention with a plurality. It’s possible that the sample of delegates interviewed by the Times is broadly representative, but there’s reason to believe it isn’t — it might be the case that superdelegates most worried about Sanders were also the most likely to agree to be interviewed.

Caveats notwithstanding, the Times story still offers material rich with horrifying details to contemplate. Some donors beseeched former representative Steve Israel to help start a PAC that would stop Sanders, but Israel declined. Though the Times spoke to a small fraction of the party’s overall superdelegates, the ones it interviewed are prominent, at least by intraparty standards: Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the New York Democratic Party; former Senator Chris Dodd; Representative Don Beyer of Virginia. “At some point you could imagine saying, ‘Let’s go get Mark Warner, Chris Coons, Nancy Pelosi,’” Beyer said. “Somebody that could win and we could all get behind and celebrate.”

But when Beyer speaks of “we,” to whom does he really refer? The idea that a secret Democratic majority thirsts for Nancy Pelosi or Chris Coons to swoop in on a white horse, and repel Trump’s Uruk-hai forces, does not pass muster. Probably five voters outside the state of Delaware know who Chris Coons even is, and that’s a generous estimate. Pelosi is well known, but higher name recognition does not mean she has a positive reputation among voters. In Pelosi’s case, the opposite is likely true. She may be popular with mainstream Democratic voters, but among the party’s progressives, and the general electorate, her name is nearly as poisonous as Clinton’s turned out to be in 2016, albeit for different reasons. As for Warner, a senator from Virginia, Democrats may as well nominate Gumby. Nobody outside his state really knows who he is either, and he hails from a tradition of Virginia Democrat that encourages members to strip themselves of personality or overt ideology in order to win office. Not exactly a recipe for getting voters to the polls nationwide. Remember Tim Kaine?

Others look to Sherrod Brown for hope — a uniquely misguided strategy that would sacrifice a Democratic senator the party probably cannot replace. (Brown dismissed the suggestion on Monday afternoon.) Some apparently prefer Michelle Obama, who has never expressed the remotest interest in running for office. To put matters as simply as possible, these are insane suggestions. Combined, they are the death rattle of a decaying ruling class, the last twitch of a collective political imagination so limited they did not anticipate their demise in time to prevent it.

Sanders’s status as the front-runner is not secure, that much is true. But he polls well nationally in head-to-head matchups against Trump, and polls well again in most Super Tuesday states. There’s every reason to think he’d be a viable candidate in a general election. He’s certainly battle-tested in ways that Chris Coons — God help us — is not. Moreover, the coalition Sanders is pulling together is one the party can’t afford to ignore. An analysis published by FiveThirtyEight on Monday indicates that the Sanders base is multiracial and young. Many also lack a college degree, which suggests — though not definitively — that Sanders has also earned the support of lower-income, working-class voters. And while voters who identify themselves as very liberal are more likely to support Sanders, he has the potential to expand his base beyond this relatively small voting bloc. His coalition, FiveThirtyEight’s analysts explained, “is not solely age-based or solely ideological; being either young or very liberal makes you likelier to support Sanders, even if you’re not both.”

For worried superdelegates, the makeup of the Sanders coalition represents a problem. If they try to deny him the nomination in July, they risk alienating young voters — the future of the party, and a demographic they desperately need to win in November. They also undermine one of the party’s central claims to moral superiority. Democrats represent working people; Republicans represent the wealthy. At least, that’s what Democrats themselves tend to insist. The claim is based somewhat in truth: Democratic elected officials have expanded Medicaid and raised the minimum wage, after years of sustained lobbying from frustrated grassroots activists. They aren’t as hostile to the welfare state as the GOP repeatedly shows itself to be, and they are more likely to admit that climate change will disproportionately harm the poor, even if they can’t all agree on what exactly they should do about it. Democrats aren’t going to repeal Obamacare and replace it with “high-risk pools” that give the sick shoddy health insurance they can barely afford to use; such policies remain the domain of the GOP.

But Democratic policies of recent years leave a question unresolved. Has the party really done enough for working people? Sanders says that it hasn’t, and is willing to propose radical measures to address this deficiency. (Elizabeth Warren has the same diagnosis, even if her prescriptions are more conservative and put her to the right of a democratic socialist’s.) To deny Sanders victory if he conjures up a plurality rather than a clear majority is to make Sanders’s evaluation of the party its epitaph. Democrats would confirm to the public that the party isn’t working for anyone who isn’t well-educated and well-off — and that they don’t really want to change. They would damage not only their credibility but the lives of the nation’s poor, for whom another Trump term would be catastrophic.

When Beyer dreams of last-ditch alternatives to Sanders, he seems to be thinking only of what would mollify other superdelegates, the powerful activists and donors who share his views. The “we” he references encompasses Chris Dodd, who believes that “people are very worried.” It’s an exclusive club. It has no room for the teachers and nurses and Culinary Union members who coalesced around Sanders. Thus the news that any superdelegate would give the nomination to Michelle Obama over Bernie Sanders, an actual candidate, has diagnostic value. The greatest threat to the party’s legitimacy isn’t Bernie Sanders, but its own intransigence.

Who’s Afraid of Bernie Sanders?