After a major reversal of electoral fortunes, what is Bernie Sanders’s strategy to get back on track in the Democratic primaries? I spoke with national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti to try to figure out the path forward.
Ben: A couple of weeks ago, Bernie Sanders seemed like an almost unstoppable front-runner. Now the nation’s foremost election nerds agree that it will take a miracle for him to beat Joe Biden and capture a plurality of delegates before the Democratic convention this summer. You’ve been traveling with the Sanders team on and off; what’s the general mood among the campaign? It is, after all, used to being in this insurgent position.
Gabriel: First, I’d argue with the premise that he seemed unstoppable, though it’s definitely true he looked to be in a great position. The mood now has clearly changed, and not for the better. They’re digging in for another 2016-style fight now and — again — putting a huge premium on what happens in Michigan, as symbolically important a state as any, on Tuesday.
Ben: Must you always take issue with my premises?
Gabriel: I must. Anyway, they’re not shying from the reality that the path looks pretty tough now, especially with the next few weeks looking Biden-friendly.
Ben: As you said, Michigan looms large; yesterday, Sanders canceled a planned rally in Mississippi to focus on that state instead. But Biden’s got all the momentum and some key endorsements, including that of the state’s popular governor, Gretchen Whitmer. If Biden shellacs Bernie there on Tuesday, is there a sense that it really might be the end?
Gabriel: I really don’t see a world where Sanders stops running after Michigan, and a shellacking is unlikely. But there’s no doubt it’s a really important potential inflection point. Here’s a hot take: Watch Washington on Tuesday too. That’s a big state Sanders is supposed to win. If it’s closer than he’d like, that could be a massive problem. For all these reasons, BTW, I would expect to see Sanders going really hard at Biden at the debate next Sunday.
Ben: What points do you expect him to hit hardest? It’s going to be a completely different dynamic with just the two of them onstage — Sanders has certainly been much steadier on his feet during these things than Biden has.
Gabriel: I think some of it depends on what happens in Michigan and the degree to which Sanders still sees a path available to him through other midwestern states. If he’s feeling optimistic about that, NAFTA and trade will be front and center, though other old standbys like his Iraq War vote and record on Social Security funding will be there, too. It’s like we always predicted: The race will come down to mid-’90s and early-’00s legislative records.
It’s a lot harder to predict what that would look like if Sanders gets clobbered in Michigan and looks like he’s going to be destroyed in Florida the next week too. Sanders’s whole bet right now is that he’s the guy who can win over working-class white men in industrial areas as well as Latinos. Those are both hugely important groups for the general election. But if those two states look out of reach in the primary, it’s a hard case to make. (I’m trying to be careful, by the way, not to conflate primary and general-election viability in specific states. The precise point I’m trying to make centers around the fact that Sanders pitches himself as ESPECIALLY able to appeal to those groups.)
Ben: What states look promising for Bernie in the coming month? What could keep this race close?
Gabriel: Sanders feels good about Michigan and Washington, and Idaho could be good for him, too, next week. The following week, though, could be tough: He’ll likely need to do well in Illinois and Ohio, which might be pretty Biden-friendly, while keeping margins down in Arizona and Florida. Georgia might be hard for him, too. And then we’re in April. So it could be a long month for him.
Ben: And a poll came out yesterday showing him down, oh, about 45 points in Florida.
Gabriel: Don’t call it a comeback! (Seriously, don’t.)
Ben: The other day, Sanders held a press conference at which he played up his anti-Establishment bona fides, criticized the media, and generally gave no sense that he was adjusting his message to try to win over the older moderate Democrats who have shunned him in primaries so far. Now that his campaign has hit this big roadblock, you see people wonder why he never tried to pitch himself as a mainstream-adjacent, unthreatening choice — but of course the strategy he’s always taken turned out to be pretty damn successful this time around. All of which is to ask: Do you see him softening his message much (or at all) as we approach some of these later primary states?
Gabriel: Again, it depends on which part of the electorate he sees the biggest opportunity with. He and his campaign are sophisticated enough to know that you can send different messages to different groups — witness: He’s running ads hitting Biden on Social Security and trade but also another ad hugging Obama tight, almost hilariously so. But I don’t think anyone would be more offended than Bernie Sanders by the implication that he might change his tune.
So far at rallies, he’s been ramping up his criticisms of Biden. But as to the broader point, I’d just note that he’s zeroing in on the corporate Establishment and the political Establishment; he rarely mentions the “Democratic Establishment” anymore.
Ben: In 2016, there was obviously a tremendous amount of bitterness between the Clinton and Sanders camps, mostly over the DNC putting its thumb on the scale for Clinton. This time around, you don’t hear as many accusations of institutional chicanery, exactly — but it is nevertheless true that a slew of moderate candidates consolidated at the last minute with the express purpose of stopping Sanders in his tracks. To what extent do you feel that people are putting the blame on the political Establishment you mentioned, as opposed to the Sanders campaign itself, for simply not appealing to enough voters — particularly black voters in the South?
Gabriel: I don’t think there’s anywhere near the same amount of bitterness now as there was last time (yet?). And I think a lot of the frustration in Sanders’s orbit is around how his pitch about turning out voters who don’t usually weigh in isn’t panning out. He’s using the Establishment as a foil but knows that only goes so far if he can’t expand his base to areas that are relevant in the next few states.
Ben: At the aforementioned press conference the other day, Sanders reiterated his stance that the candidate with the most delegates going into the convention should get the nomination. At a recent debate, when he was poised to amass a big delegate lead, he was the only person onstage to endorse that view. Were you surprised that he held fast on the position even though he’s far less likely to have that lead at this point?
Gabriel: I think one could’ve been surprised he took it in the first place, since it’s the opposite of what he said in 2016. But I think it’s basically moot at this point: There are only two candidates really fighting for delegates. One will probably get the majority!