Here Are the Real Reasons Bernie Sanders Isn’t Going to Win the Democratic Nomination

This election could have been a cakewalk for Senator Bernie Sanders, but he didn't play his cards right.
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s.e. smith
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This election could have been a cakewalk for Senator Bernie Sanders, but he didn't play his cards right.

At last, the light at the end of the long, dark, terrifying tunnel of the primary nomination process is here. After today's round of primaries, there's just one more on the horizon: DC's Democratic primary, which takes place next Tuesday. This entire election cycle has been completely, unprecedentedly bananas, and unfortunately, that's probably not going to stop today. 

By the time the California primary rolls around, the nomination is usually sewn up and squared away — and technically, it kind of is here. Donald Trump is the definitive Republican nominee, and Secretary Hillary Clinton has clinched enough delegates that the nomination is basically in her hands, with 1,812 pledged delegates to Senator Sanders' 1,521. The AP officially called it yesterday: Factor in superdelegates, and she has this in the bag. 

But if you listen to the squalling from Senator Sanders' supporters, the field is still wide open. In the extremely unlikely event that he wins in California today, that will add credence to their claims that he's a more viable candidate, and all but ensure that the Senator takes the fight all the way to the convention. This is probably... suboptimal, for all of us. 

How did this happen? When Senator Sanders entered the race, Secretary Clinton was already being treated as the presumptive nominee, and pundits opined that she'd slap him down and he'd drop out relatively early. Even the Sanders campaign seemed to be operating on the assumption that he didn't stand much of a chance, but would at least start some good conversations. 

Looking back over the previous year, what strikes me most, though, is that this race was one that the Senator could have performed much better in, and didn't. The surprise for me isn't that he managed to stick it out all the way to the bitter end of the primary process, but that he didn't manage to strike some more decisive blows, and a lot of the fault for that lies at the feet of his campaign staff, who really screwed the pooch on this one repeatedly. 

Clearly, the Senator has immense popular appeal, and there's something in him and his campaign that spoke to a huge swath of the American public. There's a reason Berners are so ardently behind their candidate. He's promising something that Secretary Clinton isn't, and he's couching it in language that appeals to people who are exhausted by recession, oppression, and inequality. He's a Democratic Socialist who has managed to appeal to the mainstream to an astonishing degree, and he could have leveraged that far more effectively. 

So why isn't Sanders swinging into California with a much higher delegate count?

Poor communication with voters

As Senator Sanders and his campaign are discovering to their dismay, the primary process is completely and utterly broken. A disparate assortment of open and closed primaries and caucuses, each administered by individual states' Democratic parties, determines who's going to take the nomination. Democratic superdelegates, a bone of growing contention with the campaign, add even more chaos to the mix — it seems manifestly unfair that after allowing the public to cast their votes, superdelegates have the potential to override the populace and decide the nominee. (Not so in this case — Secretary Clinton enjoys a commanding majority before the superdelegates weigh in, even if she doesn't have quite enough pledged delegates to take the nomination.) 

The campaign, however, only seemed to cotton on to this issue in the last few months, at which point it was far too late. 

As soon as Sanders started gaining ground, his campaign should have been doing extensive voter outreach and education across the U.S. Knowing that he'd appeal to nonpartisan and independent voters, campaign staffers should have been making sure they understood how open and closed primaries worked, to ensure that they'd be able to participate. 

In New York, for example, the Democrats quite reasonably believe that if people want to nominate a Democratic candidate, they should be registered Democrats. The deadline to switch party affiliation, however, is quite far out from election day, which meant that huge numbers of independent voters who wanted to cast ballots for the Senator didn't have an opportunity to do so. Providing ample warning and pairing it with voter registration drives could have resolved this issue. 

In California, which has an open primary, independent and NPP (no party preference) voters are allowed to request a Democratic, American Independent, or Libertarian ballot. However, numerous voters don't know that — some attempted to switch their voter registration to the Democrats, while others are unwittingly voting the NPP ballot, unaware that they could have asked for the Democratic ballot. That reflects incredibly poor outreach on the part of the Sanders campaign — there's no reason that NPP voters in California should be at all confused about their options. 

Oddly enough, absentee voters probably stood the best chance of getting the right ballot — they get a slip in advance that they can use to request a party ballot. 

One-note Sanders

Class war, as we know, is my jam, so you'd think that Senator Sanders would be catnip for me. Except that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, as any cat who gets a little too aggro on the 'nip will tell you. Sanders' mistake here was leaning too hard on the class war horn, and not spending enough time on other issues. 

While economic inequalities play a huge role in the institutional and structural problems in the United States, they aren't the only factor. For white progressives, the notion that class issues are the only problem facing Americans may be appealing. It suggests a neat one-shot solution to all our problems, and it absolves them of responsibility for intersectional examination of the issues we face — including examination of their own complicity in these issues. 

The problem is that class isn't the only issue. 

Racism is a huge cultural force in America, at every level of life, and while class and race play off each other (for one thing, people of color are much more likely to be low-income), they're distinct issues. In a year when people are having loud conversations about racism's interaction with the lives of people of color in America, the Sanders campaign was extremely slow to take on racial issues. 

Donald Trump even left some garage door-like openings for the Sanders campaign, but it was too little, too late. Had Senator Sanders aggressively campaigned on racial issues and prominently included discussions about racism in his platform from the start, he would have been in a much, much stronger position. 

He also would have done well to confront anti-Semitism, which became an increasingly big problem in the election — Erin Schroede, who is running for Congress in my district, is currently battling horrific anti-Semitism, and Jewish reporters covering the Trump campaign are receiving similar treatment.

Moreover, the Senator could be tackling issues like transphobia — very high profile this year courtesy of the growing number of "bathroom bills" — and disablism, with numerous disability rights activists pushing hard on inclusion of disability issues in this year's election. 

These are just a few pieces of a very complex puzzle, and the Senator didn't start addressing them early enough. 

It's the misogyny, people

There are two reasons Secretary Clinton is not decisively dominating this race: She's a woman, and she's a Clinton. Despite the fact that she is absurdly qualified, with decades of experience as an attorney, legislator, and cabinet-level official, the fact that she's a woman means that many people are obstinately refusing to vote for her, including the Bernie or Bust crowd

If I may be crude for a moment, this could have worked in the Senator's favor: The "I may be a lot of things, but at least I'm not a lady!" line has worked incredibly well in political campaigns in the past. However, in this case, it may have worked a little too well. 

The misogyny being leveled at Secretary Clinton from Senator Sanders' supporters is absolutely horrific and galling. It's not just Secretary Clinton who's being assailed with misogynistic namecalling, either: It's her supporters, or even people who don't necessarily support her, but do have a problem with the way she's being treated. That invective has reached the point of turning against the Sanders campaign, with even some supporters so turned off that they're opting to defect. 

As the stakes have increased, so has the rhetoric, and it hasn't always done so in the Senator's favor. While he's made some comments to the effect that he's growing frustrated with the "Bernie bros," some of that rhetoric is coming from leading campaign officials, too, which belies his claims promoting a more civil discourse. 

The proof will be in the pudding tonight, but it seems likely that the Sanders campaign is about to come face to face with its communications and messaging failings. If this race became Bernie's to lose, he definitely embraced the Democratic tradition of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.