Don’t laugh. It’s no joke, this Bernie Sanders-for-president business. It is serious politics, serious enough to change the Democratic Party and the national conversation.
If it has not already done so.
Here’s the thing to remember about presidential nominating contests: the process creates its own dynamic. But the process cannot begin until there is a contest, until there are at least two candidates. Until Thursday, April 30, there was one – Hillary Rodham Clinton, who officially announced her candidacy April 12. Now there are two. Now the process begins, and once it begins, it can end anywhere.
End up with Vermont’s independent senator as the next president of the United States, or even as next year’s Democratic nominee?
Oh, probably not. Just look at all the objective evidence. He is so far behind front-running Clinton in national polls that it makes no sense to count the margin. He’s only a bit closer in the early deciding states of Iowa (50 points behind) and New Hampshire (33 points behind Clinton, and running third). Her campaign is talking about raising a billion dollars or more. His can’t come close to matching that.
So the conventional wisdom, as determined by Washington political analysts who pay close attention to polls and to fundraising, is that Sanders is not really running to win. He’s running to pull the Democrats – and especially Clinton – to the left. The conventional wisdom should not be casually dismissed. It is usually correct. Otherwise, it wouldn’t become conventional.
But one area in which it is often wrong is presidential politics, especially when it comes to Democratic nominations. The Washington wise men (they were almost all men then) were sure that George McGovern could not win his party’s nomination in 1972, or Jimmy Carter four years later. Just eight years ago, conventional wisdom knew exactly who would be the Democratic nominee in 2008: Hillary Clinton.
Besides, Sanders doesn’t need to run to pull his party and its eventual nominee to the left (if “left” is even the accurate term here). It has already been pulled. Sanders has been one of the pullers, but hardly the only one. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (she’s the one running second to Clinton in that New Hampshire poll) has been another.
But neither of them has been as persuasive as reality. After decades of wage stagnation and escalating inequality of both wealth and income, many voters – especially but not exclusively Democratic voters – appear receptive to a candidate who makes higher wages and tighter control of campaign spending central to his campaign, and whose still-embryonic website notes that it is “paid for by Bernie 2016, not the billionaires.”
In short, what has become known as “the progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” is now the dominant wing of the Democratic Party. That helps explain why Clinton, in announcing her campaign, proclaimed herself the champion of “everyday Americans.” So a candidate whose motto “A political revolution is coming” is emblazoned across the top of the Sanders campaign website, may be onto something.
Not surprisingly, Sanders disputes the conventional wisdom. “I am running in this election to win,” he said.
As do they all. And they all mean it. One reason they mean it is that it would be insane to put oneself through the ordeal of a campaign without thinking that victory is at least a slim possibility.
Another reason is that victory is always at least a slim possibility.
Slim indeed in this case, but before confusing “slim” with “none,” consider another weakness of the conventional wisdom, much of it based on poll results — fundraising — and the same people talking to one another at the same few Washington watering holes.
This is not meant as scorn; it comes from someone who was once one of those talkers at those Washington watering holes. But think of what is left out of those factors on which the conventional wisdom is based: voters.
Yes, voters are the people who get polled, and the polls – as a snapshot of public opinion – are generally accurate and useful tools. But right now, the vast majority of voters are not paying much attention. If history has shown anything, it is that when they do start paying attention, millions of them change their minds.
And especially in the early primary and caucus states, they have a habit of switching to the kind of candidate who gets their juices flowing, who inspires them, who appeals to their emotions.
Democratic voters like and admire Hillary Clinton. But as one Vermont Democrat noted, “She does not get their feet stomping.” Sanders does.
As it happens, the political calendar is set up to favor a candidate who can get the voters’ feet stomping. The process begins with Iowa’s precinct caucuses, where turnout is low in general, but high among the most passionate voters. For Democrats, that means union members, social issue liberals and anti-war voters who may remember Clinton’s vote to approve the war in Iraq, which Sanders opposed. Then comes the first primary in New Hampshire, a Sanders neighbor and where the senator was this past weekend.
But success in a caucus also requires putting together an organization capable of convincing, cajoling and sometimes ferrying voters to the caucus sites. An organization requires money. Clinton will have a lot more of that.
Sanders faces more problems. He is not really the favorite of most liberal Democrats. Warren is. She seems determined not to run, but there are still active Democrats trying to change her mind.
After New Hampshire, the contest moves to South Carolina and other states where much of the Democratic electorate is made up of African-Americans, many of whom retain a fierce commitment to President Bill Clinton, half-jokingly described by the celebrated black author Toni Morrison as “our first black president.”
And while Democratic voters want to stomp their feet, they also want to win. Right now, the polls show Clinton ahead of all the Republican contenders in almost all the swing states. That’s a powerful message.
Still, in the early contests, Sanders will get to stand with Clinton on debate platforms and make his case. As he showed against Republican Rich Tarrant in 2006, Sanders is a skilled debater. But Tarrant, who had never before run for office – and showed it – was not nearly as formidable a debating foe as Clinton.
Then there’s age. Sanders is 73. No one that old has ever been elected for the first time (Ronald Reagan was 73 when he was re-elected). At the end of a long campaign day, a 73-year-old man can get tired enough to say something foolish. Clinton is 67.
The best-case scenario for Sanders is strong showings – perhaps even victories? – in Iowa and New Hampshire.
And then, anything can happen, including (unlikely as this seems now) an “Anybody but Bernie” movement among Democrats who worry that the rumpled-haired populist with a Brooklyn accent who still refuses to reject the label “socialist” (though he really isn’t) would lose in November.
So a strong Sanders showing could end up benefiting another candidate – Warren, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (if he has not been fatally damaged by this week’s rioting in Baltimore, where he was mayor), former Virginia Sen. James Webb, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, or someone else.
Either way, the process has now begun. It will create its own dynamic, whatever that will be.
That’s why this is no joke.
By Jon Margolis, VTDigger.org
Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.