Bernie Sanders Can’t Win Without Party Elites

April 12, 2016, 3:22 PM UTC
Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Campaigns In New York City
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 9: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) attends a Community Conversation at the Apollo Theater in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City April 9, 2016. The New York Democratic primary is scheduled for April 19th. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
Photograph by Eric Thayer via Getty Images

Poor Bernie Sanders. Political prognosticators were quick to announce that Ted Cruz halted Donald Trump’s momentum by winning the Republican primary in Wisconsin last week, but had no encouraging words for the Vermont senator, even though his Wisconsin win brought him closer to Hillary Clinton in pledged delegates. “Momentum” is the word of the hour, but a deeper dynamic governs the race. And even as political junkies are mesmerized by all of the missteps and revelations of individual campaigns, lurking beneath the horse race is a consistent pattern of party nominations that stacked the odds against Sanders from the very beginning.

If this had been a good year for candidate momentum, the contest would already be over. Momentum matters most when the campaign is new and the uncertainty is at its height heading into Super Tuesday. This year’s primaries have gone back and forth, making voters seasick. Wisconsin is a relatively small state, but it happened to be one of the last chances for candidates to obtain a victory and concomitant favorable publicity before New York’s delegate-rich primary on April 19.

Right now, polls show Clinton winning in New York and most states voting on April 26—Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. These states will be older, more diverse, and closed to independents, creating favorable terrain for Clinton. And thanks to low-turnout caucus states, Sanders’ vote share is lower than his delegate share, giving super-delegates cover if they were to vote against a delegate majority.

Sanders hasn’t helped himself since Wisconsin, either. In an interview with the New York Daily News, his proposals for trade agreements and big banking are as grandiose as they are uninformed of the nuts and bolts of policymaking. Voters like him because he focuses on issues rather than Clinton, but he recently overreacted to her criticisms and called his experienced competitor unqualified.

Since 1980, endorsements have been a better indicator of who eventually wins a nomination than either funding or early polling data. The candidates with officeholder endorsements tend to have support from party factions like unions, feminists, environmentalists, and civil rights groups.

Clinton beats Sanders in endorsements from Democratic politicians and interest groups, hands-down. Pro-Clinton groups like the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Organization for Women have the kind of members who knock on doors, raise money, make phone calls, and elect delegates to the convention.


Sanders, an independent until recently, bypasses party elites and appeals directly to voters. Few, if any, candidates have been able to win this way in the modern era. Even Rudy Giuliani, who led John McCain in opinion polls and fundraising throughout 2007, failed to win a single primary in 2008 against the candidate with the most endorsements. Trump comes close, but Republican kingmakers had an unprecedented delay in picking a favorite.

In sharp contrast, the partisan stars aligned for Clinton long before the Iowa caucuses. The Democratic primaries offer a straightforward test between two popular candidates, one with elite support and one without. If Sanders does win the nomination, it will upend the celebrated wisdom of political science much more than a Trump victory would.

Whether or not Wyoming was his last hurrah over the weekend, Sanders’ surprising strength has led to talk about a Democratic Party realignment. After losing with Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, the Democratic Leadership Council encouraged moderation among Democratic candidates. Many thought Obama’s victory was a new direction for the party, but the Republican Congress stopped him in his tracks. Reiterating the need for meaningful change, the Sanders campaign has forced Clinton to flip-flop on free trade and college education.

However, these differences are in strategy rather than ideology. Sanders may call himself a socialist, but his issue positions—union protections, economic regulations, and distributive justice—are in line with longstanding Democratic Party hopes. Bill Clinton never thought they were undesirable, just politically infeasible. Like Barry Goldwater in 1964, Sanders takes the private ambitions of party elites and enunciates them boldly and unapologetically. The Democratic Party will still be a coalition of unions, feminists, environmentalists, and civil rights groups in 2020. What remains to be seen is whether they think Sanders’ positions are politically viable next time around.

Everyone likes a horse race and the uncertainty surrounding it—even people who otherwise don’t follow politics. Horse races are more fun when the competitors are evenly matched, but Clinton and Sanders are not. If past nominations speak to this election, Wisconsin momentum will be no counterweight for Clinton’s widespread support among party elites.

Chris Baylor is a visiting assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross and author of First to the Party, a forthcoming book on party transformation.

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