Why Super Tuesday Wasn't So Super for the Democratic Left
Should the Sanders campaign recalibrate its message and strategy for victory in the face of the Biden surge?
As we continue to process the outcomes from Super Tuesday, one unpleasant truth is emerging: if the Democratic Party’s Left is thriving as a cultural phenomenon, it is not putting together enough winning coalitions to push the party itself left. The most obvious outcome of this is Elizabeth Warren’s campaign flatlining over the last several months. We expect an announcement before the weekend about how she will leave the battlefield.
Austin, Texas February 23, 2020: Bernie Sanders supports stand outside the barricades at a Bernie Sanders Campaign Rally in Austin Texas ahead of the 2020 presidential primary. The campaign expected a resounding victory in Texas, a state turning purple, and lost by almost 5 points.
But the larger question, one that we hope to rally squads of political scientists around, is this. Why are progressive campaigns that are otherwise robust, that have hugely successful fundraising operations, enthusiastic campaign workers, and good ideas that Americans like in theory, failing? Warren’s failure to thrive has several dimensions, including Democratic voters shying away from even the idea of a woman candidate in the wake of 2016.
Perhaps we took the wrong lessons from the spectacular successes of the 2018 midterms. Jennifer Steinhauer notes in the New York Times (March 5, 2020) that although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes did indeed succeed in upending “the Establishment” that year, few other candidates did. Justice Democrats, an organization established to support the progressive wing of the party, “lost virtually every primary race in 2018 when they fielded a homegrown liberal candidate.” By contrast, “scores of middle-of-the-road Democrats were able to get through crowded primaries and win over Republican and independent voters in the general election, giving their party a net gain of 40 seats and flipping the House.”
Furthermore, although the Progressive caucus in the House has expanded to almost 100 members, on the strength of 2018, the moderate New Democrat caucus has also grown— to more than 100 members.
Steinhauer also argues that the Super Tuesday results, in which voters of color acted as a brake on Bernie Sanders’s progress to the nomination, may have been foretold by the data extracted from Ocasio Cortez’s victory:
The Ocasio-Cortez victory was considerably more complicated than the postelection analysis, which focused almost completely on shifting demographics in her district. While the narrative of her victory portrayed younger, nonwhite and working-class voters as her secret base, in reality Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had soundly beaten the incumbent in the areas of the district that were by and large more wealthy and educated, in particular parts of Queens filled with white residents fleeing overpriced Manhattan.
Mr. Crowley prevailed in most working-class corners of the district, including the district’s Hispanic and African-American enclaves; he beat Ms. Ocasio-Cortez by more than 25 points in her own Parkchester section of the Bronx.
David Freedlander neatly summed this up in his analysis for Politico magazine soon after the race: “Ocasio-Cortez, the young Latina who proudly identifies as a democratic socialist, hadn’t been all but vaulted into Congress by the party’s diversity, or a blue-collar base looking to even the playing field. She won because she had galvanized the college-educated gentrifiers who are displacing those people.”
Is Sanders’s progressive coalition also primarily white? The answer to this question is: yes in some states, no in others, such as California, where he did well, and Texas, where Sanders disappointed by running more or less even with Biden. But it is primarily young, and those voters did not turn out, even at 2016 numbers, in most states. Go here to watch a dynamite interview Rachel Maddow did with Sanders last night in which she digs into his analysis of the Biden surge.
Finally, the interview demonstrates that Sanders is staying very much on message about why he is the candidate to beat Donald Trump, even though some of these assertions currently seem a little squishy. And here is the question: at what point does a campaign deal with its weaknesses, confront limitations in its appeal that coming out of the data, and stop blaming its failures on mysterious outside forces?
Perhaps one of the more admirable things about Elizabeth Warren is that she has not done this. Furthermore, although gender was an acknowledged factor in voters’ reluctance to muster behind her (even--especially?--liberal women), I am not sure there is an instance of Warren blaming her campaign struggles on sexism, or on “the Establishment.”
The Sanders campaign, if it is to succeed and build confidence that it is listening to voters, needs to do this too.
What we are reading:
A man who knocked doors for Elizabeth Warren asks the Democratic party to grapple with the “I want a woman — but not that one” problem. (Molly Hensley-Clancy, Buzzfeed News, March 3, 2020)
Go here for Rachel Maddow calling out Sanders surrogate Shaun King for pushing fake news about Democratic party election rigging, and attributing the news item to her. (Carlos Garcia, Mediaite, March 4, 2020)
At Teen Vogue, Lucy Diavolo warns that “Democrats, in their hasty coronation of Biden as the party’s fail-safe against a Sanders nomination, have put themselves in grave danger of alienating large swaths of millennials and zoomers[.]” (March 3, 2020)
At The Bulwark, Benjamin Parker argues, among other things, that the success of the Biden campaign, despite its pathetic ground game, may signal that the “retail politics” test practiced in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada may be past its sell-by date. (March 5, 2020)
Bloomberg News staffers are relieved that the boss has dropped out (Summer Concepcion, Talking Points Memo, March 4, 2020)