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From Bernie’s “magical thinking” to the campaign not actually having the advertised one million volunteer army, Status Coup’s investigation yields many lessons progressives can take away for the future
In the three months since Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign, the Coronavirus pandemic has taken the lives of 120,000 Americans, 45 million Americans have filed for unemployment, nearly 30 million have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance, and the future of America has taken to the streets to protest police brutality and the systemic racism permeating police departments, governments, media, and other societal structures.
The political calendar has also turned to signature down-ballot races that serve as extensions of Sanders’ five-year battle with the Democratic establishment: on Tuesday, Kentucky state representative Charles Booker seeks to upset Chuck Schumer’s handpicked establishment candidate Amy McGrath in the Democratic senate primary in Kentucky while former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman has all the momentum in New York’s 16th district congressional primary as he seeks to defeat longtime Rep. Eliot Engel. Other races include AOC’s reelection in New York and, if you’re a believer in the strategy of getting Sanders as many delegates as possible for the DNC Convention, Bernie is back on the ballot in New York after the Democratic establishment’s failed attempt to topple democracy
Amid the pandemic and protests, Sanders has mostly taken a backseat, doing livestreams while lukewarmly advocating for the election of Joe Biden in television interviews. Several Sanders campaign “autopsies” have been penned, mostly latching onto pre-existing corporate narratives or focusing on how Bernie’s embrace of cultural “wokeness” sunk him.
Having covered Sanders campaign in-the-field both in 2016 and in 2020, the broader story of Sanders’ rollercoaster 2020 ride from on-the-heels of sealing the nomination to, once again defeated, is more complicated, and instructive, for progressives to understand in order to avoid making the same mistakes in the short and long-term.
Here’s what Status Coup discovered in speaking with over a dozen high-level 2020 staffers and organizers.
Jeff Weaver Was “De Facto Second Campaign Manager”
For those who’ve worked with Bernie Sanders, or covered him, a basic contradiction eventually presented itself. For a guy who talks a lot about revolution, he didn’t like stepping outside of his comfort zone a whole lot. From 2015 through now, the most consistent political trait of Sanders was how small the inner circle he kept was; one chosen primarily due to loyalty rather than competence.
“When you have been on the outside for so long and you’ve seen lots of people in D.C. that don’t share your values, for whatever reason, over time, what’s rewarded is loyalty, not competence,” a high-level staffer from Sanders 2020 campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly, told Status Coup. “Actually people who are competent, who try to bring up problems and try to say ‘hey, we need to do this differently or that differently’—they get pushed out.”
Through conversations with staffers and organizers, one name who continually popped up in the context of loyalty over competence was Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ longest-tenured political ally dating back to Sanders’ ill-fated independent run for Vermont Governor in 1986. Back then, Weaver served as Sanders’ driver. He later became a legislative aide, and then chief of staff, to Sanders when he was a congressman. Weaver then ran Sanders’ successful 2006 Senate campaign, becoming his chief of staff in the Senate.
Nearly a decade later, Sanders plucked Weaver out of the comic book store he owned to run his rag-tag underdog presidential campaign in 2015. Several 2016 staffers told Status Coup Weaver’s performance as campaign manager in 2016 was a mix of mismanagement, going “rogue” at times against Bernie’s expressed wishes, and pushing to run a more traditional campaign of Carpet bombing states with television ads rather than hiring enough staffers in key states and investing in the necessary resources for on-the-ground organizing.
“He has trusted Jeff for a very long time even though Jeff has shown himself to not always be trustworthy,” a high-level campaign staffer told Status Coup about Sanders’ relationship with Weaver. “Bernie and Jane are not the best managers to be honest; they don’t want to get mired down in how you actually execute things and make them happen. They turn over and over again to Jeff to be the one who they put their trust in and sort everything out.”
A spokesperson for Bernie Sanders did not provide comment for this story.
The loyalty-to-a-fault toward Weaver became a point of contention directly after the 2016 campaign when eight of the founding staffers for Sanders-inspired group Our Revolution resigned when Weaver was revealed to be president of the new progressive organization— despite Sanders previously promising Weaver wouldn’t.
In addition to these staffers having issues with Weaver’s management of the 2016 campaign, they also opposed Weaver’s desire and intention to accept unlimited contributions from big-money mega-donors, a direct violation of Sanders’ entire 40-year political mantra. Weaver filed to make Our Revolution a 501(c)(4) in order to target big money from the likes of billionaires like Tom Steyer and George Soros, two sources familiar with Weaver’s objectives at the time told Status Coup.
But in doing so, it would make it impossible for Sanders to be involved with Our Revolution considering congressional ethics rules forbid lawmakers from being involved with 501(c)(4) organizations.
Although some have claimed that Sanders’ agreed with Weaver and sought to raise money from billionaires, Status Coup learned through multiple sources involved with Our Revolution’s early stages that Sanders himself was, frankly, out-of-the-loop—and his depth of understanding—in terms of of what Weaver was trying to do.
When Sanders learned of Weaver’s desire to accept big money donors, he nixed the idea, two sources confirmed to Status Coup. In addition, the founding board of Our Revolution told Weaver they would not accept any independent expenditures specifically for candidates (donations would be for general purposes); it also mandated any donation above $5,000 would have to come to the board for approval. In 2019, the group took six donations over $5,000, The Intercept reported.
“Bernie backed us up—he never supported getting money from billionaires,” a high-level Our Revolution source told Status Coup in regards to Sanders agreeing that the group shouldn’t be accepting mega-donor money (the source also noted Bernie didn’t have any direct involvement with Our Revolution during its formation). Another source involved with the deliberations at the time said: “It wasn’t that Bernie wanted to take big money; he was confused, he didn’t understand why there was this amount of controversy in the press and his comfort zone was with Jeff.”
Weaver’s short-lived tenure with Our Revolution is important to understand when fast-forwarding to the 2020 campaign. Knowing that he couldn’t convince key 2016 staffers to come back with Weaver at the helm, Sanders hired the ACLU’s Faiz Shakir to run the campaign.
Despite Shakir coming on to run the campaign, Weaver still had a front seat at the table for all major strategic decisions, according to a high-level staffer who spoke with Status Coup. Weaver’s role was especially prominent in the early period of the campaign when Shakir, who had never run a political campaign before, deferred to Weaver for guidance on things he simply didn’t know.
This popped as a red flag to some high-level staffers on the 2020 campaign considering Weaver was widely condemned by 2016 staffers for mismanagement and faulty strategy.
Jeff’s management style turned off many 2016 staffers; a top-down approach disinterested in hearing other staffers’ views.
“Jeff’s view was like ‘hey we’re running a military operation, I just made a call and that’s that and we’re gonna go with it,'” one top staffer told Status Coup. Strategically, many 2016 staffers argued with Weaver over his championing of a more traditional, heavy TV-advertisement approach over investing more heavily in a robust paid organizing operation.
With the concern over a 2016 redux, many returning staffers from the 2016 campaign were optimistic when Shakir was named campaign manager. Unfortunately for them, Sanders’ loyalty to Weaver still loomed large.
“He [Jeff] was a de facto second campaign manager,” a high-level campaign staffer told Status Coup. “Almost every major decision had to be made by both Jeff and Faiz together—which did not make things function smoothly.”
Shakir as 1A to Weaver’s 1B dynamic included a considerable stretch of time in the spring and summer of 2019 where Weaver still had hiring and spending authority without consulting Shakir.
“We would just find out ‘oh, we never hired a single staffer in North Carolina until after Iowa, but for some reason we had named an Oklahoma state director; Jeff just like hired them; he had the authority to do random stuff like that and Faiz would find out afterwards,” the staffer told Status Coup.
Multiple staffers who witnessed the flawed dynamic at the top said it took Shakir awhile to gain Bernie’s full trust; when that happened, Shakir took more control and became the clear campaign manager, traveling on the road with Sanders. Following Sanders’ heart attack, the relationship between Sanders and Shakir reached its closest point—with Bernie “running the campaign through Faiz.”
Bernie’s “Magical Thinking”
For all of Bernie Sanders’ rhetorical gifts and points for authenticity, execution and unwillingness to change in the face of new circumstances ultimately doomed his presidential hopes, several staffers agreed.
“I think that almost everyone wanted to get Bernie to more aggressively contrast with Biden, but Bernie didn’t want to do it,” a high-level staffer told Status Coup. Although Shakir, Weaver, and others did advise Sanders to draw a stronger contrast with Biden, they failed to tell Sanders aggressively enough that he needed to challenge Biden.
“The people at the top of the campaign consistently did not tell Bernie what he didn’t want to hear,” the source said.
David Sirota, the campaign’s chief speechwriter and senior adviser, conceded to Status Coup that there were times the senior leadership needed to push Bernie more.
“Sometimes we lacked a solidarity that may have been more successful; if we all thought an idea was a good idea, it would have been better for all of us together to say that to Bernie rather than one or two people trying to throw a Hail Mary pass with Bernie.”
Another negative pattern among campaign leadership was allowing Sanders to believe in “magical thinking,” one high-level staffer told Status Coup. Part of this negative wizardry was the claim that the campaign had over one million volunteers, which three top-level staffers with the campaign confirmed to Status Coup was not the case.
Although the claim didn’t seem to be an intentional falsehood told by Bernie, it was indeed false. Multiple organizers Status Coup spoke to said the campaign never had over one million volunteers; Bernie counted one million people responding to emails and text messages with an affirmative “I’m in with Bernie” as having one million volunteers—even though that wasn’t the same thing as one million people signed up to actively phone bank, work rallies, canvas, etc.
“Nobody ever wanted to tell Bernie ‘hey, we don’t actually have a million volunteers,” a source told Status Coup, leading to Sanders making the claim across the campaign trail.
The falsehood led Bernie to stubbornly resist hiring more paid staffers in Iowa, demanding the campaign lean on its army of volunteers despite that army being smaller than Sanders realized.
One top campaign official told Status Coup that, in retrospect, they would have hired more paid phone bankers and canvassers for early states and key Super Tuesday states; in real-time, this proved difficult when some periods of the campaign had more money pouring in than others.
“We were pretty damn tight on margins,” the official said about finances for the campaign in November and December before a surge in donations came in at the end of January and mid February—a point in the campaign that didn’t leave enough time to hire, train, and effectively deploy enough paid organizers on the ground for Super Tuesday states.
Another aspect of Sanders’ push to rely on volunteers was his anxiety and aversion to having “too many mouths to feed,” one high-level staffer told Status Coup, pointing out Sanders consistent complaints, in 2016 and 2020, about the number of staff the campaign had. In 2020, one sore spot both Sanders and wife Jane Sanders expressed to senior leadership was the number of advance staffers, the campaign workers who plan and execute rallies across the country, on the campaign’s books.
“Bernie and Jane said ‘there are too many staff,” a senior-level staffer told Status Coup, recounting that the campaign then started trying to hide the amount of staff that were working on the rallies. Sanders then asked for non-advance staffers in key states to be pulled away from their respective duties to organize and work the rallies; this caused chaos since these staffers didn’t know how to run rallies as well as paid advance staffers.
When these staffers were pulled away from their roles to work rallies, it led to less doors being knocked on and field events occurring, leading Sanders to grow frustrated and demanding to know why.
“Well you cancelled all the field events so that the field staff can go staff your rally” a high-level staffer pointed out.
Sanders’ spokesperson didn’t provide an on the record comment on the false claim regarding one million volunteers or other reporting on this piece.
The over-reliance on a volunteer army not as as large as Sanders thought also served as the rationale behind what several paid organizers told Status Coup was the fatal decision to over rely on the “distributed organizing” model—a model that delegates organizing largely to campaign volunteers.
Paid organizers for the campaign that worked in Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina and Michigan told Status Coup that in the states the campaign invested in a strong network of paid organizers, Sanders won—in some cases by narrow margins where that organizing and community building made the difference.
“In Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and California, the campaign invested heavily in deep organizing, and that investment paid off,” a letter sent to Status Coup signed by four paid campaign organizers said.
“In Iowa alone, there were well over 150 organizers, and that team was able to build an organization that knocked on almost 500,000 doors in a state of 3 million people. Iowa’s constituency organizing program won crucial satellite caucus locations. In Nevada, that team won the Las Vegas Strip caucus despite anti-Medicare for All fear mongering. There was a large campus organizing program, with organizers relentlessly working almost every university available, from big state schools to small community colleges. Despite all this, we did not win blowout victories in these states. Almost all our victories were won within a narrow margin. In these cases, it was the existence of a robust field program that accounted for those wins.”
Counter to the smart investments in paid, well-trained organizers in these states, the campaign relied on the volunteer-focused distributed model of organizing in later states. It also didn’t redeploy the majority of Iowa staff to other states—particularly Super Tuesday states—after Sanders popular vote victory in the state’s caucus.
“After each early state, most of organizers were laid off instead of being moved on to Super Tuesday states,” several paid organizers wrote in a letter to Status Coup.
“In Iowa, two thirds of the staff was sent home, even as the campaign raised a historic $25 million in January and $46 million in February. Besides California, no Super Tuesday state had more than ten field staffers. This is because distributed organizing vests the responsibilities of a field organizer, which include volunteer recruitment, development, training, voter contact – and most of all, time – entirely onto volunteers, supported by remote resources. For a distributed dependent program to work, the campaign would have needed to put staff in states months before their election to help build a grassroots volunteer-led structure. Instead, field staff were thrown just weeks before the election into states with no prior organization and completely disjointed volunteer efforts. Because the campaign pursued a model of distributed organizing we went on to sacrifice states we could have won with a deep organizing program such as Texas, Maine, and Washington. In others, we could have picked up a larger delegate share. By replacing organizers with volunteers, expecting the same time commitment and level of training, campaign management effectively stymied the field program that delivered its victories.”
Finally, from the beginning of the campaign, Sanders set the bar high in regards to the campaign being able to spark a surge in younger voters, which predictably gave the mainstream media license to hammer the campaign when exit polls, whose methodologies change from year to year, showed that the share of the electorate among younger voters didn’t dramatically increase in early states.
Although pundits focused on the share of the electorate, the actual raw number of young voters did increase in many states compared to 2016 when looking at precinct by precinct and college campus results. Several organizers also pointed out the rising form of voter suppression, on college campuses, that the campaign dealt with, particularly in states like Texas and Michigan.
Nonetheless, one high-level staffer acknowledged that Bernie’s “magical thinking” on a historic youth voter surge hamstrung the campaign.
“Bernie created wildly unrealistic expectations for a huge youth surge,” the staffer told Status Coup. Like in other areas, the rhetoric didn’t match the investment; early on, the campaign hired just three staffers to focus on the youth vote and organizing. Paid organizers weren’t hired for college campuses until midway through the fall semester in Iowa or New Hampshire at a time when when Pete Buttigieg’s campaign was swarming college campuses.
There was at least one student organizer in Iowa by the beginning of the fall, but the campaign hadn’t hired most of the organizers until midway through the semester. The same situation played out in New Hampshire and Nevada. For Super Tuesday states, overall staffing came fairly late in the fall of 2019, with the majority being staffed up after the Iowa Caucus. California had a few dozen staff while Texas, the second-largest delegate haul on Super Tuesday, had five staffers.
“You cannot run the state of Texas with five people,” a high-level staffer said. Sanders went on to lose Texas to Biden by nearly 4.5 percentage points (94,000 votes).
The campaign didn’t hire staffers in North Carolina, Virginia, and Massachusetts—all states Biden won on Super Tuesday—until after Iowa, less than a month before Super Tuesday.
Sanders youth surge rhetoric also gave journalists the ammunition to frame the campaign’s strategy as primarily being about expanding the electorate through a surge in youth and non-voters; a framing that wasn’t actually the strategy.
Several high-level staffers Status Coup spoke with said the campaign had a multi-pronged approach that the mainstream media never depicted: doing better among “normie Democrats” and older voters, pulling a portion of college-educated, middle-aged voters away from Elizabeth Warren, and increasing the turnout among young people, Latinos, and Muslims by a few percentage points.
Burn It Down or Attract Older “Normie” Democrats?
Although all Bernie staffers we spoke to stressed the corporate media’s unrelenting campaign against Sanders as a major obstacle to the campaign’s ability to convince “normie Democrats” that Sanders was electable—and not “radical”—several top staffers in the campaign told Status Coup the very aggression a huge chunk of the progressive movement wants to see escalated against establishment candidates and the Democratic Party actually hurt the campaign.
“It did not help us for Bernie to be seen as being critical of the Democratic Party,” one high-level staffer on the campaign told Status Coup, equating it with Hillary Clinton calling Trump supporters “deplorables.”
“Like, don’t insult the voters. There are a lot of people who actually do support Medicare For All but who, they identify with the blue team, and they see the rhetoric about criticizing the establishment as they are being personally attacked.”
Another sore spot was the campaign’s embracing of the “no middle ground” messaging, which one high-level staffer told Status Coup would make older, more traditional voters feel queasy.
“Are you saying ‘I’m extreme, I’m crazy, I’m like on the fringe, when we could have had an FDR, second bill of rights type message,” the staffer said.
But Sirota doesn’t buy the argument among some staffers that taking on the Democratic establishment was the problem.
“I don’t see any evidence of that at all,” Sirota said. “I don’t believe that Bernie juxtaposing himself with the party establishment hurt him at all. I do not believe that there is a giant segment of voters who love the Democratic establishment—that includes independents and a large segment of identified Democratic voters don’t love the Democratic establishment. Had Bernie not drawn that contrast, he might not have performed as well among independents.”
Sirota, whose penchant for posting old Biden senate speeches on Twitter made him a favorite target among corporate media and opposing campaign operatives, suggested the main question for progressives going forward is how a real change candidate can win older voters more fearful of transformative change.
Sirota thinks progressives going forward can learn from Bernie’s campaign’s failure to win the relatively new and “insidious” electability argument by showing, not telling, through sharper contrasts with their opponents. On contrasts, Sirota said if it were up to him, Sanders’ would have pounded home Biden’s electoral vulnerabilities.
Despite conflicting views among campaign staffers on whether Bernie should have taken on the Democratic establishment, one thing is clear: Bernie’s criticisms of the Democratic establishment—particularly in the brief moment when he was the frontrunner following his blowout Nevada Caucus victory—allowed the corporate media the opportunity to frame a narrative of Bernie Sanders attacking the voters ahead of the South Carolina primary.
“They [the media] absolutely tried to say ‘you’re just attacking old black people, how dare you!'” the staffer continued: “They were totally bad faith, but that actually worked and we just walked into that trap.”
One moment during the campaign that grated at almost every staffer we spoke to was when Sanders sat on “60 Minutes” as the frontrunner with the campaign at an all-time high—and walked into the Cuba trap by explaining to Anderson Cooper why Fidel Castro’s educational programs for illiterate Cubans was a good thing.
“Everyone was feeling real good; it really felt we can win this thing, and I’m sure Bernie felt it and probably thought to himself ‘fuck it, I’m gonna talk about whatever I want; I think there’s a little bit of naivety with that and his political instincts were off,'” a campaign staffer told Status Coup.
For progressives on Twitter, Sanders’ honesty on the nuances of Cuba’s education system was a good thing; but for a campaign finally in the driver’s seat with a captive older audience watching Sanders on 60 Minutes, it wasn’t helpful to take that opportunity to try and educate older, misinformed voters on Cuba.
“Bernie was the frontrunner for a week and decided to use that time to get into a whole scandal about Fidel Castro; was that the best thing he could’ve done?” a staffer said. “It’s not helpful, the idea here is to win.”
“All you can do is set the guy up to succeed,” one high-level staffer told Status Coup about the 60 Minutes interview, suggesting the campaign prepared Sanders to tweak his message to appeal to older voters that had alluded him for years.
“We picked 60 Minutes…the night after we crush it in Nevada; that’s all done with strategic intentional purposes—this is the opportunity to say, ‘I am President Bernie Sanders, take a look at me, here’s what you can envision, here’s what I would be like,” the staffer said, stressing that the campaign prepared Sanders for the interview to point out his history of compromising and cutting deals across the political aisle as a Senator while also working outside the Senate to successfully pressure companies like Amazon to raise their workers’ minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“I don’t think he ever felt comfortable owning the branding of that; the branding of ‘I am Bernie Sanders pragmatic politician in addition to being a Democratic socialist,” the high-level staffer said.
Despite the differing views on framing the campaign as a crusade against the establishment, every staffer Status Coup spoke to agreed that Bernie’s refusal to go after Biden consistently and aggressively—similar to his non-confrontational approach toward Hillary Clinton in 2016—cost him.
“If Bernie would have said ‘fine I don’t care about your emails, but what I want are the Goldman Sachs speeches and here’s an ad showing people who lost their relatives or limbs in the Iraq War, I think that Bernie might have become president,” a high-level staffer told Status Coup about the 2016 primary.
Another high-level staffer said: “Biden didn’t win this primary, it was given to him.”
Sirota expressed frustration with what he saw as the campaign retreating directly after sharper attacks on Biden—pointing to Bernie immediately denouncing campaign surrogate Zephyr Teachout’s op-ed that called Joe Biden corrupt.
“My view was the proper way for Bernie to respond to that was simply to say ‘I don’t agree that Joe Biden is inherently corrupt, however the policy and substance that was laid out in this op-ed speak to a political theory that trades campaign money for legislative favors and that the system itself is inherently corrupt.”
But instead Bernie apologized for it; which Sirota concluded was a mistake.
“It was an example of the establishment screamed, and the campaign backed down,” Sirota said. He suggested had Sanders not denounced Teachout’s op-ed, there would have been a three-day media cycle criticizing the tone of Bernie’s campaign—mixed in with the facts about the harmful bankruptcy bill Biden pushed—that would ultimately serve as a win for the campaign in terms of exposing the facts about Biden’s full record to more voters.
“He always struggled with not undercutting his value system about the way you campaign,” a high-level staffer said, calling it noble but an electoral loser. The staffer pointed out Sanders’ decision to never contrast himself with his lone progressive opponent, Elizabeth Warren, who was siphoning off votes from him in key states.
“You can talk about her record,” the staffer said, pointing out Bernie’s refusal to call out Warren on her record or flip-flopping on taking big money donations from wealthy people during the primary versus the general election.
One high-level staffer familiar with Sanders’ thinking told Status Coup that Sanders’ resistance to go hard at Biden wasn’t due to hesitation to throw a punch—it was about not alienating many of Biden’s supporters who had Sanders as their second choice.
Sanders didn’t want to get into a “smackdown” with Biden, the staffer said, in which it might successfully drive Biden voters away from him—to other candidates instead of Sanders, who they might have felt was too “mean, nasty, and aggressive” in attacking Biden at a time when defeating Trump was the top priority for Democratic primary voters.
Of course, recent presidential history seems to contradict Sanders’ concern: then-candidate Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton bludgeoned each other in the 2008 Democratic Primary—yet Obama won the general election resoundingly with the majority of Clinton voters supporting him.
And looking at 2020, after Senator Kamala Harris went straight for Biden’s political jugular over his record on busing in an early primary debate, she skyrocketed up the polls and received a massive saturation of free media attention. Her standing plummeted soon after; not because she went after Biden, but because she backtracked on supporting Medicare For All in favor of a Wall-Street approved, impossible-to-understand healthcare plan that wouldn’t manifest for a decade. Beyond that, Harris proved stale on the stump, lacking the bold, clear message that Sanders exuded through his laser-focus on Medicare For All.
Several high-level campaign staffers Status Coup spoke to said there was also a “Nader-ization” fear prevalent in Bernie’s mind; he truly believed President Trump is the most dangerous president in modern history. As such, Sanders expressed to many high-level staffers his desire to defeat Trump at all costs, which meant not tearing down Biden to the point where he would be blamed for his defeat akin to Ralph Nader still being blamed two decades later for Al Gore’s Supreme Court-decided defeat to George W. Bush in 2000.
“He was totally consumed by not being the one to get blamed for Trump getting a second term,” a high-level staffer told Status Coup.
More maddening for many staffers we spoke to is the predictable events unfolding now; President Trump and his campaign doing what Bernie refused to do—pummeling Biden with negative ads on his record on the crime bill, trade, China, and other things.
South Carolina Blowout and Bernie’s 5-Year Struggle With Older Black Voters
The majority of high-level staffers on the Sanders campaign didn’t expect Sanders to win South Carolina; particularly against President Obama’s loyal Vice President Joe Biden. But one top staffer poured cold water on Bernie going after the Democratic establishment as a major turnoff to black voters in South Carolina.
“It’s an excuse, a convenient excuse,” a high-level organizer involved with the campaign in South Carolina told Status Coup.
Being that the South is more conservative among both black and white voters, Sanders campaign failed to speak the language of the black community in the South, continuing to talk in the language of progressivism rather than liberation—a tweak that might seem insignificant but could have swayed more older black voters, a high-level organizer said.
He also failed to challenge Biden on one of his greatest potential vulnerabilities with African American voters—the crime bill and his refusal to express regrets as recently as 2016.
Sanders, who voted for the crime bill because of the Violence Against Women provision in it, expressed grave concerns at the time in the early 1990s about the likelihood of the crime bill ushering in an era of mass incarceration in America (a fact that Biden denies occurred to this day).
Sanders expressed regret for voting for Biden’s crime bill; but a top-level staffer said he should have gone further, acknowledging his regrets while challenging Biden over his Trump-esque refusal to admit fault.
Biden’s drafting and pushing of the crime bill, working with segregationist Strom Thurmond to stop busing in the 1970s, and other potential Biden vulnerabilities with black voters were areas Sanders wouldn’t touch—a decision which allowed Biden’s sterling narrative as Obama’s loyal Vice President to remain in tact with older black voters in South Carolina.
“What did he have to lose by saying [during the debate before South Carolina] ‘excuse me Anderson Cooper, can you ask Vice President Biden why he is lying about his civil rights record? You know I was actually there marching with Martin Luther King Jr.’ I don’t understand why he didn’t draw that contrast; it could have helped us a little bit in South Carolina with older black voters because nothing else was.”
Whether you agree with this approach or not, my experience speaking with black voters on-the-ground in South Carolina and other states showed they were largely unaware of Biden’s falsehoods about his “arrest” in South Africa, participating in civil rights sit-ins, and other vivid stories he would often tell while speaking in black churches.
And why would they be aware? The mainstream media largely ignored these falsehoods when, judging by their coverage of Sanders, would have likely gone into 24/7 overdrive if Sanders if he had lied about much of anything, let alone his civil rights record.
Whether going on offense over these things would have shrunk Biden’s victory from 30 points to a less destructive 10-15 point margin is impossible to answer. But one high-level staffer doesn’t buy it, arguing that it wasn’t a matter of Sanders refusing to go after Biden; it was a matter of going after him on things that would be effective on moving voters away from Biden to him.
“If you think people recounting stories from the 1980s inaccurately is more of a driver than the economic stuff of Social Security, than you miss the power of Bernie Sanders,” the staffer said, referencing Sanders giving Biden a pass on his civil rights fibs.
“Bernie’s not going to campaign on that kind of stuff, he never has,” the source said. “What he would do is get something that would reflect an economic or healthcare contrast explicitly; that’s what he was looking for.”
Ultimately, Sanders is someone that wants to campaign for something, rather than tearing down his opponent and going for the political jugular. Although several staffers I spoke to found this trait admirable, the majority found it naive and something future progressive candidates shouldn’t mimic.
One staffer who spoke to Status Coup never bought into senior campaign leadership’s idea that if Bernie won Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, the results in South Carolina would take on less importance.
The staffer recounted thinking at the beginning of the campaign that even if Sanders ran the table and won the first three states—the strategy Shakir and Weaver emphasized—that getting “demolished” again in South Carolina like in 2016 would destroy the campaign. The staffer claimed that the campaign never had a firm strategy to win more older black voters—dooming it to ultimate defeat regardless of its success in the first three states.
“Management acted as though the momentum of winning Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and California would be sufficient to carry us to the nomination,” four paid organizers wrote in a letter to Status Coup. “This line of thinking drastically underestimated the combined influence of corporate media and power brokers within the democratic establishment to undercut our campaign. Unlike typical political campaigns, a working class movement will only succeed if it out-organizes the opposition. This requires investing heavily in community-based organizing. From the beginning, it was clear that deep organizing would be our key to success.”
Despite senior leaderships’s all-in strategy on Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, the campaign did work hard to perform better in South Carolina.
As previously reported, the campaign deployed campaign co-chair Nina Turner to South Carolina extensively; she traveled there so often she was practically living in the state. Turner put in exhaustive work working the phones to local officials and political leaders in the state while reaching out to as many black communities as possible. Multiple staffers involved with the South Carolina campaign stressed that the problem wasn’t the campaign not working hard enough to do better in the state; instead, it was the over investment on Iowa and New Hampshire while not hiring enough staffers or running enough TV ads in the state.
Bernie 2020 and the Way Forward
Since Sanders’ suspended his 2020 campaign, a large swath of heartbroken progressives, dealing with the normal range of emotions after your political hero loses—especially after appearing to be on the verge of winning—coupled with the economic and social anxiety stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, have become disillusioned with Sanders lack of organizing of his massive army of supporters amid the pandemic.
“It sets the movement back because, for all the progress we made coming into 2020, a lot of things are going to fill that vacuum—and a lot of those things will not be good,” one former 2020 staffer told Status Coup.
A former 2020 staffer familiar with Sanders’ current thinking told Status Coup: “He’s certainly upset about the situation with the party [Democratic Party],” the staffer said, referencing the party’s weak response to the economic calamity COVID-19 has caused.
Sanders is also human, the staffer said, pointing out he’s going through the normal process of collecting one’s self after such a disappointing result.
“This was the fight of a lifetime for him that really culminated 40 years of public service,” the staffer said, noting that for Sanders to get so close to winning the primary ultimately to fall so quickly has been a tough pill to swallow, leaving him with the need to take some time to process things while figuring out his next steps.
For all the hand-wringing about Sanders’ defeat, and corporate media declarations about “despair” sinking into the progressive movement, there are calls for optimism.
From Charles Booker and Jamal Bowman’s rise in Kentucky and New York, to Paula Jean Swearengin’s Senate primary victory in West Virginia, to the current George Floyd protest movement across the country showing that the multi-racial, mass mobilization of young people that ultimately alluded Sanders’ campaign is in fact possible, progressive victories on the local, and national level, are not decades away from fruition.
“It’s hard to be soothed by this now, but people shouldn’t forget: Bernie Sanders was within 10 days of essentially clinching the Democratic Party nomination against a field that at one-point topped 20 candidates,” a former 2020 staffer told Status Coup. “Now’s not the time for the left to eat each other alive and get divided; we should learn from mistakes made in this battle, and prepare for the war ahead.”
The New York Times’ Charles Blow recently reflected that Sanders doesn’t seem all that radical now.
Can we all just admit this: The transformational changes that covid, the economic crisis, police brutality and racial turbulence will force are precisely some of the things Bernie Sanders was talking about but may have sounded too extreme to some just months ago.
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) June 8, 2020
On Sanders political legacy, Sirota said progressives shouldn’t lose sight of what he has achieved: moving the terms of the American political debate to the left like no other political figure has in the Democratic Party in our lifetime.
“That is no small thing.”
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