Bernie Sanders does his own math: Here's what we're missing about his early racial stumbles

He says the Sanders coalition, unlike Obama's, will include working class whites. I'm skeptical, but wish him luck

Published July 23, 2015 2:15PM (EDT)

  (AP/David Becker)
(AP/David Becker)

Progressives are still debating Sen. Bernie Sanders’ dramatic appearance at Netroots Nation last weekend. Was Sanders a clueless white progressive who doesn’t understand the legitimate demands of a new generation of black activism? Or did Black Lives Matter activists disrespect a progressive hero when they should have at least been listening to him?

I’ve written what I think. We can debate, even lament, the decision by Netroots organizers to let the protest take over the immigration town hall. But I believe Sanders’ ineffective response showed what some of us already knew: he is going to have a problem attracting the “Obama coalition” of African American, Latino, Asian, young and single female voters.

What I hadn’t realized is that it isn’t necessarily Sanders’ goal to reassemble that coalition. And I don’t say that with moral judgment. Sanders is a smart and decent politician, with his own moral and political compass. He does a lot of the jobs other candidates delegate to others. He’s boasted of having no pollster, no finance director and writing his own campaign fundraising mail.

Apparently Sanders even does his own math – and he believes he has a different path to the presidency than Obama did. Specifically, he believes the Sanders coalition will involve a healthy segment of white working class voters.

“I look at these things more from a class perspective,” he told the New York Times’s Nate Cohn, after Cohn penned a widely read piece dismissing Sanders’ chances to win the Democratic nomination, even though he’s drawing huge crowds. “I’m not a liberal. Never have been. I’m a progressive who mostly focuses on the working and middle class.”

That describes me too. So I was interested to see the way Sanders understands his electoral path to victory.

He thinks can win support from a wide swath of folks outside the Obama coalition. Many of them “may not be liberal” and may not “agree with me on gay marriage,” but “they want a fighter,” and they will be drawn to his populist economic message.

His example is Vermont, where liberals “have not been the strongest supporters,” he told Cohn, but where Cohn notes he has found support among white working-class voters.

Sanders made the case that previous unsuccessful insurgents in the Democratic Party -- Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, even Vermont’s Howard Dean – came from the party’s technocratic New Democrat wing, not its populist base. Cohn grants that Sanders may be right: his pitch is different. Democrats certainly haven’t tried this before.

But there’s one problem with Sanders basing his electoral strategy so heavily on his Vermont success. Vermont is 95.2 percent white. The U.S. is 65 percent white.

None of this is to say Sanders doesn’t care about winning black votes. He told Cohn he’s concerned about it, and I believe him. “I’m not well known in the African-American community, despite a lifelong record,” he said. “That’s a real issue, and I have to deal with it." I certainly wouldn't compare Sanders to another Democratic presidential hopeful, Jim Webb, who’s long argued the Democrats need to win back working class whites, and who’s blamed his party for measures like opposing the Confederate flag, which he believes drive them away. There is absolutely no doubt that Sanders sees racism as a serious issue or recognizes the existence of white privilege.

I’m not as confident as Sanders that a class-based appeal can win over white working class voters, a decisive majority of whom have sadly gotten used to voting Republican. Hillary Clinton made a similar bet in 2008. Not out of racism, in my opinion, but because her campaign didn’t believe that a coalition of African Americans, progressives, Latinos and young people could be big enough to win. That was the old McGovern coalition, assembled back when Clinton was cutting her teeth in politics. She, and we, all know what happened to that.

Yes we do: it failed McGovern, who lost to Richard Nixon disastrously in 1972. But 36 years later, it materialized for Barack Obama. So Clinton lost her 2008 bid, and Obama won the nomination, and the presidency.

The truth is, I’ve argued some of what Bernie Sanders is arguing now. I wrote a book about how strong economic populism, and a divorce from Wall Street, could help Democrats win back sizable segments of working class whites. But I’m not sure that’s true anymore. I can still make the case that a strong economic message -- and in the case of Obama, a strong record -- will help win over those voters. The case study is Ohio, where Obama’s strong economic measures, including the auto restructuring, helped him split white working class voters with Mitt Romney. But he lost them nationwide decisively: little more than a third supported him.

I’m increasingly, albeit reluctantly, skeptical that there’s much Democrats can do in this generation to win that demographic. We shouldn’t write it off entirely; reducing the GOP’s margins with them could be hugely important. And white women who didn't go to college hold promise for Democrats, most pollsters say. Still, while I don’t entirely believe politics is a zero-sum game, time, energy and messaging spent courting one group of voters represents resources not spent courting other groups. I don’t think Democrats will gain much by chasing white voters if it means they aren’t assiduously trying to inspire enthusiasm among black and Latino voters that elected Obama.

One last data point to challenge Sanders' math: polls show that so far, anyway, he's getting his primary support from the white college-educated voters who always back Democratic insurgents, not the white working class. According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, Sanders is "significantly more popular among college graduates than those without a college degree," and "he has more support among Democrats earning more than $50,000 than among those who make less than that."

At this point in the Democratic primary -- and admittedly it's early -- Hillary Clinton is the candidate of the white working class Sanders hopes to win back. She's the candidate of the Obama coalition too. That may well represent her much stronger name recognition, but it's got to concern Sanders' campaign.

Ed Kilgore sums up Sanders’ strategy, and its risks, this way:

Sanders represents the strongly-held belief of many progressives, especially in the labor movement, that a clear, loud and consistently articulated “economic populist” message can at least partially rebuild the New Deal coalition with its cross-racial, class-based sinews, particularly if “corporate Democrat” flirtations with Wall Street and professional elites are abandoned along with excessive “identity politics” cultural preoccupations that might alienate white workers. But muting points of identity with the Obama Coalition in order to pursue a purely class-based “colorblind” politics isn’t without its intra-progressive risks, as Sanders himself found out last weekend in Phoenix when he ran afoul of #blacklivesmatter protesters….And so a candidate who hoped to draw white working class voters back into a coalition with minority voters has instead heightened doubts he understand the latter.

That’s why I believe Clinton has been more aggressive than Sanders in talking about issues of mass incarceration, racial justice and immigration reform early in this campaign season. I’m not saying she’s a better person than Sanders; I do think her campaign staff is doing better math.  As he concluded his conversation with Cohn, Sanders admitted, “At the end of the day, you may be right.”

But at the end of the day, Sanders may be right. That’s why we have elections, not just politicians and pundits picking the winners.

By Joan Walsh