An Autopsy of the Bernie Sanders Campaign

Print More

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Source: Flicke (AFGE).

[Managing Editor’s note: Tikkun does not, and can not, endorse any candidate or party for political office.]
I find it heartbreaking how close we came to having Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee and eventual president of the United States. What a different convention, summer, election, country, and future we would have had! But, alas, my progressive hopes were sadly dashed – yet again. Somehow the candidate with the highest net favorability ratings – largely due to his honesty, kindness, consistency, integrity, and progressive populism – lost to the candidate with the highest unfavorability ratings.
As a doctor of social science, my job in this case is to examine the patient and diagnose the problems. My autopsy of Bernie’s historic 2016 presidential campaign reveals ten causes of death.

1. DNC.
The Democratic National Committee, chaired by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Hillary Clinton’s 2008 National Campaign Co-Chair, was biased toward Hillary and against Bernie in all sorts of ways, including debate numbers and scheduling, slanting interviews and corporate mass media articles, database access, party fundraising and support, etc. The DNC broke its own rules and broke the law. If we didn’t already know it, Wikileaks proved it. The DNC rule about superdelegates was another issue in Hillary’s favor, disadvantaging any challengers.
2. Primary & Caucus Shenanigans.
Whether it was unregistered voters being allowed to vote for Hillary in the Iowa and Nevada caucuses or Bernie voters being disenfranchised in New York, California, Arizona and elsewhere or Bill Clinton campaigning for Hillary in Massachusetts polling stations, these illegal actions cost Bernie votes, delegates, and nominating contests. Election Justice USA concludes that Bernie may have lost 184 pledged delegates due to irregularities and fraud; if he had been awarded them, Bernie would have had a majority of pledged delegates.
3. Corporate Mass Media.
The corporate mass media was demonstrably against Bernie, thereby minimizing his name recognition, a key factor for an underdog candidate. Bernie was given a tiny fraction of the coverage that Hillary and especially Trump received, whether on major network TV or in the New York Times. And of the little coverage that Bernie received, much of it was dismissive or otherwise negative (including about his major speeches, the many rallies across the country for Bernie, and his primary and caucus victories).
4. Wall Street.
Wall Street corporations were against Bernie and for Hillary, for good reason, pouring tens of millions of dollars into her campaign and the SuperPACs that support her. Hillary’s top donors are from Wall Street and, unfortunately, money matters.
5. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Elizabeth Warren is held in high enough esteem by enough Democrats that had she endorsed Bernie, who she ideologically is closest to, he would have won Massachusetts, where he very narrowly lost, and would have garnered the support of many more Democrats during that crucial period.
6. Millennials.
The youth demographic, or Millennials, typically defined as 18-35 years old, was way disproportionately in favor of Bernie, in the range of 70-80% support, yet Millennials were also way disproportionately less likely to vote, with a pathetic voter turnout of about 15%, the lowest turnout of any age group (and only 12% in 2014). If Millennials, now a larger group than Baby Boomers and making up nearly a third of the potential electorate, had voted in significantly higher numbers, Bernie would have easily been the Democratic nominee for president.
7. Blacks.
Even though Bernie’s history, speeches, policies, and platform for racial justice were the most developed, most honest, and most favorable to the Black community, and many Black intellectuals endorsed and actively supported Bernie, the overwhelming number of African American voters sided with Hillary. If the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically, and African Americans, generally, had sided with Bernie, their closer political ally and stronger advocate, Bernie would have been the nominee.
8. Top-Down Organizations.
Although organizations that let their members vote endorsed Bernie (e.g., MoveOn, Democracy for America, Working Families Party), most organizations announced their endorsement in a top-down fashion and supported Hillary (e.g., Planned Parenthood, NARAL, Human Rights Campaign, Service Employees International Union, American Federation of Teachers), even when they gave Bernie a higher rating than Hillary. Many other organizations, which should have been aligned with Bernie based on policy, stayed silent on the sidelines (e.g., AFL-CIO, Greenpeace, Sierra Club).
9. Armchair Activists.
Too many supporters of Bernie were armchair activists, if that at all, only acting as online supporters, and took little or no other action in support of the campaign. Even activists who did take other action, spent way too much time on minor actions with little or no effect (e.g., online polls, surveys, memes, hypotheticals, hoaxes, rumor mongering, silly name calling, and to some extent social media generally), instead of taking high-impact actions for the campaign (e.g., phone banking, canvassing, registering voters, distributing campaign material).
10. Bernie.
Bernie ran a surprisingly great campaign, even surprising himself, but it could have been much better and much more effective. Indeed, he could have won, if he had better handled the following:
a) Age.
Even though Bernie is only about 4-5 years older than Trump and Hillary, he was consistently portrayed as old, while they weren’t, and not only didn’t he do anything to disabuse this view, he often played into and amplified it.
b) Economism.
Even though Bernie had a full platform with many issues across the spectrum, he too often and too quickly focused on economic matters to the exclusion of most others, instead of embracing a deeper and more holistic politics of meaning and calling for a new bottom line that includes yet transcends economics. Bernie should have appealed to people’s whole beings, rather than so single-mindedly focusing on their wallets. Even after this was shown and known as a problem, Bernie mostly kept at it, typically ignoring or seeming to reduce many other problems, including racial and spiritual ones, to economics.
c) Socialism.
Related to this, Bernie identified himself as a socialist, albeit most often a democratic socialist. Although he greatly helped to mainstream the term and thereby educate people about it, which is positive, there are still many Americans who are against it and would not vote for a socialist, whether or not they accurately know what it means. Bernie is much more of a New Dealer than a socialist and it would have been more effective to emphasize his new deal and new bottom line, which would have better resonated with Americans. To a lesser extent, this misguided antipathy to socialism might also have been true about Bernie’s Judaism, which he unfortunately downplayed, and his secular conception of God.
d) Foreign Policy.
With the exception of opposing the Iraq War, Bernie said precious little about foreign policy and demonstrated a profound lack of interest in the subject. This made him seem less presidential and less ready to occupy the office of the president, especially while running against a former secretary of state. Bernie should have both more actively criticized Hillary’s poor judgment despite her vast foreign policy experience and put forward a positive vision of a just foreign policy consistent with his domestic one.
e) Bootstrapping.
After every state contest, and especially after every victory, Bernie should have bootstrapped on the amazing energy that people put into those contests. He should have encouraged people to stay actively involved by personally asking people to donate money to his and other progressive campaigns, to contact people in other states, and to form local branches of Our Revolution for a more bottom-up political revolution.
f) Motto.
Bernie’s campaign slogan, A Future to Believe In, was rarely spoken and not widely known. A better slogan, such as Real Deal, would have much more effectively and coherently conveyed his message and his candidacy, representing his personality, record, and policies for America, with a nice historical tie-in to FDR’s New Deal, which was often referenced in relation to his campaign.
g) VP.
Even though choosing a vice presidential running mate early would have been unusual, this was a very unusual campaign. Bernie should have chosen his strong supporter Nina Turner as VP. As an African American woman, strong feminist, and former Ohio State Representative, she could have greatly helped Bernie in these key areas where he was weaker, undercutting Hillary’s core bases of support. As a powerful speaker and strong supporter of Bernie (“The cause is just and the time is now!”), she would have been a more effective surrogate than she was and would have attracted more media and popular attention for his campaign.
Even with these fatal disadvantages, Bernie awakened millions of people, collected and spent a record amount of money from a record-breaking number of grassroots supporters without relying on SuperPACs and billionaires, helped set the political agenda and shift the public debate leftward, won 23 nominating contests while coming close in some others and garnered about 46% of pledged delegates (becoming the first non-Christian to get any delegates in America), encouraged many other progressives to get involved in the political system, and has started Our Revolution, an organization and movement to continue the political revolution he ignited.
I am highly confident that Bernie could have won the nomination, and then easily the general election against fascistic Trump, but what he accomplished is not too shabby for an old Brooklyn-born Jewish democratic socialist from the tiny state of Vermont. These are no small achievements, despite the unnatural death of the Bernie Sanders campaign for president. Time will tell what his legacy will be for America.
Dan Brook, Ph.D. teaches Political Science at City College of San Francisco. His ebooks are available at
Read More: A Response to Cherie Brown’s Article on the Movement for Black Lives Platform and Israel by Donna Nevel
Tikkun’s Interview with Dr. Jill Stein by Rabbi Michael Lerner and Ari Bloomekatz
Policing Pride by Sofie Werthen