Posted on April 10, 2020

Why Bernie Sanders Lost

Perry Bacon Jr., Five Thirty Eight, April 8, 2020

There is a simple explanation for why Sen. Bernie Sanders, who officially suspended his presidential campaign on Wednesday, lost the Democratic nomination: Former Vice President Joe Biden trounced the Vermont senator when the race narrowed to a one-on-one contest after Super Tuesday. The results of the caucuses and primaries before and on Super Tuesday left Sanders trailing Biden by 83 pledged delegates — a significant, but perhaps not insurmountable, deficit. But the Vermont senator lost eight of the 11 contests after Super Tuesday, winning only North Dakota, the Northern Mariana Islands and among Democrats who are American citizens but living abroad. Moreover, many of Biden’s wins were blowouts, ballooning his pledged delegate lead to 311, a margin that is essentially insurmountable.

Of course, the simple explanation for Sanders’s loss begs a deeper question: Why did Sanders do so badly in a one-on-one contest against Biden? I’d offer three explanations, none of which are mutually exclusive from the other two.

Sanders didn’t run a smart enough campaign

In 2016, Sanders built a passionate bloc of supporters who crowded his rallies and flooded his campaign with money, but lost to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a more centrist, establishment Democrat who had greater appeal among blackSouthern and older voters. In 2020, Sanders built a passionate bloc of supporters who crowded his rallies and flooded his campaign with money but lost to Biden, a more centrist, establishment Democrat who had greater appeal among blackSouthern and older voters. {snip}

Both Clinton and Biden were strong opponents, each having deep connections to a recent Democratic president. But it’s fair to criticize Sanders for losing in 2020 in a fairly similar way to 2016.

By all indications, Sanders and his team did make some attempts to avoid the pitfalls of his 2016 run. It’s hard to measure this, but it seems like Sanders’s outreach to black voters in 2020 was more extensive than four years ago, even if it didn’t bear much fruit. But Sanders’s failure to expand his coalition to older voters, minorities and establishment Democrats all but doomed his campaign.

Sanders and his aides also made new mistakes in 2020. There were some clear indications that some of Sanders’s success in 2016 — among white voters without college degrees, in particular — had more to do with anti-Clinton sentiment than strong support for Sanders. But the senator’s advisers seemed to think that Sanders had a unique appeal to white working-class voters that would simply continue in 2020. So the Sanders campaign decided to invest heavily in the March 10 primary in Michigan, a state packed with white voters without a college degree. Biden not only won Michigan easily, but he won overall among white voters without a college degree (and pretty comfortably).


Democrats were wary of a very liberal nominee

{snip} The boomlets around former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, neither of whom had the traditional qualifications for a presidential nominee, had the feeling of the Democratic Party desperately searching for a white, male, centrist-y candidate to take on Trump. The party landing on Biden (white male, centrist-y) fits that general narrative.


Trump aside, Sanders was always a weird fit as the Democratic nominee

Sanders has finished in second place in the Democratic nomination process the past two cycles. But it’s worth asking: Was Sanders, a white male democratic socialist in his 70s who is not officially a Democrat, really the second-most likely candidate to win the nomination in either 2016 or 2020? {snip}


Sanders being an older white man is probably relevant here too. In 2016, Democrats opted for a historic choice in nominating a female candidate. In 2020, they nominated a centrist white guy who they believe is the most electable candidate. It’s hard to imagine Democrats in 2016 blocking the first-ever female major-party nominee in favor of a white socialist man — or in 2020 for them to choose a white socialist man over a white centrist man.

In other words, even though a Sanders win seemed plausible and even likely after Nevada, are we really surprised that Sanders is not the Democratic nominee? {snip}