Many political pundits see Bernie Sanders’s New Hampshire landslide as a fluke and look to Hillary Clinton’s Southern “firewall” to bring the Democratic race back to its expected course. But Lisa Pease has examined the Sanders campaign and sees an opening instead for a national course correction.
By Lisa Pease
Bernie Sanders can absolutely win the Democratic Party’s nomination. He’s still way behind Hillary Clinton in a number of Super Tuesday states. But you have to have worked on or followed presidential campaign politics to understand the power of momentum. If you ask any campaign leader which they’d rather have, the lead or momentum, they will usually choose momentum.
Leads can dissolve quickly in the face of momentum. Nationally, Hillary Clinton used to lead Sanders by an average of about 20 percentage points. But in the wake of Sanders’s surprising performance in Iowa and his 22-point margin of victory in New Hampshire, the latest Quinnipiac poll shows he and Hillary are statistically tied across the country.
How did this happen? Did people suddenly remember they didn’t like Hillary Clinton? No. Many are suddenly finding out that they actually like Bernie Sanders, a lot.
Where Sanders has actively campaigned, he’s closed, to borrow his Brooklyn vernacular,”Yuge” polling gaps to tie or pass Clinton in several states. For most of last year, Sanders was behind Clinton in New Hampshire by a large margin. These were, we were told, the people who “knew” him “well” because he was their “next-door” neighbor. But that wasn’t true. People really didn’t know him. When they found out who he was, not only did he win, he got more votes in New Hampshire than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican, in history.
The polls in South Carolina currently show Clinton well ahead. But guess what? Sanders only personally entered the state as part of his official South Carolina campaign this week. And Sanders is now running a powerful four-minute ad featuring Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who was tragically choked to death in New York by the police even as he said “I can’t breathe.”
The ad, which features Erica Garner for more than three minutes and Sanders for less than one, is heartbreaking and genuine. People are learning, through Erica Garner, someone many in the Black Lives Matter movement know and trust, who Sanders is and why they should care.
Before New Hampshire, Sanders was pretty far behind in Nevada. After a few days of actively campaigning there, he is statistically tied with Clinton in a state he “couldn’t” win because there’s a large bloc of minority voters, mostly Hispanic. If Sanders pulls off a victory in Nevada this weekend, the boost from that win might put him in a position to pull off an upset in South Carolina as well.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign understands this. Even before the polls closed in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign had issued a statement to the media not only downplaying Sanders’s impending victory, but emphasizing Clinton’s lead in Super Tuesday states, as if foreshadowing a possible loss in Nevada and South Carolina. But if Sanders wins Nevada and South Carolina, what will he have? Yuge momentum.
What fuels Sanders’s popularity? When Bill Clinton ran for office, on the wall in the War Room his team posted the message, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Bill Clinton wanted to talk about everything under the sun and his campaign had to keep refocusing him on the thing that mattered most, not to Bill Clinton, but to the voters.
Today, for a significant number of Americans, the economy is still the thing that keeps them awake at night, wondering how they’ll pay their bills, making awful choices between buying food or medicine because they can’t afford both in the same week. Sanders doesn’t need anyone to post a message in his war room. This is his life’s cause. He’s been preaching economic fairness since he first entered politics. He’s as focused as a beacon on this.
Sanders grew up without a lot of money. And even after college, Sanders was at times without work and had to learn to live on next to nothing. He understands at the most visceral level what it’s like to not know where your next paycheck is coming from.
Hillary Clinton has tried to make Sanders’s focus on economics into a flaw, calling him a “one-issue candidate.” First, that’s simply untrue, because Sanders does speak on many issues. He brings up health care, climate change, and college affordability at every speaking event. A Washington Post reporter this week counted 20 different issues in Sanders’s recent talk in Michigan.
But second, it still is “the economy, stupid.” That’s the common concern among the vast majority of Americans. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it’s hard to care about much else.
That’s why Bernie gains in popularity the more people know about him. That’s why when voters get to listen to him directly, via ads or appearances, his polling numbers rise. That’s why people who attend his rallies can’t stop talking about him to their friends. They’ve seen the truth and they want to share it.
Sanders is “the one who cares,” said a Rolling Stone editor in an article where Matt Taibbi, one of the most cynical political commentators on the scene, wrote unabashedly, “Sanders genuinely, sincerely, does not care about optics. He is the rarest of Washington animals, a completely honest person. If he’s motivated by anything other than a desire to use his influence to protect people who can’t protect themselves, I’ve never seen it. Bernie Sanders is the kind of person who goes to bed at night thinking about how to increase the heating-oil aid program for the poor.”
The “Socialist” Bogeyman
The dreaded “socialist” label people thought would be the death of his candidacy just doesn’t have the punch it once did. Most people under 50, who didn’t grow up associating that word with the ideologies of Lenin or the horrors of war, don’t have the same negative feeling that older people were, for decades, programmed to evince.
One of the most surprising things of this campaign season is that, despite Clinton having hired a number of Obama’s operatives from his successful presidential runs, it’s Sanders’s campaign that is attracting the creativity many experienced in the Obama campaign in 2008.
The popular Twitter hashtag #FeelTheBern was concocted not by campaign staff but by a digital strategist named Winnie Wong and her team. It’s caught on like wildfire. In fact, it was that hashtag that inspired me to learn more about his campaign.
In a flash, I realized how big Sanders was going to be. It was the same feeling I had when I first saw Windows and knew the future of computing was going to be a graphical interface. It was the same feeling I had when I saw the first Netscape browser giving me access to the newly public “Worldwide Web.” I realized that Sanders was going to be, as his campaign crowds now echo when he says the word, “YUGE.”
Activists wrote a song for him called Bernie Bae (Bae = before anyone else). Others are creating cool artwork. One of my favorites is a remake of a Michael Jordan silhouette showing present-day Bernie going up for a basket. I find myself drawn not to just to the man and the issues but to the creativity of the campaign itself. Say what you want about who has more experience or is better qualified to run the country. Currently, Sanders has put together a staff that is outperforming Clinton’s at every turn.
And that should alarm Hillary Clinton and her supporters, because she’s been here before. Another candidate came and swept the youth vote out from beneath her and rode that wave all the way to the White House just eight years ago. Hasn’t she learned from past mistakes? What’s the good of having experience if you don’t learn the lessons presented?
Clinton also carries baggage that Sanders does not. She’s received millions of dollars from Wall Street and is therefore not credible when she speaks to reining in their excesses. And her history shows her “evolving” on issues in direct correlation to public polling on those same issues. Sanders came out in support of gays and gay marriage long before polling told him he could. Hillary Clinton didn’t.
And then there’s Clinton’s Iraq War vote. Like the blood on Lady MacBeth’s, it’s the stain on her record she can never wash away, no matter how many times she’s tried. Her vote helped pave the way to the killing of more than a million Iraqis, who never did have WMDs, and who had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Even I, sitting in California reading only public sources, could see that there were no WMD in Iraq. I want the president to be at least as smart as I am, and preferably a lot smarter.
Momentum as King
If momentum is king in campaigns, losing momentum usually indicates a campaign in trouble. And as commentators have noted, when a campaign is in trouble, it’s usually the candidate, not the campaign staff, that is at fault.
In Bernie Sanders’s unprecedented win in New Hampshire, a serious issue appeared. Clinton had lost in every demographic but one: voters over 65 years old. That’s terrible news for Clinton, because according to the Pew Research Center, as of 2015, the largest voting bloc was no longer Baby Boomers, but Millennials. Her campaign thought she had the female vote locked up. But a generational divide has split the party asunder, and the youth, ironically, favor the septuagenarian.
A Demographic Revolution
In the 1950s, Hillary could have been a sure thing. There were only three TV networks and nearly everyone watched them. Controlling the media narrative was easy if you were a favorite of the Establishment. But in 2016, many Millennials have turned off their cable and become pull, not push, consumers of news.
These young voters “Google” the articles they want to read. They don’t wait to be told what their opinion should be by Chris Matthews. They read a lot of sources and make up their own minds.
In the 1950s, a candidate could be “reinvented” and repackaged in a way more palatable to the voters, based on polling. But today, once you say anything as a public figure, it can live on the Internet forever. You cannot reinvent yourself. If Sanders’s biggest problem is that, to many voters, he’s still an unknown quantity, Hillary Clinton’s got the opposite problem: voters know too much about her, and according to exit polls, they don’t trust her.
Sanders’s campaign on the other hand is perfectly timed. He could never have won in the political/media environment of the 1950s. His candidacy is only now possible for the same reasons that Clinton’s campaign may prove impossible: people can find out for themselves who he really is (and who she really is). People can find the back story he won’t put on his campaign site even as the mainstream media barely discusses him. (According to Media Matters, in 2015 ABC World News Tonight gave Bernie Sanders roughly 20 seconds of coverage while giving Donald Trump 81 minutes).
Millennials can attend his rallies virtually via a YouTube channel. They can watch him shooting hoops while waiting for Clinton to give her concession speech before he could give his victory one. (Even Fox News host Megyn Kelly was amazed that Sanders was making all his baskets and blurted out, “Nicely done, Bern!”).
Most of all, Sanders is the candidate of consistent pragmatism. While Clinton likes to say she’s a “Progressive who gets things done,” in reality, Sanders has a longer and deeper record of achievements. As Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, a position he won against a popular Democratic incumbent, he balanced his budgets and took care of his people so much that he was reelected in a landslide.
As a Vermont Representative and, later, a Senator, Sanders became known as the Amendment King. Even in the most partisan of times, Bernie Sanders still found ways to reach across the aisle and make the system work for veterans and others.
Several of my friends have expressed the fear that Sanders is the new George McGovern who will go down in a landslide. I remember vividly watching the 1972 election on TV and that horrible sinking feeling as each new state gave its Electoral College votes to Richard Nixon. But Nixon was an incumbent president in his second term.
And Sanders is not McGovern in another way. Economic disparity is far greater now than it was in 1972. And there is no “conventional wisdom” narrative to overcome for Internet-savvy voters.
When the markets go too far in an insupportable direction, inevitably, a course correction ensues. I’m convinced the same thing happens in politics, and that we are in such a moment. It’s rare that there’s an opening for someone like Bernie Sanders. We should not miss this incredible opportunity.
I’m confident that if America gets the chance to know Bernie Sanders, the nonbelievers will start to “feel the Bern” and help this smart, honest, hardworking and able man issue a course correction. For too long, our Ship of State has been listing too far to the right. It’s time to add heft to the left to bring our Ship back to an upright position.
Lisa Pease is a writer who has examined issues ranging from the Kennedy assassination to voting irregularities in recent U.S. elections.