Bernie Sanders is in big trouble: You don't have to be a neoliberal shill to see the cold, hard facts

The senator from Vermont is running a tremendously important, issues-based campaign. It's also a losing one

Published October 28, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton   (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)

Bernie Sanders’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination is in serious trouble.

Yes, I know we still have almost three months to go before voting gets underway. Yes, I’m aware that all those unscientific click-bait Internet polls showed he “won” the Democratic debate two weeks ago. Yes, I have read all the stories about the size of the crowds he draws to his events. And yes, I am also aware that polls show him catching up to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, where a whopping 32 of the 2246 delegates needed to win the nomination will be at stake.

But if you want to know any of the reasons why Sanders is in trouble, you can start with the news yesterday that Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown has endorsed Clinton. As Matt Yglesias points out, Brown would be perhaps the most natural endorsement for Sanders in the entire Senate. He is an old-school liberal, pro-union and anti-free trade. Ideologically and personally, he and the senator from Vermont are very close. They have worked together on writing and introducing legislation as recently as earlier this month.

Yet Brown joined 33 of his Senate colleagues who have already endorsed Clinton. From a pragmatic political viewpoint, the move makes sense. Brown has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate for Clinton. He represents that most swinging swing state of Ohio, which makes his being on the ticket very attractive for her and the party. If he stays in the Senate, he’s up for re-election in the 2018. Since getting Democratic voters out to the polls in the midterms is always tough, an endorsement from President Hillary Clinton could be very helpful. Not to mention the money that the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee will be more likely to contribute to his campaign.

In terms of the Bernie Sanders campaign for president though, Brown’s endorsement is another sign that Sanders is being beaten in the invisible primary for the Democratic nomination. And winning the invisible primary is still a hugely important step for a Democrat, one that the Vermont senator has either neglected or just flat-out lost.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term “invisible primary,” here is a pretty good explainer. In brief, the invisible primary is the conversation that takes place between different factions and leaders of a party in the year leading up to the start of voting in Iowa. This conversation results in the party starting to coalesce behind a front-runner. If there is more than one strong candidate, this can go all the way up to the convention. If there is only one clear front-runner, the party will start lining up early behind him or her.

This is what has happened with Hillary Clinton. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has been keeping track of endorsements with this chart, which makes it starkly clear just how much of a lead Clinton has over Sanders in that area. Something to keep in mind is that many of those endorsers (including Sherrod Brown) are superdelegates, who are free to pledge their support to a candidate regardless of how the voting went in their state’s primary. Two months ago, Bloomberg reported that Clinton had already unofficially locked up commitments from 440 of the approximately 713 superdelegates who will cast ballots at next summer’s Democratic convention.

All of this highlights what was always going to be one of Sanders’s biggest weaknesses in seeking the nomination. Though he has always caucused with Democrats in both the House and Senate during his career, Sanders had always officially been an independent. He even rejected the Democratic Party’s endorsement during two of his campaigns for his Senate seat. Presidential candidates like to claim they are Washington outsiders. Sanders is a party outsider.

In short, Sanders does not have the base of support within the party that Hillary Clinton has been building up since her husband was a popular governor in Arkansas thirty years ago. Were he running as a Republican, that would not matter. The Republican Party is fragmented and fractious, with no real power center. The invisible primary once was a part of its nomination process, but no longer. As proof, FiveThirtyEight has Jeb Bush with the largest number of endorsements from GOP leaders (36, compared to Clinton’s official 385), and his campaign has been taking on water faster than the Lusitania while Donald Trump and Ben Carson sit atop all the polls.

As best I can tell, Sanders and his campaign have been counting on generating enthusiasm, particularly among the 18-29 year-old demographic from which he draws the majority of his support, to carry him through. There is nothing wrong with that if it is part of a larger strategy. The problem is that this seems to be Sanders’s strategy for everything. (He has said at least twice that as president, he will push legislation through Congress by threatening Republican leaders with being voted out of office by an army of youths. This will not exactly strike fear in the hearts of Republicans from safely gerrymandered districts.)

In other words, the Sanders strategy is great for setting opening weekend box office records for the next Avengers movie, but not for beating out Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. It would be one thing if he had a spectacular ground game in the states a la Barack Obama in 2008, but he doesn’t seem to have that either.

Please feel free to use the comments section to call me a corporatist, warmongering neoliberal shill, but this is the reality. And it would be the reality for anyone running against Hillary Clinton in 2016, regardless of political message.

This is not to say that Sanders’s campaign is a waste of energy for liberals. Already we have seen it push Clinton to embrace more leftist positions, such as opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone pipeline. Voters and activists will need to find ways to hold her and her party accountable on those positions if she wins the election. Doing so is the most difficult and frustrating work of politics after an election is over. But the Democratic Party is what it is, and that will not change by next November, no matter how many debates Sanders wins or how much his supporters can get #FeelTheBern trending on Twitter.

By Gary Legum

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