The left can't win the White House if it rallies around another 30 percent candidate

The left can't win the White House if it rallies around another 30 percent candidate
Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, images via Gage Skidmore / Flickr.

I’ve linked to this at least a dozen times, but it’s relevant every election night. “Sanders aides believe, he’ll easily win enough delegates to put him into contention at the convention,” The Atlantic reported in April 2019. “They say they don’t need him to get more than 30 percent to make that happen.” (My emphasis.)


From the start they knew they could get to 30%. Apparently they had good metrics. And since they banked on a contested convention, they decided they didn’t need to do anything to expand his base. He turned down chats with South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, because why work to win the Black vote? “His politics are not my politics,” Sanders said. “There’s no way in god’s Earth he was going to be endorsing me," because the only people worth talking to were the ones endorsing him. His supporters weren’t guided to be inclusive. Rather, his entire operation, from top to bottom, ran a scorched-earth campaign against anyone who didn’t support Sanders. They tacitly approved of calling Elizabeth Warren a snake, of doxing union leaders in Nevada. And Sanders didn’t need to change a message that had already lost in 2016, against an (unfairly maligned) unpopular opponent.

In short, they did everything possible to alienate the 30% of the party that didn’t support him. And look at how stunningly successful the strategy was.

20202016
%winner%winner
TOTAL30.36Biden43.1Clinton
IOWA*26.5Buttigieg~50%Clinton
NEW HAMPSHIRE25.6Sanders60.1Sanders
NEVADA*40.5Sanders47.3Clinton
SOUTH CAROLINA19.8Biden26Clinton
ALABAMA16.6Biden19.2Clinton
ARKANSAS22.4Biden30Clinton
CALIFORNIA34Sanders46Clinton
COLORADO35.8Sanders59Sanders
MAINE*32.9Biden64.3Sanders
MASSACHUSETTS26.7Biden48.3Clinton
MINNESOTA*29.9Biden61.6Sanders
NORTH CAROLINA24.1Biden40.9Clinton
OKLAHOMA25.4Biden51.9Sanders
TENNESSEE25Biden32.5Clinton
TEXAS30Biden33.2Clinton
UTAH*35.3Sanders79.3Sanders
VERMONT50.8Sanders85.7Sanders
VIRGINIA23.1Biden35.2Clinton
IDAHO*42.5Biden78Sanders
MICHIGAN36.4Biden49.7Sanders
MISSISSIPPI14.8Biden16.6Clinton
MISSOURI34.6Biden49.4Clinton
NORTH DAKOTA*53.3Sanders64.2Sanders
WASHINGTON*36.4Biden72.7Sanders
ARIZONA30.7Biden41.4Clinton
FLORIDA22.8Biden33.3Clinton
ILLINOIS36.9Biden48.6Clinton

(*) 2016 caucus states. Percentages are delegates, not popular vote, which wasn’t counted that year.

Some observations:

Yup, 30%. On the freakin’ dot. Even state by state, it’s amazing how close he hovers to that 30% mark. In fact, he’s only exceeded the 30s in four of the 27 states—two of them being caucuses (Nevada and North Dakota). He got a respectable 42.5% in Idaho, and an embarrassing 50.8% in his own home state—one in which he'd gotten 85.7% just four years prior.

His vote percentage has been down in every single state so far, usually be double digits, and sometimes by half. He even managed to lose ground in Mississippi, where he only gotten 16.6% of the vote in 2016.

Two-person field didn’t improve his numbers. Sander’s total-total popular vote count was at around 30% when there were like 50 candidates in the race, and it still 30% after everyone else dropped out. In other words, Joe Biden pretty much sucked up all the supporters of other candidates. If you look at the chart above, Michigan is the first state in the newly reconfigured two-person race. Yet … yeah. 30%.

Sanders won 11 of those states in 2016, he only held on to six of them this year. He did pick up Nevada after losing it in 2016, but with a smaller share of the vote. The divided field helped him a great deal this year. He couldn’t even hold Washington—liberalyoung, and just 3.7% Black. Sen there, he was stuck in the 30s.

Biden has dominated everywhere.

ScreenShot2020-03-17at10.21.03PM.png
Blue is Joe Biden, Purple is Bernie Sanders

Biden won In the South, the Southeast, the Northeast, the Midwest, the West and the Southwest. He’s won Black states, white states, and Latino states. He’s won Red states and Blue states and Purple states. If I was a more creative person, I could make a Doctor Seuss poem out of it. It is impossible for the Sanders campaign to spin that map in any positive way.

Turns out, it’s easier to win stuff when your opponent capped his support at 30%.

I was about to write that I didn’t mean to belabor the point, but that’s a lie. I do want to belabor it. A lot. And I’ll keep doing so. Why?

Because if the Left wants power, it can’t hitch its wagon to candidates who explicitly refuse to build a broad-based winning coalition, candidates who can’t answer simple questions like “how are you going to get your Medicare for All plan through the Senate if you oppose eliminating the filibuster?” There’s no universe in which he’d get 60 votes for it. Ever.

I don’t know if Elizabeth Warren would’ve ultimately fared better in this election, where a freaked out and scared electorate opted for safety and familiarity rather than someone promising more upheavel (be it Bernie’s socialism, or Warren’s “structural change”). But at least Warren had broader appeal, a sunnier, more optimistic message. A detailed set of goals and a realistic plan on how to achieve them. And she looked like a core demographic base of the Democratic coalition. Say what you will about Republicans, but their candidates look like their voters. Always.

Meanwhile, if the Left wants power, it can’t willingly let the country burn thinking it will help them achieve their glorious revolution four years later. Just like in 2016, too many Sanders dead-enders today think that another Trump victory will finally convince the nation to bring them to power in 2024! Except as we’ve seen this primary cycle, the more chaos the country faces, the safer and more bland the candidate voters will pick. If we want structural change, we first have to put out the fires. Then we can talk about rebuilding what’s left of the burnt out husk.  You don't have to agree with that sentiment (I certainly don’t), but that's just the reality. And the left can’t win if it doesn’t understand the terrain it is playing in.

So for now, let’s put out the freakin’ fire.

Obviously, you can win even by losing. Sanders has helped move the center of the Democratic Party leftward. He can continue doing so for however many more years he has left in the Senate. We can acknowledge that and show gratitude for those efforts, all the while we work to influence Biden over the next four years. We’ve seen our power already, with Biden already adopting both Warren and Sanders plans. We’ll have to lobby him hard on appointments, from his VP pick to the cabinet (if we win this November).

But I’m not content with just influencing Biden or whatever other dinosaur or Wall Street creation comes afterward.

I’m interested in actually holding power. Let the other side try to influence our person next time, and for ever more.

We can’t do that with 30% candidates. So please, let’s not do that again, no matter how good his or her righteous anger makes you feel.

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