Fighting Bern Out

Sen. Bernie Sanders continues his improbable run, but he must get past Ohio

Mar 9, 2016 at 9:48 am
click to enlarge Bernie Sanders has pulled the Democratic presidential primary to the left.
Bernie Sanders has pulled the Democratic presidential primary to the left.

Their candidate lost seven of 11 states in last week’s Super Tuesday voting and fell further behind Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the delegate count, but top advisers to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sounded as if they’d just won the jackpot.

“I think it’s fair to say, last night we had a fantastic night,” campaign manager Jeff Weaver told reporters during a press conference at Sanders’ Vermont campaign headquarters. “We shot for five; we got 4.9.”

Weaver was referring to Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Vermont — the five states it targeted on Super Tuesday and, with the exception of Sanders’ home state, where it devoted significant advertising dollars. Sanders won all but Massachusetts, but even there he took nearly as many delegates as Clinton.

“It would’ve been nice if we drew an inside straight flush. We drew to a flush,” said senior strategist Tad Devine. “We still think we have a winning hand in this game, and we’re going to continue to play it for a while.”

While it’s a big deal that upstart candidate Sanders has pulled off those once-improbable victories, including a historic and huge upset in Michigan March 8, his campaign will need much more juice if he is to win the ultimate upset and take the Democratic nomination. Looming most heavily in Sanders’ way: his inability to win over black voters.

Throughout the 25-minute strategy session, Weaver and Devine sought to reverse the narrative that Clinton’s delegate lead had become insurmountable. According to projections by the New York Times, Clinton had expanded her pledged delegate advantage by at least 165 on Super Tuesday and, after the March 8 primaries in Michigan and Mississippi, led Sanders 762 to 549. That doesn’t include super delegates, or party officials who are currently lined up behind Clinton but who could change their votes later.

“Yes, we’re behind,” Devine said prior to Super Saturday. “She has a substantial advantage. We believe we can make that up between now and June.”

Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook disagrees. In a memo he sent reporters the morning of March 2, he noted that Clinton had already secured a larger lead over Sanders than then-senator Barack Obama ever did over Clinton during their 2008 race. Mook argued that the Democratic Party’s proportional allocation of delegates would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Vermonter to erase that lead.

“Sanders doesn’t just have to start winning a few states, but he needs to start winning everywhere and by large margins,” Mook wrote.

He argued that while Sanders has focused on winning a handful of states here and there, Clinton has racked up huge leads in states where Sanders hardly competed. The result? Sanders’ biggest successes on Super Tuesday — in Vermont and Minnesota — netted him 16 delegates apiece. Clinton’s biggest successes, meanwhile — in Texas and Georgia — netted her 78 and 44 delegates, respectively.

Mook also pointed to Sanders’ difficulty wooing nonwhite voters, a critical constituency in the Democratic Party. Exit polls throughout the Super Tuesday states showed African-Americans supporting Clinton over Sanders 83 to 15 percent.

Three days after the Republican presidential candidates debated the size of their, um, hands on national television, their Democratic counterparts engaged in a far more substantive affair on March 6 in Flint, Mich. With an eye toward hotly contested Michigan primary March 8, Sanders Clinton lived by the words of the late U.S. House speaker Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.” Both candidates showed up in Flint, a city plagued by a lead-poisoned water crisis, eager to display greater sympathy and resolve.

In his opening statement, Sanders said that what he’d learned about the situation had “literally shattered me.”

“It was beyond belief that children in Flint, Mich., in the United States of America in the year 2016 are being poisoned,” he said. “That is clearly not what this country should be about.”

A moment later, Clinton echoed the sentiment: “Well, I’ll start by saying amen to that.”

For more than 20 minutes, the two mostly agreed with one another: that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder should resign over his office’s response to the crisis, that the federal government could prevent future such calamities by investing in infrastructure and that Flint must not be forgotten once the television cameras pack up and leave.

But when the subject turned to manufacturing and Clinton outlined her plan to prevent outsourcing, Sanders went in for the kill.

“I am very glad, Anderson, that Secretary Clinton discovered religion on this issue, but it’s a little bit too late,” he said, addressing debate moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN. “Secretary Clinton supported virtually every one of the disastrous trade agreements written by corporate America.”

Clinton quickly swiped back, accusing Sanders of voting against bailing out the auto industry during the 2008 financial crisis. (Sanders actually supported that provision, but he voted against it in a broader bill that also bailed out Wall Street.)

“I voted to save the auto industry,” Clinton said. “He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference.”

Then came the moment that Clinton’s supporters hope will define the debate.

“If you are talking about the Wall Street bailout, where some of your friends

destroyed this economy through—” Sanders said, waving his right index finger at Clinton.

“You know—” Clinton interrupted. 

“Excuse me,” Sanders snapped, his eyes bulging and his face fierce with anger. “I’m talking.”The audience erupted. 

At least twice more, Sanders made similarly dismissive remarks, prompting Clinton sympathizers to compare the episode to when Rick Lazio, her 2000 Republican Senate opponent, approached her onstage in what was characterized at the time as a bullying manner. Sanders managed to lighten the mood when Clinton said she would release the transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street banks “as long as everybody else does, too.”

“Alright, look, Secretary Clinton wants everybody else to release it,” Sanders said. “Well, I’m your Democratic opponent. I release it. Here it is! There ain’t nothing! I don’t give speeches to Wall Street for hundreds of thousands of dollars. You got it?”

Near the end of the night, the candidates praised themselves for steering clear of the name-calling that characterized last Thursday’s Republican debate. “You know, we have our differences,” Clinton said. “And we get into vigorous debate about issues, but compare the substance of this debate with what you saw on the Republican stage last week.”Sanders agreed. “You know, we are, if elected president, going to invest a lot of money into mental health,” he said. “And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in that.” 

A version of this story originally appeared in Vermont

newsweekly Seven Days, which is chronicling Sen. Sanders' political career from 1972 to the present at