How Out of Touch Is the Sanders Campaign at This Point?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Monica Bauer is our pro-Clinton reader and retired poli-sci professor who argued at length that many Sanders supporters are suffering from “campaign psychosis” by not acknowledging that he doesn’t have a chance of becoming the nominee based on the delegate rules. In that same note, reader Robert Henry Eller rebutted Monica at length. Here’s a quick retort from Andy, a reader in Canada:

Monica Bauer calls Sanders a “fringe candidate”? On Tuesday, 1.4 million Californians voted for Clinton and one million for Sanders. Sanders is her definition of a fringe candidate?

The overall tally is about 16 million and 12.3 million—in Clinton’s favor, of course. In a followup note, Monica responds to Robert:

Mr. Eller argues his case largely by accusing me of not being specific, but there are many, many examples of campaign psychosis that are evident in the factual record of the Sanders campaign.

Campaign psychosis is the willful ignoring of facts in favor of engaging in wishful thinking. Therefore, it is simple to test whether or not both campaigns have engaged in this. Here it is: How has the Sanders campaign explained its losses? The system must be rigged, the Establishment is against us, the Southern primaries reflect the votes of more conservative Democrats, and on and on.

All of these excuses have been debunked to the satisfaction of all but the most enthusiastic conspiracy theorists. Please show me the facts of all the excuses the Clinton campaign has used when she has lost. Let’s see the whiny protests. Let’s see the abandonment of facts for wishful thinking on the part of the Clinton campaign. 

Mr. Eller falls into the fallacy that the media often demonstrate, that “both sides” must somehow equally be at fault in every instance. No, there does not seem to be a trail of facts where the Clinton campaign ignores the math, makes promises of magical victories to come based on nothing stronger than the Clintonesque version of “feeling the Bern,” etc.

I remember well the 2008 Democratic primaries, and how Clinton held on to the bitter end similar to Sanders this year (though the latter is decidedly more behind in delegates and the popular vote than Clinton was to Obama). Obama became the presumptive nominee on June 3—when the last two states voted—and Clinton conceded on June 7, so by that standard Sanders should concede within two days or he’ll be clinging on even more than she did.

I dug up a May 28 Atlantic post from Marc Ambinder that featured “Clinton’s Closing Argument To Superdelegates,” since superdelegates by that point could have swung the nomination to Clinton despite Obama’s lead in pledged delegates. (Sanders is making a similar plea now, as Conor just covered.)  Here’s Marc:

In a final plea to undeclared Democratic superdelegates, Sen. Hillary Clinton points to her lead in the popular vote, some recent polling showing her strength against John McCain, and surveys showing that voters believe she is ready to serve as commander in chief. In a letter, sent Tuesday, and in an extensive memo, sent today, Clinton frames the choice for superdelegates as one between a candidate who has won more delegates in caucuses [Obama] and a candidate who has won more delegates in primaries and has won the popular vote [Clinton].

But as concludes, “Only by counting Michigan, where Clinton’s name was on the ballot but Obama’s was not, can Clinton claim to have won more votes.” Michigan had broken the DNC rules, stripping the state of delegates, so both candidates pledged not to campaign there; the same went for Florida. Yet:

[V]oter turnout in both states was relatively low when compared with record-high turnout in other states. Nevertheless, Clinton claimed wins in Florida and Michigan, and she flew to Fort Lauderdale on the night of the Florida election to thank supporters for what she called a “tremendous victory.”

So it seems Clinton had a bit of “campaign psychosis” of her own in 2008, when she was the one behind. Back to Monica:

The Clinton campaign has been reliant on thinking and reasoning, not “feeling.” So her opponents imagine that it is somehow a bad thing to be all about facts and issues, as opposed to the romance of feelings and “revolution.” But that is an argument for another essay. 

Back to Mr. Ellers.

I do not find small donors or a reliance on small donors to be “criminal” as Mr. Eller asserts; I merely point out the facts that when candidates rely on rational actors for funding (and that’s a political science term of art; it does not paint others as “irrational” in any normal sense of the word), candidates who are losing are forced to drop out. That is why Marco Rubio and John Kasich left the Republican race.

And yes, rational actors are self-interested, but that hardly makes them villains. Democracy is supposed to function when people organize to promote a mutual self-interest, which applies to labor unions and Planned Parenthood as much as it does to “the 1%.” And note that Sanders has received the endorsement of only a couple of labor unions, as opposed to the many unions supporting Clinton, not to mention the other groups dependant on millions of grass roots donors such as the LGBT rights group The Human Rights Campaign Fund, NARAL, and many more who are not supporting Bernie. These groups are acting rationally to support the candidate most likely to be successful against Donald Trump, and a self-identified life-long Socialist is not that candidate, no matter how robust his support seems in a poll taken before the majority of voters are tuning in to the race.

Because, no matter that Eller reminds us that “Sanders has hardly hidden his Socialism,” the media has rarely even whispered it. And decades of public opinion research show that if voters are made to understand that a candidate is a self-identified Socialist, the support for that candidate goes down to single digits. Rational actors such as Planned Parenthood, and perhaps also the African American community, understand this in ways the Bernistas do not. 

Small donors are a good thing, but when they become swept up in campaign psychosis, believing every small drop of good news is the moment the campaign will convince hundreds of superdelegates to switch sides, then those donors are not responding to facts or probabilities. They have been swept away by enthusiasm. They are politically in love with a candidate. And we all know that love can make us blind to the faults of our beloved. 

As to the Sanders campaign exaggerating the chances of the coming “revolution” by pointing to victories in low-turnout caucuses … here again, the facts are on my side. Eller asserts: “Dr. Bauer’s sour grapes perspective on low-turnout caucuses (empowered by the Democratic Party, of course) and their ‘fanatical’ attendees, fails to address the obvious question: If the turnout required to win is so low, what wasn’t the formidable Clinton campaign unable to overcome such low numbers of ‘fanatics?’” 

This is incredibly easy to refute. Anybody who’s ever taken Intro to American Government should know that caucuses are the least democratic method of making political choices, for the very reason that they are biased against the working class! Because caucuses require attendees to give up four or five hours of their time as the price of participation, working mothers, tired minimum-wage workers, and other members of Sanders’s beloved “working class” are far less likely to show up than the small percentage of voters who are fanatically attached to a candidate. Mere supporters stay home, activists show up. This has been proven so many times it is a political science axiom.

And this year was no exception. Sanders biggest percentage win on June 7th came in North Dakota, where he had a whopping percentage of the vote in a caucus where fewer than 600 people participated! The irony of a campaign that’s supposed to be about empowering the masses, where the largest margins of victory have come in very low turn-out caucuses, is lost on those in the throes of campaign psychosis.

The irony of a campaign that at first lashed out against superdelegates as the perverted child of the Establishment meant to coronate Hillary, is now turning to superdelegates with an illogical pitch to turn against the will of the majority of voters, and the majority of pledged delegates, because Bernie is ahead in a few polls, well … that’s a heaping load of irony that is also lost on the Bernie-or- Busters. If that’s not the very definition of “campaign psychosis,” I don’t know what would be a better one. 

If one needed further proof of that argument, one needs look no further than Sanders speech on June 7th. After saying for weeks that he would win California, and that would be a powerful argument to the superdelegates, you would not have known that he had lost California, and lost decisively, by listening to his speech, which exhorted his supporters to fight on, fight on, to the D.C. primary, where he knows he will lose by a huge margin. 

Political science seeks to explain reality. To deal with facts. The Framers thought it was extremely important for democratic politics to remain reality based, because the minute it becomes all about emotions, voters can lose sight of what is possible, and not possible, in a large nation with many different points of view. Democracy requires compromise. Ideological purity requires putting an end to compromise. 

The heart of Mr. Eller’s response is a defense of Sanders as the better candidate because he wants a revolution. That the real difference between the two campaigns is one favoring incremental positive change and the other sweeping, and most likely impossible-to-pass-through-Congress, revolutionary reforms.

Here Eller is absolutely correct! And that is the real reason the Sanders campaign has lost. Most voters are wary of “revolution.” They don’t know what the outcome would be of eliminating the Affordable Care Act in favor of a single-payer system, or how the country could possibly afford free college for all. There will be no “revolution” of the masses because the masses do not want it! They’ve been offered the choice between revolution and incremental, but real, progressive change. And they have spoken. 

Here’s a closing note from a pro-Sanders reader, Lars:

I just read Monica Bauer’s piece. If this were a typical primary, then she would be absolutely right. After all, both the Republican party and the Democratic party are private institutions with no real need to actually ever listen to their voters concerns. These parties can do like they have always done: place a moderate, non-threatening stuffed shirt on stage for the primaries and present faux debates to see who presents their private institution’s talking points most charismatically.

The difference with this election compared to other elections has been the outright rejection of the practices of both parties by their bases. The job approval of Congress is what, something like 15%?  [CB: Yep, that’s about right.] The Democrats had a dismal turnout in 2012 but didn’t learn from it and the Republicans have had a terrible time in federal elections since, well frankly, Reagan. [Well, except for that whole Republican Revolution.] The idea that scripted events with a bunch of talking heads repeating lines that is non-threatening to the money behind either party will appeal to voters in their current mood is ludicrous.

Sanders’s campaign has successfully done one very important thing: pointed out the hypocrisy of many of the core Democratic positions to about 43% of the Democratic voters.

Traditionally, liberals have stressed how important education is; stressed how education levels the playing field, how retraining is the best way to get people back on their feet and off of government assistance, how critical thinking lets us examine the world and political arguments and come to the best choices … and yet at the same time the cost of college and the levels educational debt has exploded, Congress has passed laws making debt hereditary (if you die with educational debt, your family and children must continue to pay). No where else in the world are the skills which are so valuable to training its citizenry to compete globally so outrageously and prohibitively growing out of reach for its citizenry.

For years, we’ve been told that 40 million people are without healthcare. Every year for election after election we threw this number at the Republicans and said “this is why healthcare is a failure in this country” and then Obamacare came along and we added six or seven million new people to the healthcare system and said fait accompli. A Sanders supporter would say that is barely better than the Republican system, and when you add the rising deductibles that people are paying, making it prohibitively expensive for a person on Obamacare to actually visit a doctor, all the while hospital fees, medicine costs are higher in this country than anywhere else in the world.

And then there is wealth inequality. We all were shocked at the blatant money laundering the rest of the world engages in when the Panama Papers were released, but nobody mentions that Joe Biden and Harry Reid are both long-time representatives of states with money laundering practices that make Panama look like amateur hour.

So I am all for Sanders staying in the race.  Every vote for him is a vote that says no to a system that takes one or two tentative steps forward.