Bernie Sanders proclaimed he would remake the Democratic Party after his own 2016 loss to Hillary Clinton. To date his efforts have come up short. He has zigzagged across the country over the past two years without much to show for his electoral efforts. Sanders, along with his political group, Our Revolution, has mostly found defeat, with voters across the country rejecting Bernie-endorsed candidates. The wins that Sanders and Our Revolution have had, have mostly come from candidates vying for local or state legislatures, such Elizabeth Guzman in Virginia or Wilfred Mbah in Somerville, Massachusetts.
To those following the post-2016 election political coverage, this would be a surprise.
That is because the mainstream narrative became that Sanders and his followers were taking over the Democratic Party.
This was echoed in outlets across the country. Of course, narratives aren’t always grounded in reality. We’ve seen the “Trump voters only care about economics, not racism,” narrative crumble in the face of political research. The Sanders narrative has persisted, albeit in a much quieter tone than in late 2016.
Sanders’ inability to convince Black voters doomed his Presidential bid. But it has to be especially troubling for his movement to see the same issues largely following the candidates he has endorsed for Governorships and Congressional seats. Sanders tends to endorse primary challengers over establishment candidates backed by the Democratic Party. Black voters tend to favor the latter, as the Democratic Party has long represented a defense against conservative attacks on civil rights. Thus, having a stronger backing from Democratic institutions is seen as a plus for Black voters, not a negative.
Sanders never made a major effort to reach out to Black voters until he decided to run for President, which left his last-minute appeals sounding hollow.
His anti-identity politics rhetoric and his efforts to defend Trump voters against charges of racism didn’t help either. The Sanders campaign spent over $40 million a month during the campaign, with tens of millions going toward media buys. Black voters heard the Sanders message and understood who he was. They just collectively decided that they liked the Clinton message more, which is why he lost about three of every four Black votes to Clinton nationally.
For instance, last summer, Ralph Northam won a primary against Sanders-backed Tom Perriello in Virginia which The Washington Times described as “easier than expected.” Politico noted that Northam’s primary victory came with help from Black voters:
“Many state political operatives expected that a higher turnout election would swing the election to Perriello, but Northam coasted. And his win included higher-than-expected numbers in regions with more African-American voters, a major question mark heading into the vote.”
For Sanders own base, the opposite seems to be true. Democratic institutions are less trusted and challengers are preferred. The problem with this strategy is that Black voters make up a growing percentage of the Democratic Party, so promoting candidates that they don’t back is often a losing proposition for Governorships and other statewide elections.
In May of last year, Rob Quist another candidate supported by Bernie, lost his bid for a Montana House seat to Greg Gianforte. Quist outperformed, as he lost by 6 points in a state that Trump won by 20.
But he still lost a demographic that Sanders and his campaign team long claimed he performed better with–whiter, more rural, lower-income voters.
This was supposed to be the demographic that Sanders could beat Republicans with. Something similar happened in Omaha, Nebraska, where Bernie Sanders campaigned for Heath Mello in early 2017. Sanders had no problem campaigning for Mello’s mayoral campaign despite the latter’s pro-life record. The result was a 6 point loss for Mello despite electoral demographics that were supposedly favorable to Sanders.
Another regional Sanders-backed candidate, James Thompson, lost his Congressional race in Kansas just a month earlier. These losses are significant because of where they occurred. These types of seats, with electorates which are whiter and more rural, were supposed to be especially favorable to Bernie Sanders. After all, much of the Sanders criticisms of the Democratic Party revolve around its inability to reach the white working class. But what these races really revealed was that the Sanders appeal to the white working class was more based in myth than in reality.
Democratic voters aren’t rushing to make Sanders the face of the Democratic Party. This is in part because Sanders and the candidates he has backed have had a difficult time attracting Black voters, while also proving his white working class hypothesis to be false. Sanders candidates like Dennis Kucinich who have defended Trump and criticized the Russia investigation have also found that Democratic voters want Democrats who won’t fall in line behind the President.
Sanders infamously claimed that the overwhelming majority of Trump voters weren’t racist or sexist. He has repeatedly criticized Democrats for “identity politics” and even said he was “humiliated that Democrats couldn’t reach the white working class.” This is part of the Sanders ideology–the idea that Democrats have turned their back on poor white rural voters in favor of a cosmopolitan, multicultural coalition that focuses on identity. But the narrative just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
For one, blue-collar whites have been fleeing the Democratic Party since the 1960’s, as The Atlantic has explored. At the same time, Black voters were leaving the Republican Party to become Democrats. The Civil Rights movement which intensified in the late 1950’s and culminated in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act led to blue-collar whites (actually white voters of all classes) trending toward the GOP. As the Republican Party embraced the southern strategy and former Dixiecrats, the Black voters left in the GOP became Democrats. The “identity politics” that moved blue-collar whites to the Republican Party was actually just Civil Rights and anti-Black attitudes.
This divide persists today, as studies have found that higher levels of racial resentment correlated with higher levels of Trump support.
This explains why Sanders has had so much trouble convincing Trump voters. Despite Sanders’ own anti-identity rhetoric, Trump voters still feel the Republican Party better represents their interests because their appeals to racial resentment are more overt.
Black voters have become the most reliable Democratic backers to counter the influence of these voters and to protect their own political interests. Sanders’ constant attacks on the party and on identity politics makes it extremely difficult for him to mobilize Black voters on the state or national level. That leaves Sanders in a tough spot–the white working class demographic he’s targeted hasn’t shifted toward him, and Black voters still prefer establishment Democratic candidates to challengers. He’s alienated many party stakeholders too. Without a strong base, it isn’t strange to see Sanders numbers fall as more candidates float their own 2020 bids. And without the support of Black voters, it is virtually impossible to win the Democratic primary.
There is little evidence that Sanders’ presence expands the party base or changes the electoral map, even in whiter, more rural, more conservative states. After all, Doug Jones won in Alabama after Sanders refused to endorse.
The Sanders phenomenon of 2016 looks to be the result of a lack of candidates in the field and anti-Clinton sentiment. Without Clinton, Sanders supporters move on to other candidates, as evidenced by the New Hampshire 2020 poll where he placed a distant third. It is beginning to look like the revolution was a little bit over-hyped.