Four Questions for Bernie Sanders About His Campaign 2016 Strategy

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) looks up to the crowd during a rally in Springfield, Ore., April 28, 2016.


Bernie Sanders isn’t quitting the race, but his advisers are hinting that the nomination fight is effectively over. Coming off a series of losses, they concede Mr. Sanders can’t erase Hillary Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates in the 14 contests that remain.

That’s a pretty big admission. What it means is the only way for Mr. Sanders to win is to persuade hundreds of Democratic insiders known as superdelegates to abandon Mrs. Clinton and line up behind the candidate who has been bashing the party establishment on and off for decades–a scenario that isn’t very likely.

So, it’s a good time to take stock of an insurgent candidate who wildly exceeded expectations in the Democratic race for president and yet made some puzzling moves that seemed to have made his pursuit of the nomination tougher.

Here are four questions for the Sanders campaign:

1. Why did Mr. Sanders take the Clinton email issue off the table?

The Vermont senator boxed himself in when he told Mrs. Clinton at the first debate in October that Americans were “sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.

Once he said it, there was no going back. Mr. Sanders would look foolish if he pivoted and put the email controversy front-and-center. But why hand his opponent so generous a gift?

Mrs. Clinton exclusively used a private account and server during her tenure as secretary of state. In relying on that system, she ran the risk of exposing sensitive classified material and complicated public records requests.

In February, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled that top aides to Mrs. Clinton could be questioned under oath about whether they deliberately skirted public records laws by making use of the private email system. “This case is about the public’s right to know,” the judge said.

Mr. Sanders has been happy to question Mrs. Clinton’s judgment and integrity when it comes to other matters. He faulted her for taking money from Wall Street and voting to authorize the Iraq War when she was a senator from New York.

Doesn’t the email controversy also come down to judgment?

2. Why did he wait so long to build ties to African-American voters?

If Mrs. Clinton clinches the Democratic nomination, a key reason is the African-American vote. She built her all-but-insurmountable delegate lead on the loyalty of black voters.

Mr. Sanders comes from a state with few black voters and he seems to have done little in his political career to forge the sorts of relationships in the black community that would prove valuable in a presidential race. That project needed to begin years ago – not in the heat of a race against the Clintons. Former President Bill Clinton was so popular with African-Americans during his tenure he was dubbed the “first black president.” He opened an office in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood after leaving the White House in 2001.

Mr. Sanders has spent the past few months scrambling to make the case to African-American voters that he would be a reliable ally in the White House. It hasn’t helped. Exit polls show he got crushed by Mrs. Clinton among black voters. Mr. Sanders made some of his most aggressive moves to court black voters during the New York primary fight; Mrs. Clinton won New York and beat him among black voters by 50 points.

Some black leaders who’ve known him in Vermont say they aren’t surprised. Vaughn Carney is an African-American attorney in Vermont who said that he voted for Mr. Sanders many times over the years. Mr. Sanders, he said, always seemed more comfortable talking about broad issues of economic class and income inequality than race.

“His feeling is that economics is the answer and government is the answer and that’s going to solve all the racial issues,” said Mr. Carney, a Clinton supporter. “I don’t buy that.”

3. Why did he wait so long to build ties to Democrats?

Mr. Sanders first ran for office in Vermont in 1971 as a member of the Liberty Union Party. Ten years later he ran for mayor of Burlington as an independent. He stayed an independent until he declared himself a Democrat last year (Vermont doesn’t have party registration) when he entered the race for the presidential nomination.

That’s an unconventional path for someone who wants to lead the Democratic Party. And Mr. Sanders is now paying a price. Superdelegates are party leaders and past and present elected officials who get an outsize say in picking the Democratic nominee. They are backing Mrs. Clinton by 520 to 39, according to an Associated Press tally.

As a lawmaker Mr. Sanders has consistently voted with the Democrats and he has supported Democratic candidates running for office. But he’s never been a creature of the party.

“Party politics has not been central to our lives, that’s true,” Jane Sanders, the candidate’s wife, said in an interview. Winning over superdelegates is harder, she said, “because they committed to Secretary Clinton very early and they’ve known her for years, if not decades.”

What seems clear is Mr. Sanders never thought he’d be in this position: running a truly competitive race against the Clinton juggernaut. Had he foreseen where his political career was headed, one wonders if he wouldn’t have switched to the Democratic Party sooner and perhaps spent more time wooing the officials who wield so much influence.

4. Why did he write off the South?

The Sanders campaign made an early strategic decision that haunts the candidate to this day. Rather than focus on winning delegates in the early going, Mr. Sanders sought to capture some marquee states and demonstrate Mrs. Clinton was beatable.

Trouble is, delegates determine the winner — not states. Sanders aides concede they put up little fight in a slew of Southern states with large black populations.

So, Mrs. Clinton won landslide victories in Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and elsewhere. Under Democratic rules that award delegates proportionally, she built up a large lead that Mr. Sanders never overcame.

What would have happened if Mr. Sanders had tried a different approach? What if he had bought more TV ads and campaigned harder in the South? It’s possible he would have picked up more delegates and kept the race closer. Even if that meant losing a few extra states, the trade-off might have been worth it.


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