Since launching his campaign for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders has maintained he is in it to win it. In June he said, “This is not an education campaign. This is not a protest campaign. This is a campaign to win.” Always considered a longshot at best, Sanders campaign has caught fire. He has spoken before crowds of nearly 30,000 people and has drawn to within less than 20 percentage points of Hillary Clinton, seen as a shoo-in for the nomination.
Few expected a balding socialist Jew from Brooklyn would generate such enthusiasm. Many supporters believe he can win the primary, claiming the “integrity, honesty and bold stances of Sanders make him a real threat to Clinton’s campaign.” Professionals in the business of calculating such odds, however, say he is still a longshot. Currently, one bookie puts Sanders odds of becoming the Democratic nominee at 12 percent, nearly the same as prediction markets—which put it at 11 percent. These predictions are optimistic compared to the reigning champ of election forecasters, fivethirtyeight.org, which puts Sanders chances of winning the nomination at 2 to 5 percent.
Those who think Sanders can realistically win the nomination assume the primary process is a level playing field. It’s not: the primaries are a war of attrition designed to favor establishment candidates with corporate backing. Since the 1970s the Democratic field has been littered with the carcases of left-leaning insurgents like Sanders: Ted Kennedy in 1980, Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, Jerry Brown in 1992, Dennis Kucinich in 2004, and John Edwards in 2008. Given this history, saying Sanders can win is an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
The Second Coming of Stalin
The evidence, in fact, points the other way: to the near impossibility of Sanders becoming the nominee. Consider that more Americans would vote for a lesbian or a Muslim than a socialist. Even if Clinton implodes, party leaders will unite behind a new neoliberal torchbearer. If Sanders miraculously wins the nomination, he will be buried in the general election by an avalanche of corporate money and a right wing that will make him out to be the second coming of Stalin, who will abolish private property, ban marriage, outlaw religion, destroy the economy, and ship you off to a forced labor camp to grow pot for brainwashing your kids in socialist indoctrination schools.
Simply put, you have a better chance of Jennifer Lawrence or Idris Elba calling you up and saying they want to be your friend with benefits than Bernie Sanders has of becoming the next president.
Sandernistas mistakenly believe better ideas and enthusiasm will shine through the muck of corrupt politics and lure the masses to Bernie’s side. In reality, whoever gets the backing of the party machinery will win the primaries. This time around it’s Hillary Clinton. She is in the lineage of flawed candidates like Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain, and Mitt Romney who won the nomination based on brute electoral force before going belly-up in November.
There is a “deep state” in the primary process that prevents insurgents from winning. To get the nomination, Sanders campaign has to win or neutralize the following: the money primary, the party machine, corporate America, the mainstream media, organized labor, and the liberal apparatus that includes major feminist, African-American, and Latino organizations.
Clinton may seem shaky five months before the first primary, but she has an iron grip on all of these forces (save the media). Sanders has made inroads with rank-and-file union members, but that’s it. Labor leaders, whose singular goal is to be on the winning side, are already throwing their weight behind Clinton. She has also won the “invisible primary” of elites and is aiming to fundraise $2 billion, forty times Sanders’ goal.
Polls and audience sizes don’t mean much now. Look at the 2012 Republican primary, where every candidate had their day because of widespread dissatisfaction with the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney. Joe Biden, who isn’t running, is outperforming Clinton in some polls because the base often shows unease with a front-runner before returning to the fold. And such is the discontent with the entire electoral process, “Deez Nuts,” a 15-year-old Iowan farm boy, is polling better than most of the Republican field.
To understand how the nomination process works, take Super Tuesday. On March 1, 2016, ten states will hold primaries and another two caucuses. By that point there will have been only two primaries. New Hampshire and South Carolina will have selected a whopping 65 delegates for the Democratic National Convention, and Iowa and Nevada will have held caucuses that involve labyrinthine rules for choosing delegates. So a month into the primary, slightly more than 1 percent of 4,483 delegates will have been picked. On Super Tuesday alone more than ten times that amount, 690 delegates, will be chosen. That’s more than 30 percent of what it takes to win the nomination, and Clinton will clean up.
With eight of the primaries in the South, Sanders’ support among labor activists will count for little in a region that has the lowest union density in the country combined with the most hostility toward unions. Shunning corporate dollars makes Sanders a rarely principled candidate, but it takes truckloads of money to compete in such a huge expanse of territory at once. Most voters only tune into the campaign when their state’s primary is upon them. That favors an expensive media saturation strategy in the South, which Clinton will certainly pursue.
Primary voters are also influenced by long-term familiarity, social networks, and support from local politicians and media, all of which favor Clinton with her high name recognition, Wall Street backing, and regional ties. No matter how much Sandernistas grumble he is the best candidate on race and criminal justice issues, it is highly unlikely he can chip away at the significant African-American support for Clinton. The South is ideal for Clinton, as renowned election forecaster Nate Silver points out, because in those states “where you have a lot of white moderates and a lot of black voters, Sanders does terribly.” (Silver also notes Clinton’s favorability rating is 75 to 80 percent among Democrats, meaning she has an enormous bulwark of support in the primaries.)
On the ground Clinton’s campaign will mobilize women’s groups, African-American churches and organizations, and the union bureaucracies that do exist to get out the vote. Even now Sanders is bumping up against poll limits because of Clinton’s strength among African-Americans, women, and Latinos. Money also benefits Clinton at the grassroots as she has the dough to open and staff scores of offices where the grunt work of retail politicking goes on.
The Obama Precedent?
Many Sanders backers point to Obama’s triumph over Clinton in 2008, who had an air of inevitability back then as well, as an example of how an outsider can win. But Obama’s campaign was nothing like Sanders’ campaign today. Obama was backed overwhelmingly by African-Americans, he was corporate friendly, and he cynically used his meaningless opposition to the Iraq War as a state legislator to appeal to a war-weary Democratic electorate. Additionally, in June 2007, Obama and Clinton were virtually tied in the polls, so he was never a longshot like Sanders is now.
Then there are the 714 superdelegates, Democratic Party officials and officeholders, who can back whomever they like. Already 118 Democrats in Congress publicly support Clinton and nary one for Sanders. Each one has a machine that will swing into action for Clinton, complete with experts, staff, organizational networks, and volunteers. Sanders won’t win over the establishment like Obama did. The Democratic leadership is a tumescent appendage of Wall Street and despises his Keynesian agenda. This means Sanders must win a super-majority of delegates to clinch the nomination.
Another overlooked player is the mainstream media, which will pile on Sanders with more extreme attacks as the primaries draw closer. The New York Times, relatively gentle in its assaults, has so far painted Sanders as a political crazy, a wild sex-obsessed ’60s leftist, and his supporters as mad-as-hell revolutionaries. The media attacks are not part of some grand conspiracy. Sanders mild class warfare resonates with many voters, so profit-making conglomerates of content providers, also known as the news media, are inherently biased against him and will discredit him in any way possible. This will include “he’s out of step with America,” “he’s unelectable, “he’s wacky,” and rank fear-mongering.
If Clinton does get in real trouble, a guy named Bill will ride in to dazzle, cajole, and rally the base to Hillary’s side. The Clintons are some of the most ruthless political animals of our era, as evidenced by the report Bill Clinton may have encouraged Donald Trump to run for president. Sanders is outmatched politically given how he was upstaged twice by Black Lives Matter activists, while Clinton outmaneuvered them in a private meeting. Sanders lacks the Clintons’ decades of experience of media spin and manipulation. She is already downplaying expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire to minimize any bounce he gets if he wins those states. While Sanders says he won’t go negative, it would be foolish to expect the same from the Clintons. The Clinton campaign can also utter the magic phrase, “the Supreme Court is at stake,” to scare the faithful back in line.
Now, it is invigorating, in the age of austerity, to hear Sanders defend modest social welfare and income transfer policies. But if ideas alone could propel a political revolution to victory, we would have entered the promised land a long time ago. And no amount of starry-eyed enthusiasm will prevent Bernie Sanders’ campaign from winding up in the dustbin of history.