Why Bernie Sanders Lost

Contrary to what many Bernie Stans think, I happen to like Bernie Sanders a lot. Back when I listened to a lot of progressive radio, I used to look forward to Brunch with Bernie on the Thom Hartmann Show and I liked when he got up in front of Congress and passionately advocate for a bill. Down deep, he’s a good man, who does what he does because he believes in it.

I’m not mad at Bernie. I don’t care that he started going after Hillary Clinton because, if I’m being honest, I didn’t think most of the attacks were all that harsh. A few of them seemed stupid and pointless, but they weren’t really that damaging. He was annoying at times, but he did nothing unforgivable. His followers, though? I’ll get to that.

I could say that there was no way Bernie Sanders was going to win, but he really did have a shot. I also won’t call him a loser. His stated purpose for running was to move the debate to the left, and he did succeed in doing that. And since the country and the Democratic Party have been moving to the left over the last decade or two, he could have beaten Hillary Clinton. But he didn’t do that because he didn’t do what was necessary to get beyond the rhetoric and actually take the steps he needed to take to get voters behind him. And that is ultimately what doomed him.

Many people who call themselves “progressive” believe strongly in the righteousness of their “cause,” whatever that is. However, we live in a democratic system, so if a majority of the people don’t agree with your “cause,” it really doesn’t matter much how righteous you are. It’s also not helpful to the cause if no one knows exactly what your “cause” is. And that was the problem with the Sanders campaign. Frankly, it’s also the problem with much of the progressive movement, at least as seen by PUBs (Progressive Unicorn Brigade) and the professional left. No one knows what the hell you’re on about half the time. Bernie rarely talked about issues that actually matter to people and when he did, he talked about them in a way that no one could relate to. And the worst part is, no one in his campaign seemed to actually notice.

There is a pretty important rule when you’re running a political campaign; you run it; you never let the candidate run it. Apparently, no one told that to Tad Devine and Jeff Weaver because they let Bernie say the same things that he’s been saying on talk radio for about a decade and there’s a problem with that. See, while you’re speaking to a half million true believers on a far left radio show, or in an interview with a pro left website, you can say whatever you think the listeners and the host want to hear. But when you’re running for the nomination of a major political party that essentially represents half the voting population, well, you have to alter your message a bit. In other words, whereas catch phrases and platitudes will sound great to the far left audience of the Thom Hartmann Show, you have to appeal to a far wider audience in a primary. The “holy trinity” of “income inequality,” “student debt” and “single payer” were not playing to the masses, which should have been obvious to his campaign from the beginning. And they should have altered the message to reflect that.

For example, this may come as a shock to many on the far left, but “income inequality” doesn’t play among working people in the heartland, who should be considered as much a part of the progressive movement as white, college-educated urban liberals. Is it an important issue? I went to college. I have a political science degree. So yes, on a theoretical and historical level, it is technically very important that the gap between rich and poor not be allowed to get too wide. Hell, I’ve written about it extensively on here. I actually once showed how the Walton Family could pay everyone in their employ a living wage and provide health care and still collect billions every year. I get that. But to the average person who just wants to work and make a living, it doesn’t compute as a major deal. They want to make enough to live on and they don’t rightly care how much the CEO of the company they work for makes. See, while Bernie and the pro left goes on and on about how much CEOs get paid, all they are actually doing is creating a big yawn-fest. People need to know how you’re going to make their lives better. And to make that the key component of your stump speech and to use it for an entire year is just incompetent for someone running a campaign for President of the United States. At some point, the candidate has to make the case for why he would make a great president. Bernie never did that.

Which brings up another reason Bernie Sanders lost. He never made himself look like “President.” Hell; he didn’t do any of the things a serious presidential candidate has to do, to even have a chance. First of all, he never introduced himself. I know a lot of PUBs and pro lefties think everyone knows who Bernie is by now, but really, they don’t. Even now, after a year of running as the main challenger of one of only a half dozen politicians from any party with 100% name recognition (Hillary Clinton, obviously), his name recognition is still in the high 70s. One reason his so-called “unfavorables” are lower than Hillary Clinton’s is because his “don’t knows” are still so high. He’s the most frequent guest on the Sunday morning talking head shows this year, sure, but no one watches those. He’s never gone out of his way to introduce himself to anyone. If you want to know why Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008, it was largely because he didn’t assume that everyone knew who he was just because he gave a boffo speech at the 2004 convention and he was the only Black guy in the Senate. He went around and introduced himself to people. He came up with a theme that was universal and which everyone could relate to; Hope and Change. He was inclusive, which is a very important part of any campaign.

And that brings us to his biggest flaw. The Bernie Sanders campaign itself was not at all inclusive. In fact, it was very exclusive, if I’m going to be blunt. The Sanders campaign and the far left contingent of the progressive movement, in general, seem to have this notion that they are above “mere Democrats.” I appreciate the reason Bernie ran as a Democrat. If he had run as an independent or with a third party, it would have been disruptive and it would have given the GOP a nearly direct shot at the White House. But to go into the Party and then tell them how to run it was probably not the best way to gain the party’s nomination. Unlike the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, which choose their nominees largely by fiat on the part of party honchos, the Democratic Party nominee is chosen by rank-and-file Democrats, so insulting the party by insinuating that they are somehow lesser than you is not a good course.

Lastly, if you really want to know why Bernie lost, it was his most fervent followers. Not only did many of them mistake petulance for “passion,” but they seemed to have a knack for making sure no one wanted to vote for Bernie Sanders. The Sanders campaign should have shut them up early on, but, just as Republicans are afraid to piss off the Tea Party minions because it’s pretty much all they have, the Sanders campaign realized early on that, despite the huge crowds, the enthusiasm for him was fairly narrow in scope and they were afraid that, if they called them out, they might lose everything.

There is precedent for this, by the way. When Clinton ran in 2008, she, too refused to take on her PUMA hordes when they were saying some truly nasty shit about Obama.

She lost that election. Remember?

Bernie Sanders’ campaign lost because it only appealed to white liberals, because its scope was too narrow to be effective, because they refused to listen and because they refused to alter their message. They actually lost on March 1, when Clinton took every important state available that day and she put it out of reach on March 15. The only reason the media was able to pretend it was close is because she didn’t spend tons of money in caucus states and she focused on the largest states, which she won big. Very big. And it wasn’t close because the Sanders campaign didn’t run to win. It’s that simple.

About Milt Shook

A writer with more than 45 years in the political game (and let's face it, it is a game). I am a liberal because facts have a liberal bias, and I really like facts. If you like facts, you'll like this blog. If not, you'll have a hard time.


Why Bernie Sanders Lost — 5 Comments

  1. In my experience, Bernie himself is fine (if not terribly bright) and most of his followers are decent people who only want what’s best for America and the world but his hard core fanatics – the Bernieswarm – are more interested in cultivating grudges and settling old scores than in enacting the reforms to which they pay lip service. They claim to be leftists (the smarter ones) and progressives (the ignorant and ahistorical ones) but at bottom they represent a betrayal of the proud old standards of The Left.

  2. I agree for the most part. I always liked Bernie but didn’t think he was electable on a national basis from the moment he entered the race, so I didn’t consider backing him. Most of the voters I know don’t listen to political talk all that much. The ones who do are die-hard GOP or die-hard Dem. The uncommitted pay attention a few weeks before a general election to elect a new POTUS. I believe a few GOP hard-line ads, much like the Goldwater daisy ad, of Bernie’s words scrolling about Castro, the Sandinistas, and other socialist/communist ideas/ with Bernie morphing into Castro or worse with ominous music playing in the background would allow any Conservative no matter how flawed, to walk easily into the White House. I would not even think of nominating someone I felt I could tank with one ad.

    To get my support, Bernie needed to work hard all around the country to help elect his brand of progressive candidates to offices at all levels. He would need to build support for these goals from the ground up, not pretend he could come in as POTUS and impose his ideas on a country with a congress full of conservatives and wary Democrats who wouldn’t support him. Bernie seemed totally uninterested in congress or any other candidates for any other offices. He just wanted to be President.

    I agree his supporters were the worst part, but he is/was pretty angry and thin skinned himself. As I learned about Bernie, I liked him less and less. I guess you could say I was a Puma in 08. I thought 08 was 4 or 8 yrs too soon for newbie Barack Obama to run for POTUS and I kinda still think I was right. He needed relationships in DC to work with to help get legislation passed. He wasn’t well known and had no relationships and I think that hurt. BUT he was a great President. I worked hard to get him elected and supported him with my whole heart for his time in office. I think he has done a great job considering the GOP made it their goal to oppose his every suggestion. I never treated Obama supporters as Bernie-bros treat Hillary voters. Their insults would make me refuse to support Bernie had he won the nomination. Thank goodness he didn’t.

    I don’t think Bernie had a movement, it was a cause and he was sincere. He couldn’t fulfill the promises he made to his voters and had they used their heads they would have known that. His plan was impossible because he didn’t start at the bottom, build an actual movement around the country and get lots of people of like mind elected. He just wanted to wave a magic wand, become President and somehow pull free college, income equality, and single payer out of his hat.

  3. Very well written and insightful piece. It’s a shame that it will not be received well by a large portion of Bernie’s supporters.