by Aaron Shapiro
The run up to the 2016 election has been full of surprises, and the persistence of Bernie Sanders’ popularity has certainly been one of them. The steady rise of support for the self-described independent socialist continues to chip away at the Hillary Clinton leviathan. Making sense of Sanders’ run remains difficult. What historical analogy is there– if any– for his candidacy; and what impact might it have on the Democratic Party?
When Sanders began talk of running, his forceful leftism seemed to relegate him as a marginal protest candidate. Yet ambivalence toward Clinton within the party base and a dearth of alternatives quickly upped his profile. Still, it is tempting to shrug him off, given the failures of past insurgent-reformers, who also made an appearance around this time in the presidential campaign cycle. These are candidates like fellow Vermonter Howard Dean, Bill Bradley, and Gary Hart, who catch fire early, threatening the “establishment” choice, only to eventually fade away. As sure as their rise, narrow appeal and often weak organization dooms them long before the convention. Indeed it’s easy to assume that Sanders, with his New England pedigree, and white middle-class base, will also endure this fate.
However, Sanders, and the uniqueness of the political moment surrounding him, deserve more credit. As the least compromised articulator of full-throated economic populism, he would seem a compelling choice for the Democratic zeitgeist. Really, one shouldn’t have to strain too hard to imagine a scenario where a candidate with the right narrative for the moment upsets Hillary Clinton. Though Sanders has thus far struggled to assemble a coalition broad enough compete widely amongst all Democrats, this is not intrinsically damning. Barack Obama himself, spent the summer of 2007 suffering from lackluster polls, fending off accusations of being a ‘wine-track’ phenomenon, as his would-be coalition (especially African-Americans) remained leery of throwing their support behind such an apparent longshot. It was not until Obama proved viable with his victory in Iowa that his national numbers began to reflect his latent appeal.
If this suggests Sanders may still be far from his apex and have a different fate than past insurgents, there are at least two reasons to remain cautious. First, is whether he is a skilled enough politician to carry his coalition through the primary. Sanders’ uneven dealings with the #BlackLivesMatter movement have already previewed how his at times unpolished demeanor could weaken his ability to lead a more broad Democratic coalition through an election season. Aware of his deficit amongst African Americans, Sanders did head to the South last weekend with well known Black Studies professor Cornell West. Second, and more concretely, is the organizational gap. There is little evidence that Sanders has built the sort of state-by-state field apparatus characteristic of the Obama campaign. What separated Obama from grassroots darlings past was a superior field organization tethered to the magic number of delegates necessary to carry the nomination. So far in 2016 it is Clinton, who learning her lesson, has assembled a staff comprised of Obama veterans, frontloading resources toward building up her field program for the long march through primary season.
If this should lead one to be skeptical of Sanders’ chances, it should also lead one to question the prevailing logic of his detractors within the Democratic Party. The anti-Sanders argument rests on the presumption that a prolonged primary battle will harm Clinton in the general election, forcing her to expend valuable campaign that could otherwise be hoarded for battle with the GOP. This argument rests on an anachronistic assumption that campaign resources are “expended” in a zero-sum context. This may well be true if they were primarily focused on television advertising. Indeed, if Clinton were forced to spend $50 million dollars on ads implying Sanders suffers a deep hatred for puppies to discredit him, this would be unlikely to give much help to Democrats in the general election. However, 2008 showed that competitive primaries waged through voter mobilization might in fact be a boon to whomever winds up the party standard-bearer. In an era in which data has become an increasingly important campaign resource, having a multitude of candidates appealing to different slices of the party’s potential electorate may indeed be of long term benefit to the party as well as its eventual nominee. Primary campaign field organization efforts were a down payment on scaling the apparatus for the 2008 general election.
As Daniel Kreiss has illustrated, this template can be traced back to Dean’s campaign in 2004, which married traditional grassroots insurgent enthusiasm to the potential of digital campaigning strategies. By harnessing the power of the Internet (yes, in 2004, the internet was still viewed by campaigns as wielding powers both strange and exhilarating), Dean made tremendous advances in small donor fundraising and the cultivation of grassroots activists, creating a model that Obama with greater sophistication would ride to victory four years later. It is this ability to use digital tools to cultivate grassroots resources with virtually no transaction costs that has been integral to Sanders’ success.
Even if Sanders’ falls short, the networks and resources he has generated may still be of lasting impact. The appeal of particular politicians to the base can help them leverage their power in government, and this is where Sanders’ greatest opportunity might lie. This has been certainty true for Elizabeth Warren, whose fast-rising star as a legislator can be largely attributed to the electoral support she has provided for fellow Democrats and ability to garner public support for pet issues such as the Trans Pacific Partnership. Sanders’ has a unique opportunity in the high salience of a presidential campaign combined with a prominent institutional position in government. While Warren had to climb the ranks as a freshman senator, Sanders will return to congress as the Democrats ranking member on the all-important Senate Budget committee.
If Sanders can transition his campaign’s support to assistance for Democrats in 2016, it could be a win-win both for Sanders’ progressive policy preferences and the party. He could tempt activists unenthusiastic about supporting the Clinton campaign to still help vital party efforts. The impact of this would be most dramatic in states that might have more competitive congressional races than presidential ones. These candidates are unlikely to benefit from the organizational resources dedicated to mobilizing for the Democratic ticket in presidential battlegrounds. Sanders’ support could help him increase his influence by returning Democrats to the majority and winning the often-cantankerous senator friends among both a new class of Democrats in the senate and party leadership.
The story of party organization over the Obama years is one that has pitted a presidentially led party apparatus most sensitive to presidential battleground against other party electoral prerogatives that have felt the short shrift, including on the congressional level. Further, given the senate’s penchant for being the elected branch of the federal government most resistant to progressive change, the implications of creating more leverage for its more liberal members is vital, maybe even more so than a staunchly progressive president.
The question is whether such a strategy is in Sanders’ plan. Party building has after all never seemed at the fore of his concerns. Implicit in his worldview is that participatory linkages must be detached from the broadly coopted Democratic Party, not strengthened to overcome both special interest influence within the party and the veto powers that obstruct its agenda. Yet perhaps Sanders’ run as a Democrat suggests a new amenability for working within the party. It may in fact be far more consequential to both the party and Sanders’ long term goals than the fate of his presidential campaign.
Aaron B. Shapiro is a PhD candidate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is currently working on his dissertation, a study of Democratic Party organization in the Obama era. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.