vision 2020

Bernie Sanders Must Pivot to the Senior Center

Bernie must sell his peers on a “Gray New Deal.” Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic nomination is going well. His “political revolution,” less so.

The contests in Iowa and New Hampshire went far better for the socialist senator than many in the mainstream press seem to realize. Yes, Sanders did not significantly outperform his polling in either state. And yes, his margins of victory in the popular vote were meager. But the modesty of his wins is less significant than the enormity of his chief rivals’ losses. Joe Biden was Sanders’s top national competitor, and the one moderate with a deep-seated appeal to older African-American voters. Now, Uncle Joe’s candidacy is on life support. If the electoral Gods had appeared before Bernie Sanders in January and asked him to choose between (1) winning Iowa and New Hampshire by triple his actual margins, but with Joe Biden finishing as his runner-up in both states, or (2) settling for his actual, narrow (popular vote) wins, with Biden finishing fourth and then fifth, the socialist senator would be a fool to take the former. And if such deities had sweetened option No. 2 by offering to put Elizabeth Warren in third and then a distant fourth? Sanders would deserve Trump’s epithet if he didn’t opt for the hand he’s actually been dealt.

After all, that hand has awarded Sanders a higher probability of becoming the Democratic nominee than any other candidate, according to both FiveThirtyEight’s model and the betting markets. And it isn’t hard to see what those algorithms and gambling addicts are thinking: Bernie’s intraparty ideological rivals have not only failed to consolidate behind a single standard-bearer; two of the finalists they’ve anointed for that title have negligible black support and fledgling national operations — while the third will need to overcome a late start, an exceptionally low approval rating with Democratic voters, and the aversion that at least some primary voters are bound to feel toward seeing a mega-billionaire all but literally purchase their party’s nomination.

And yet, if Sanders is going to capitalize on what’s gone well for him thus far, his campaign will need to grapple with what has not. The Vermont senator’s professed game plan for winning his adopted party’s nomination — flooding the primary electorate with formerly disaffected, first-time voters — shows few signs of viability. Turnout was more robust in New Hampshire than in Iowa, but Sanders was not the main beneficiary of that surge: According to exit polls, Pete Buttigieg beat Sanders with first-time primary voters by a margin of 29 to 25 percent — and among voters who didn’t cast a ballot in the 2016 primary by a margin of 29 to 14 percent. Exit polls are infamously imprecise. But they are not so unreliable as to transform a “revolutionary” surge in anti-establishment voter participation into a mere uptick in pro-Pete turnout. Meanwhile, despite their extraordinary levels of support for Sanders in opinion polls, turnout among voters under 30 was unremarkable in both of the primary’s opening states.

None of this means that Sanders should forfeit all hope of expanding the electorate. Given that the vast majority of reliable general-election voters don’t participate in primaries, bringing longtime nonvoters into that process was always more of a stretch than mobilizing them against Trump in November. Which is to say: Just because Sanders didn’t juice turnout among the unreliable independents (who view him quite favorably) in New Hampshire doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t in Wisconsin this autumn. But it does mean he can’t count on doing the latter. And it also means that his campaign must operate from the premise that its road to the nomination runs through the hearts and minds of “normie” Democrats.

Sanders would be wise to make some messaging adjustments in deference to this reality. The simplest of these is one that his campaign has already begun to make. The Vermont senator never had much reason to fret about his support among younger voters, and with Warren fading, his grip on the rising generations is liable to grow stronger. But he needs to improve his standing with his peers.

In practical terms, this means putting greater emphasis on what his platform has to offer America’s seniors — which, fortunately, is quite a lot. Few groups are more reliant on America’s existing welfare state, or in need of its expansion, than our senior citizens. The former fact has, somewhat ironically, been one of the defining challenges for the U.S. left over the past half-century: By securing public health insurance and a basic income for older Americans, Democrats inadvertently shrank the constituency for more universal social democratic reforms. Faced with perpetual (and often bipartisan) calls for paring back the deficit and excessive government spending, many older voters have come to view calls for expanding economic rights as threats to their own. Typically, such voters rationalize this hoarding of state support by imagining that their benefits were all “earned” through the taxes they paid earlier in life (in truth, the average Social Security and Medicare beneficiary receives far more from Uncle Sam than he or she ever paid in).

But the growing insufficiency of seniors’ existing benefits offers the left an opportunity. Owing in part to gains in life expectancy among the elderly, an American turning 65 today has somewhere between a 50 and 70 percent chance of eventually requiring long-term support by the end of his or her life. And yet, the U.S. is nearly alone among wealthy nations in lacking a universal long-term-care benefit. What’s more, as James Medlock and Colin McAuliffe of Data for Progress note, the U.S. spends far less on long-term care (as a percentage of its GDP) than the vast majority of OECD countries.

If the federal government does not step in and provide more funding for home health-care workers and quality live-in facilities, then millions of older Americans will be at risk of spending their “golden years” in conditions of harrowing deprivation, while millions of younger Americans will see their own ambitions compromised by the burdens of caring for their elders. Critically, for those who do not qualify for Medicaid’s long-term care coverage (or who live in a state with a stingy Medicaid program), the costs of such care are exorbitant enough to burden even relatively well-off seniors. Which means that Bernie Sanders’s proposals for universal long-term care and increasing Social Security benefits should appeal to the (disproportionately affluent) older Democratic voters who reliably turnout in primary elections. Public support for universal long-term care is so strong, a 2019 Tufts University/Data For Progress (DFP) survey found 60 percent of all registered voters endorsing the proposal, even when told it would require a 1.5 percent payroll tax increase and presented with Republican counterarguments. And support was markedly higher among older respondents than younger ones. A separate DFP poll found even broader support for increasing Social Security benefits, with 76 percent of all voters — and 89 percent of Democratic ones — approving of the policy.

The Sanders campaign has already made a concerted effort to heighten the salience of Social Security, first by spotlighting Joe Biden’s past support for cutting the program, and more recently by attacking President Trump for his new budget’s proposed cuts to various forms of social spending that benefit the elderly. He’d be well-advised to combine such critiques with more prominent advocacy for his own agenda for aiding older Americans. And it wouldn’t hurt for him to say explicitly that — if he has the Senate votes to improve Medicare benefits for some, but not to extend Medicare for All — he wouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of seniors’ new public goods. Meanwhile, Sanders might want to try sprinkling a little septuagenarian identity politics atop his debate answers and stump speeches. His periodic reminiscences about the Brooklyn Dodgers may serve this function for the purposes of the New York primary. But until then, he should probably expand his repertoire of references to “things only ’50s kids remember.”

How Sanders can make inroads with his party’s higher income and/or ideologically moderate voters (without compromising his core policy commitments) is less clear. Of course, he does not need to win these groups to assemble a majority of delegates. But his task would be much easier if he starts losing them by less than he has been thus far.

One potential means for Sanders to marginally increase his appeal with such voters — and really, all voters — would be to make more prominent use of personal narrative, and a more regular habit of directing his moral outrage toward the subset of oppressions that fiscally moderate Democrats can wholeheartedly oppose.

To see what I mean by this, observe the answer that the senator gave in New Hampshire last week, when asked about the relationship between his Jewish heritage and his politics.

Commentators have long derided Sanders’s oratory for being monotonous and one-tracked; the senator can play the “mad as hell” economic populist as well as anyone, but he can’t sing any other tunes. His answer at that town hall in New Hampshire gives the lie to that analysis. In the space of two minutes, Sanders explains how his childhood exposure to the horrors of the Holocaust instilled in him an awareness of humanity’s capacity to inflict evil “in the name of racial superiority,” and how this led him to embrace an egalitarian, anti-racist politics, and to launch a campaign aimed at ending Donald Trump’s hateful divisiveness. “We are one people,” Sanders said. “And I don’t care if you’re black, you’re white, you’re Latino, Native American, Asian-American, you’re gay, you’re straight. That’s not what it’s about. What it’s about is that we are human beings. We share common dreams and aspirations.”

That Sanders never departs from his plainspoken, resolutely unpretentious mode of oratory when dispensing these high-minded sentiments only enhances their power; at least, in my estimation. More importantly, it ostensibly also does so for many who are less sympathetic to the senator’s politics than I am, such as Atlantic columnist (and prominent critic of “political correctness”) Caitlin Flanagan.

By all appearances, Sanders is more than capable of conveying his politics through personal anecdote, and delivering “unifying,” Obama-esque appeals to Americans’ common humanity. He just (ostensibly) doesn’t like doing it. And yet, by declining to make fuller use of his rhetorical versatility, Sanders does himself no favors. His default oratorical mode — with it copious shouting and economic statistics — has immense appeal to a significant subset of the electorate. But it isn’t for everyone. Personal narrative is one of the most powerful communicative tools in any speaker’s kit. A lot of human beings struggle to identify with a politician if they don’t have a clear sense of who that individual is as a person, and how they came to be who they are. Much of the aversion to Sanders among high-income Democrats is doubtlessly rooted in material interests. But for some affluent voters, the problem may be more affective than material or ideological. Either way, availing himself more regularly of his demonstrable gift for putting progressive politics into the context of Jewish experience certainly shouldn’t hurt Sanders’s prospects of building a broader coalition.

Finally, the Sanders campaign needs to find a way of bringing more voters around to its “electability” argument. Multiple polls released this week show the Vermont Senator with a higher net-favorability rating among Democratic voters than any other candidate in the 2020 race. If Sanders fails to translate his early advantages, and rock solid base, into a winning primary coalition, it won’t be because the median Democratic voter doesn’t like him. Rather, it will be because that voter has qualms about putting a 78-year-old socialist with a heart condition up against Donald Trump this November. The Sanders campaign has long evinced awareness of this reality, and has been making an electability case rooted in Bernie’s unique ability to connect with trade-skeptical voters in the post-industrial Midwest, draw a sharp contrast with Trump on entitlements, and inspire record turnout among left-leaning voters. This is a solid start. But if the campaign does not begin to produce stronger evidence for its nonvoter-mobilizing powers, it should stop putting so much emphasis on that pillar of its pitch. Doing so invites skeptical coverage from pundits and political reporters, and thus, the skepticism of Democratic voters. Sanders has demonstrated a genuine ability to command unique enthusiasm from his core base of support. And that enthusiasm would undoubtedly translate in concrete advantages in a general election. All else equal, it would surely benefit the Democratic party to have a nominee with a historically powerful small-dollar fundraising machine, exceptionally engaged online support base, and unparalleled approval rating among younger voters. Sanders should spend less time touting his candidacy’s hypothetical assets, and more time advertising its proven ones.

This is far from a comprehensive list of the Democratic voting blocs that the Vermont senator should be courting, nor of the ways he might wish to adjust his campaign strategy in light of the political revolution’s uncertain arrival. But whatever the approach he chooses to take, Sanders’s best bet for winning the Democratic nomination will be to do everything in his power to thrill all the normies.

Bernie Sanders Must Pivot to the Senior Center