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Did Sanders Blow It For The Democratic Left? Or Was The Nomination Always Out Of Reach?

There was Jesse Jackson in 1988 and Bill Bradley in 2000. There was Howard Dean in 2004 and Bernie Sanders in 2016. Candidates running as liberal or populist alternatives to more center-left, establishment candidates have often lost in Democratic primaries. And while the party has shifted left on policy and some of its most compelling figures (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Elizabeth Warren) are very liberal, the center left has generally won head-to-head battles with the left over the last four years, whether the battlefield was policy debates on Capitol Hill or congressional and gubernatorial primaries. So in late December it seemed likely that former Vice President Joe Biden was on course to win the nomination — a fairly unsurprising outcome, as he is the kind of center-left establishment candidate Democrats often choose.

Biden is now almost certainly going to win the nomination. But watching the process in the moment, Biden’s victory didn’t seem at all like a foregone conclusion; Sanders was the clear front-runner in the period between the Nevada caucuses and Super Tuesday, and Biden looked fairly weak then.

So assuming Sanders doesn’t make a miraculous comeback, it’s worth asking: Did the left broadly and Sanders and Warren in particular blow the 2020 campaign?1 Or did Sanders, Warren and the left always have a narrow path to victory because Democrats have tended to prefer more centrist candidates, and the period between Nevada and Super Tuesday a bit of a mirage?

Let’s look at both perspectives.

The deck was stacked against the left

There are a bunch of reasons to subscribe to this theory:

  1. Most Democrats are not unabashedly liberal or looking for Sanders-style policies. At most, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party amounts to about a third of the primary electorate. Democrats who identify as “very liberal” accounted for between 20 and 30 percent of the electorate in most states that have voted so far in the 2020 primaries, according to exit polls.
  2. Democratic primary voters, largely because of their antipathy toward President Trump, were obsessed with electability from the start of the 2020 campaign and were likely more wary of female or leftist candidates on that basis.
  3. The media largely covered the race through the frame of electability, as opposed to a more policy-focused frame like candidates’ pitch for “structural change.” This cast leftward policy ideas as a barrier to electoral victory.
  4. Biden was an especially strong candidate because of his pre-campaign popularity with black voters and the fact that primary voters were already focused on electability, which turned his centrism, gender and race into advantages in a way they might not have been if Democrats were not so nervous about Trump.
  5. The wealthy have disproportionate power in American politics and they’re wary of populist candidates, so they used their money and influence to weaken Sanders and Warren.
  6. There was a virtually unprecedented mobilization of the Democratic establishment to stop Sanders ahead of Super Tuesday.
  7. The center left borrowed many of the left’s ideas, making it harder for the liberal candidates to distinguish themselves without taking controversial stands.

That last point is hard to disagree with — and hard to pin on Sanders or Warren. Indeed, it’s in part a testament to their success. In early 2015, the Obama administration started pushing for what was a fairly bold idea at the time: free community college across America. The Democratic Party’s main health care goal was to make sure the Affordable Care Act was implemented broadly. Now, both wings of the party have shifted left: The party’s more centrist wing is advocating for free four-year college for most Americans and providing Medicare-style coverage for everyone who wants it, and Sanders took up the banner for free college for everyone and Medicare for All.

You can see this on issue after issue — the center of gravity in Democratic policymaking has moved left. If you think of Sanders as essentially running a five-year campaign to move the Democratic Party closer to him on policy (rather than campaigning to become president himself), he has been fairly successful.

But the center left shifting leftward probably makes it harder for more liberal candidates like Sanders to actually win. If Biden ran on just maintaining Obamacare, it would have been easier for Sanders to distinguish himself on health care. Instead, Biden embraced a Medicare-style public option that is very popular and also a shift left from the status quo.

Biden “has already adopted a lot of progressive policies,” said Jacob Hacker, a political science professor at Yale and a longtime advocate of a Medicare-style public option.

The other point in that list that’s pretty undebatable is the effort to stop Sanders. What happened in the three days between the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday — in particular, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar dropping out of the race and flying to Texas to endorse Biden — was surprising and without much precedent in recent primaries.

“I have never seen my party do anything it deemed strategically necessary as quickly and decisively as it did here,” said Brian Fallon, a longtime Democratic operative who was Hillary Clinton’s national press secretary for her 2016 presidential campaign.

The other explanations for the left’s weaknesses that I listed above are more debatable. For example, it’s true that most Democrats don’t call themselves “very liberal,” but the plurality of Democrats in most states described themselves as “somewhat liberal,” and that is a group Sanders and Warren should have been trying to appeal to as well. Warren, in particular, had a period of fairly favorable media coverage during which she made inroads with those “somewhat liberal” voters. It just didn’t last. And there were other openings for Sanders and Warren in the electorate; Biden, while strong with some blocs in the party, had almost no support among younger voters until fairly recently.

Overall, however, I think there is a decent case that the left was always going to have a hard time defeating a center left in 2020.

“The Sanders/Warren wing is smaller than the Obama/Clinton/Biden wing of the party, even though the Sanders/Warren wing tends to be more active and visible, especially online,” said Benjamin Knoll, who teaches American politics at Kentucky’s Centre College. “The Sanders wing of the party is hugely popular among younger Democrats, and time and time again they simply don’t show up to vote in primaries at the same rate as older voters.”

He added, “In 2016, the ‘establishment’ wing coalesced around a single candidate, Hillary Clinton, and was able to beat back Sanders. This time it may have been possible for Sanders to follow the 2016 Trump route by having a core third of the party and splitting the establishment vote, allowing him to emerge with a plurality. But the Democratic primary electorate coalesced around Biden after South Carolina.”

The left blew it

Of course, that’s not to say you can’t make a compelling argument that 2020 represented a golden opportunity for the left and they simply fumbled it.

  1. The left embraced two Northeastern liberals with entirely predictable weaknesses with older black voters, and neither Sanders nor Warren did much to connect with those voters.
  2. Sanders and Warren did not focus enough on convincing voters that they were as electable as Biden, even as polls showed Democratic voters were obsessed with picking a candidate who could beat Trump.
  3. Sanders and Warren embraced getting rid of private insurance in favor of Medicare for All, a position that is controversial even among Democrats and was easy for the center left to cast as both impractical and a barrier to defeating Trump.
  4. Neither Sanders nor Warren had effective strategies for defending themselves from attacks from the party’s center left after they surged in the polls.
  5. After his win in Nevada, Sanders did little to engage Democrats who didn’t already support him; in fact, he antagonized them.
  6. Warren was unwilling to drop out and endorse Sanders before Super Tuesday, even as the weaker center-left candidates consolidated around Biden.
  7. Sanders’s campaign apparently planned to win the nomination by getting a plurality of the vote (30 to 35 percent) in a crowded field and it didn’t appear to have a real plan for a one-on-one contest against Biden.

It’s likely that all of these campaign-centric factors combined to represent a relatively big barrier to either Sanders or Warren winning the nomination. That said, figuring out which one of these factors was singularly important is really complicated. And in my interviews with Democratic operatives, people tended to highlight shortcomings of the left that aligned with their own preexisting views — more centrist Democrats argued that Sanders and Warren ran on platforms that were too liberal and that those candidates didn’t focus on electability enough, while African American activists said those campaigns did too little outreach to black people, and people aligned with Warren said Sanders didn’t do enough to court the party establishment.

Also, a lot of campaign tactics seem clearly misguided in hindsight but were entirely defensible in the moment. And looking at Warren and Sanders’s campaigns combined is helpful in illustrating this point. For example, it’s hard to claim that Sanders lost because he didn’t court the party establishment enough if you consider how much Warren pursued party elites to little avail. Perhaps Warren should have talked about electability more when she was surging in the polls, but Sanders emphasized his ability to build support among people who backed Trump in 2016 from the beginning of his campaign and Democratic voters still thought Biden was the safest choice.

Finally, some of the more campaign-centric narratives seem clearly contradicted by the structural case I laid out above. Biden’s support among black voters was strong before he formally started his campaign, and none of the other candidates — including two prominent black ones (Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris) — ever really dented it, so it’s hard to say that flawed black outreach was a particular failing of Sanders or Warren.

But the full-scale push for Medicare for All by Sanders, Warren and the broader left — even after it was clear that they were losing the primary debate on that issue — seems like it was a mistake electorally, even if it was a righteous cause. (The massive numbers of people losing their jobs as businesses shut down to slow the spread the coronavirus has probably bolstered the case that Americans’ health insurance should not be tied to their jobs, as Sanders aides are now arguing.) Once Biden entered the race and started pushing back against Medicare for All, Buttigieg and Harris, who are fairly savvy about seeing shifts in the political winds, started backtracking from the idea. Warren and Sanders could have done the same. Some Democrats doubted Warren’s electability for reasons that were somewhat unfair to her (she is a woman and lives in Massachusetts), but her embrace of Medicare for All freed her critics to argue that they were worried her policies made her unelectable, not her gender.

After all, basically no one thinks Medicare for All has any chance of passing Congress anytime soon. Warren, after months of criticism, eventually started pushing for a phased-in Medicare for All plan that would start with a Medicare-style public option, along the lines of what Biden and Buttigieg were proposing. Sanders never backtracked from Medicare for All, but one of his top surrogates, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, conceded in February that a Medicare buy-in might be all that could get passed in Congress, at least in the short term.

Medicare for All “has taken a lot of the oxygen out of the room for more popular health care ideas,” said Julian NoiseCat, vice president for policy and strategy at Data for Progress, a think tank allied with the party’s left wing.

And the Medicare for All issue can be tied to a broader narrative of the left failing that goes something like this: In an environment where it was fairly predictable that a candidate backed by black voters and electability-minded voters would do well, the party’s left wing championed Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, neither of whom had history of connecting with black voters or running based on electability. Both ran campaigns that emphasized their leftism, particularly on Medicare for All. Neither campaign seemed well prepared for the backlash against leftism from the party’s center-left elites, nor did they seem to have any plan to convince voters who aren’t very liberal that they could get elected on these liberal ideas and then implement them as president.

And that focus on leftist policies likely made it even harder for these candidates to win over black voters. “Black Democrats may be a lot more skeptical of big promises from the government; a lot of these ideas fail the black voter smell-test,” said Hakeem Jefferson, a Stanford University professor who studies black political attitudes.

Like a lot of things, the truth here probably lies somewhere in between these two arguments. Sanders and Warren struggled in 2020 because of big, structural factors outside of their control, but also because of a few major missteps along the way. Anyway, does it really matter if Sanders’s likely loss was 20 percent, 50 percent or 80 percent his fault?

Yes, actually. There is already a discussion underway about what the party’s left wing should do in the future. One view, which fits with the general argument that left-wing Democrats faced structural challenges in 2020, is that time is on the side of the progressives. Younger Democrats tend to support more liberal candidates, so the party could gradually move left as the millennial and Gen Z generations become larger shares of the electorate.

But NoiseCat, arguing that winning is within the left’s control now, says that progressives need to make some strategic shifts post-Sanders: pushing liberal ideas that also poll well, building closer ties with the party’s establishment wing and doing more to persuade Democratic voters that leftist ideas are both achievable and not electorally dangerous.

“With Bernie Sanders losing,” NoiseCat said, “the silver lining is we get to define a progressive movement post-Bernie that is not attached to him.”

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  1. For the purposes of this article, we have defined “the left” as liberal activists and groups like the Working Families Party that endorsed either Sanders or Warren, plus the Sanders and Warren campaigns themselves.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.