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Does Sanders Need A New Strategy?

Welcome to a special edition of FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Sen. Bernie Sanders objectively did not have a good Super Tuesday. He won just three states outright (Colorado, Utah and Vermont) and across the board, he underperformed expectations.

He does seem on track to win delegate-rich California — but because so many voters mail in their ballots, it’ll be weeks before we know the final vote there.

But at this point, it does seem as if Sanders hasn’t succeeded in turning out the voters he needs to win, and now some are arguing that to find a path to the nomination, he has to stop running as an insurgent. So is it time for Sanders to adopt a new strategy?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I’m not sure I accept the premise of that argument? Obviously, being an insurgent is a core part of Sanders’s identity. And a lot of the party is attracted to that. (He is still averaging almost 30 percent in national polls!) But, of course, that doesn’t preclude him from doing some things to reach out to new voters.

For example, a majority of voters in Super Tuesday exit polls said they supported Sanders’s key policies of Medicare for All and free college — but, paradoxically, a plurality of voters in many states said they wanted to return to former President Barack Obama’s policies. And perhaps as a nod to that, Sanders released an ad today featuring Obama saying nice things about him.

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ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): So, with the big caveat that we do need to wait and see how Sanders performed in California, which is where he put a lot of resources, it does seem like his choice to bank on voters who don’t normally turn out in high numbers (especially young people) backfired.

In some states, the share of young voters who turned out was actually lower than it was in 2016. That is not a good sign for Sanders.

But I don’t know if his “insurgency” is to blame.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): To me, that Obama commercial feels like a bit of an admission of failure. Wouldn’t the time to run a commercial saying “Obama loves me” be in the run-up to a bunch of primaries in the heavily black Deep South, not afterward?

nrakich: I don’t know if I buy the argument that Sanders screwed up by not being more aggressively conciliatory before Super Tuesday.

The events of Sunday and Monday — the party clearly deciding on former Vice President Joe Biden, and multiple establishment politicians giving up their personal ambitions to do so — were extraordinary.

And would have been very difficult to predict.

A week ago, I ran a table titled “Sanders is forecasted to rack up wins on Super Tuesday“!

I think that until basically Monday, when it was too late, Sanders was totally justified in thinking that divided opposition would allow him to win Super Tuesday if he just stuck to his usual schtick.

perry: I agree with that.

ameliatd: But there was probably some hubris on Sanders’s part in assuming that he could rely mainly on low-turnout voters’ excitement about him.

sarahf: Wait, aren’t you inherently arguing, Nathaniel, that Sanders still needed to pivot at some point?

nrakich: Yeah, maybe, Sarah, but really I’m just saying Sanders has so far made perfectly rational strategic decisions with the information he had.

And now that he has the new information of his loss on Super Tuesday, the timing of this Obama ad makes sense.

ameliatd: I’ll disagree with that a little, Nathaniel — I think Sanders could have done more to reach out to people who are not in his core base once he started doing well in the early states. And maybe being conciliatory could have helped. Or at least he could have, like, not doubled down on his comments praising Fidel Castro last week.

sarahf: I guess the counterargument, though, is: Did a tweet like this ever make sense for Sanders?

It’s weird and it’s complicated and, as you said earlier, Nathaniel, part of Sanders’s appeal is that he is a political outsider and isn’t afraid to call the establishment out. But he’s also not running as an underdog this year, and he’s trying to win the Democratic nomination, so at some point, you have to win … some Democrats. Right?

perry: My view is that Sanders’s losses in Minnesota and the Northeast were related to the consolidation of the establishment. He had no control over that. It was surprising, as Nathaniel said.

The total blowouts in the South were not shocking — but I do think running an ad about how Obama loves him would have been most useful before a lot of the South voted. So we will agree to disagree on that!

But Sarah, I think that tweet was fine and is being overblown.

Sanders’s appeal in the general election is partly based on running as an outsider to both parties.

nrakich: Yeah, tweets are overrated. Only about a fifth of Americans are even on Twitter!

perry: Voters don’t think they are in the establishment either.

nrakich: And I guess I would point out that Sanders has tried to make inroads with voters he wasn’t strong with in 2016. We’ve written about this: Sanders invested a lot in Latino outreach in Nevada and California, and he has improved his numbers with black voters to an impressive degree.

ameliatd: OK, so a lot of things moved very quickly and somewhat unpredictably in the past few days, and none of those things were helpful to Sanders. What should he do now? Again with the caveat that we don’t know what happened in California, it does seem like Sanders has to start appealing to some non-young Democrats.

sarahf: Right, next Tuesday six more states vote: Idaho, Michigan, North Dakota, Washington, Missouri and Mississippi.

So does Sanders pivot now? Will he do a bit better with at least some of those states no matter what? (Three of them are at least sorta kinda in the West, which is where Sanders is supposed to be strongest.)

nrakich: That’s actually a pretty good group of states for Sanders. Sanders is strong in Western states (I think North Dakota kinda counts as culturally Western). And he scored a shocking win in Michigan last cycle, which many Democrats there probably remember.

However, Missouri and Mississippi, as Southern (or Southern-ish) states with significant black populations, definitely do feel like Biden states. Also, next week we’ll get the results of the Democrats Abroad primary, which should be good for Sanders.

ameliatd: I would assume that Bloomberg getting out of the race will be helpful to Biden in Michigan, though.

nrakich: Yeah, that’s going to be the barnburner of the evening. It’s the closest of next week’s races per our forecast (as of Tuesday morning), and it’s also worth the most delegates of any state voting next Tuesday.

perry: Sanders has a bunch of blocs where he is weak: 1. older black voters; 2. college-educated white women; 3. basically anyone over age 45.

And I don’t see how easy it is for him to pivot to win these groups, because his whole campaign is about shaking things up, and these might be groups that are resistant to big change.

ameliatd: There was one very consistent aspect of Sanders’s voters last night (and in the first four states) — he gets more support from men than women. That is going to be hard for him to change.

sarahf: So this is from The Washington Post’s analysis of Super Tuesday exit polls, and as Perry says — aside from really young voters, really liberal voters and Hispanic voters — Sanders really does have a bunch of blocs where he is weak.

So he has to at least start trying to win some of these voters from Biden, right? Or is there an argument to be made that Sanders should double down on his current strategy?

One thing we talked about on the live blog is that if it’s a two-person race by March 15, that could be bad for Biden and good for Sanders, just considering their skills as debaters.

perry: Is Sanders good at debates? (Conceding that Biden is fairly bad at them.)

sarahf: Sanders is more reliable, I’d say.

ameliatd: The problem is that without high turnout among his core groups, how can Sanders stay the course and win? I keep coming back to the fact that young voters have not been turning out in high numbers. That was a big part of his strategic bet, and it just doesn’t seem to be paying off.

nrakich: Not to, like, invalidate this entire chat, but I’m not sure this debate is even relevant. I think Sanders will double down on his current strategy, because it’s just who he is. He is a progressive insurgent bomb-thrower, and he has been remarkably consistent about it throughout his career.

perry: I agree with that Nathaniel.

In fact, Sanders does too. He tweeted this on Wednesday:

ameliatd: One possibility, I guess, is that Biden’s sudden surge could galvanize Sanders supporters and convince them to turn out in higher numbers.

perry: But Nathaniel, are you suggesting that Sanders can’t pivot or won’t pivot?

He did get better on racial issues and outreach to black voters and Latino voters from 2016 to 2020. So he can do better outreach to women and older people? Yes, right?

nrakich: Yeah, that’s a good point, Perry.

Maybe the distinction is that his rhetoric won’t change, but maybe the strategy of his campaign operation will?

ameliatd: But again, I keep coming back to the groups where Sanders is weak. It’s not obvious to me that Warren supporters who see the writing on the wall for their candidate will throw their support to Sanders. And that’s a problem for him.

perry: Amelia, I agree — right now, I don’t think Warren supporters are going in bulk to Sanders if she drops out.

His first move should be trying to get her to endorse him enthusiastically, and I have no idea how that will happen.

ameliatd: What would it mean for the strategy of his campaign operation to change without his rhetoric changing, Nathaniel? I don’t want to sound too down on Sanders, but part of his brand is his rhetorical consistency. How does he change his campaign’s outreach without changing how he talks about his candidacy?

Getting a Warren endorsement would be a big deal, Perry, I agree. Maybe Sanders’s mistake was not being more conciliatory to Warren.

perry: Well, the Obama ad was a shift. Sanders thinks Obama was too centrist as president, but he did run the ad. So I think Sanders can adapt.

nrakich: Right, I think that’s a great example. Lots of people might see that ad and think, “Sanders is trying to reach out to me.” Meanwhile, at rallies, Sanders can keep delivering his usual applause lines.

perry: I think reaching older voters is hard because my sense is they are wary of free college and debt forgiveness (“I paid for college myself, why can’t this generation, etc.”)

The socialist label is hard too, as is the perception that Biden is electable and next in line.

nrakich: Yeah, I feel like the canary in the coal mine will be if Sanders ever begins to deemphasize the “socialism” label.

I feel like he probably won’t. But IMO that is a big obstacle for him winning over both older Democrats in the primary and swing voters in the general.

perry: He should downplay or recast the socialism hat immediately. Give a big speech about how he is a liberal Democrat and that “socialism” is not a big part of his political identity.

ameliatd: I’ve also felt just kind of a sense of exhaustion from the voters I’ve talked to. The idea that Biden was finally getting it together seemed like a relief to a lot of people I spoke with over the weekend and on Monday.

That’s a difficult sentiment to quantify, of course, but I wonder how many Democrats really have an appetite for a knock-down, drag-out fight between Biden and Sanders at this point.

perry: I think that’s right, Amelia.

The group in the party that wants a fight might just be the 30 percent of voters already with Sanders.

sarahf: Right, and as you said earlier, Perry, if his whole campaign’s message is about shaking things up, that might not be an attractive message for a lot of these voters if they’re resistant to big change. Buttigieg had tried to attack him on this front in some of the debates, and I think maybe that’s the biggest problem with a Sanders pivot. He can’t really back down from that message of systemic change.

ameliatd: Also, I wonder if Biden has benefited from Bloomberg being in the race, if only by making him seem a little more liberal and palatable.

perry: I’ve been fairly down on Sanders in this chat. What does his comeback look like? The race has flipped a bunch of times. Surely it can flip again.

nrakich: Exactly.

Maybe Biden is in for another scrutiny cycle now.

Maybe Sanders gets some momentum from some of the good states he has coming up.

Maybe Warren drops out and endorses him.

Or maybe she stays in and her delegates are what Sanders needs to get a majority at a contested convention!

Sanders-Warren unity ticket, anyone? ЁЯШЙ

ameliatd: Part of his comeback has to hinge on doing really well in California, which could still happen. I’ve been critical of Sanders’s outreach campaign in this chat, but he was smart about how he approached that state. And we won’t know the full results there for a while.

nrakich: That’s a great point, Amelia. If California is strong enough for him, it’s still possible that Sanders will be the delegate leader after Super Tuesday!

ameliatd: And I don’t know, maybe his supporters were taking him for granted on Super Tuesday and they get really motivated in the next round of states.

I do agree with you, Perry, that this race has turned around so many times that it feels dangerous to assume everything is settling into place for Biden.

sarahf: Right, we are entering a new phase of the race. The field isn’t as crowded, and to some extent it’s a two-person race now, which will change both Biden’s and Sanders’s strategy. The race can definitely flip again, and I do think Sanders will pivot in some way moving forward. The Obama ad is evidence of this even if its timing felt off.

Biden “won” Super Tuesday, but we’ve still got a ways to go. And Sanders is still very much in this race.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.