With Bernie Sanders’s suspension of his 2020 presidential campaign, the air is full of postmortems that praise or mourn or criticize his second strong but unsuccessful White House bid. Most objective assessments have been a mixed bag.
There are many positives: Even if you dislike Sanders and his “revolution,” it is impossible not to admire his stamina and determination — especially the revival of his candidacy after he suffered a heart attack that would have driven most late-septuagenarians into political retirement. Political practitioners will be going to school for a long time on the small-dollar fundraising machine he built. His debate performances were a model of consistency, as was his messaging. He showed himself to be the unparalleled master at explaining complex policy positions in intelligible and morally compelling language. And he accomplished something many candidates in my boomer lifetime have attempted but never achieved: becoming the chief political spokesman for an entire generation — or two, including those not old enough to vote. Perhaps most impressively, he put together a second straight insurgent campaign aimed at overturning the tables of the Democratic Party, but managed to do so while maintaining his popularity even among Democrats supporting other candidates.
The Sanders campaign’s mistakes aren’t that hard to figure out, either. Some were arguably small, like his unwillingness or inability to keep his supporters from attacks on potential ally Elizabeth Warren. Then there were the biggies. During the brief window of time when he was the Democratic front-runner — particularly after back-to-back wins in New Hampshire and Nevada — he did little or nothing to take advantage of that widespread popularity among Democrats by adopting the mantle of a unity figure ready to reach out to former foes eager to beat Donald Trump. And as Nate Silver and others argue, that determination to lead a small but powerful cadre of “revolutionary” forces reflected an original campaign strategy based on winning a majority of delegates with less than a majority of primary voters, which just isn’t easy.
But the more you think about it, the Sanders 2020 effort was in no small part done in by developments beyond his and his campaign’s control. Here are four major examples:
1. A compressed primary schedule
There was a sense that the 2020 nominating contest was like one of those roller-coaster rides where the rise to dizzying heights takes forever and the wild plunge to earth is breathtakingly fast. It wasn’t an illusion. An unusually front-loaded primary schedule meant that 2,150 of the 3,979 pledged delegates were up for grabs on three Tuesdays in March. It just so happened that Sanders lost momentum to Biden right before this huge bundle of delegates was awarded, which turned out to be the ball game.
Yes, of course, all the campaigns, including Bernie’s, knew about the calendar in advance, and in fact, Team Sanders prepared for it the only way they could by building an organization in as many states as possible. But there was no way to know that the cookie would crumble exactly when it did, leaving Sanders in virtually a one-on-one race with a suddenly resurgent Biden at the worst possible moment.
2. Bloomberg’s implosion
One of the reasons Bernie looked so powerful in the early going is that all his centrist rivals were laboring in the shadow of Michael Bloomberg’s vast, unprecedented spending on not-so-early states. And a potential title fight against Bloomberg had to be a dream scenario for Sanders. Many regular Democrats who were reluctant to support a career non-Democrat like Sanders initially would surely go his way against a mega-billionaire ex-Republican from Wall Street with a history of conduct offensive to woman and minorities.
But then, right before Sanders’s impressive majority win in Nevada, Bloomberg imploded in a candidate debate in Nevada. He didn’t do that much better in the next debate in South Carolina. And despite all his spending, his poll numbers in states voting in March began to peak and then decline — just in time for Joe Biden’s late surge, which began with a second-place finish in Nevada and then a big win in South Carolina.
Had Bloomberg’s support held up better, either he might have driven Biden from the race, or he would have at least cut into his support enough to hand Sanders some additional March wins. Instead he ran a weak third or fourth across the Super Tuesday landscape and dropped out the next day and endorsed Biden.
None of Bloomberg’s pratfalls were preordained, and Sanders had little to do with them (though Elizabeth Warren had a lot to do with them!).
3. The African-American vote consolidated behind Biden
Taken in isolation, Sanders’s appeal to African-American voters was stronger than it was in 2016, at least in the early going of that campaign when Hillary Clinton was trouncing him regularly among that demographic. Yes, it mostly was a reflection of Bernie’s indomitable appeal to young voters across every racial line, but a vote’s a vote. He did well enough among black voters to put together a solid multiracial coalition, but unfortunately, no one else did other than Joe Biden.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, black voters again and again turned down opportunities to support rivals to Biden who might have cut into his vote. African-Americans Cory Booker and Kamala Harris dropped out before voting began, in no small part because they had zero traction in the majority-black primary electorate of South Carolina. And the centrist rivals to Biden that did survive the very early going, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, had so little appeal to African-Americans that they lost all plausibility as potential nominees by the time the Palmetto State voted, which had a lot to do with their conjoint, perfectly timed endorsements of Biden on the eve of Super Tuesday. Again, there was little or nothing Sanders and his campaign could have done about these developments. But they had a lot to do with Biden’s ultimate victory.
4. The pandemic
To be sure, the coronavirus pandemic didn’t single out the Sanders campaign for damage, and there’s even a case to be made (as the candidate himself pointed out) that democratic socialism looks at lot less controversial at a time when access to health care is becoming, more than ever, a life-or-death matter and the economy’s in free fall.
But still, the shift of Democratic primaries into an increasingly distant future (including some, like Wisconsin, where Sanders had won in 2016), the inability to conduct anything like a traditional campaign, and the massive distraction from “normal” politics spawned by the pandemic, all made any kind of big comeback scenario for Sanders problematic at best — and unimaginable at worst. What kind of insurgent “revolution” can you have without rallies, without door-to-door canvassing, and without the very personal touch of volunteers that was a hallmark of the Sanders campaign? When every campaign message has to be carefully couched with appeals for voters to keep themselves alive, it’s just not the same. And you get the sense that’s why Bernie sided with those in his campaign urging him not to devote himself to the longest of long-shot candidacies as the death toll rose.
Unfortunately for Bernie Sanders, this is probably his final presidential bid, though he may be in a position, as his movement’s Moses, to designate a Joshua (by no means necessarily a man!) to succeed him and take his very young following to the promised land. I’m sure once the cycle is over he will have some regrets about how it all went down. But much as presidential candidates need to make their own luck, sometimes that is just beyond anyone’s control.