The 2008 Democratic presidential primary fight proved that the Clinton machine can be beaten despite enjoying enormous advantages in terms of funding, connections, and name recognition. The question is: can Bernie Sanders repeat in 2016 what no one thought possible in 2008? Although Sanders can’t mechanically follow candidate Barack Obama’s playbook, team Sanders has to adapt some of that playbook’s strategic principles to have a shot at winning.
Principle 1: Pledged Delegates Are the Key
Hillary Clinton lost the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 2008 to Barack Obama by the thinnest of margins despite winning the popular vote because Obama won slightly more pledged delegates during the race than she did — 1,828.5 to her 1,726.5.
Pledged delegates are awarded to presidential contenders based on how well they do in the Democratic Party primaries and caucuses1 held in the country’s 435 Congressional districts as well as the District of Columbia and U.S. territories in a total of 57 contests. Clinton’s attempt to override the results of the process that gave Obama a slim majority of pledged delegates by appealing to current and former Democratic Party officeholders (the so-called superdelegates) failed. Superdelegates were not about to risk a fight on the convention floor with furious Obama supporters and throw the party into disarray on the eve of the general election campaign to make a winner out of a loser. As Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and superdelegate put it at the time: “If the votes of the superdelegates overturn what’s happened in the elections, it would be harmful to the Democratic Party.”
To become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee the way Obama did in 2008, Sanders needs to win approximately 1,885 pledged delegates2 — that is, 50% of all pledged delegates plus 1. The number of pledged and unpledged delegates needed to clinch the nomination outright is 2,242.
Like Obama, Sanders must use the quirks of the pledged delegate system to gain advantage. For example, Clinton won 50.8% of the vote statewide in Nevada to Obama’s 45.1% but Obama ended up with 14 of the state’s pledged delegates to Clinton’s 11. How did that happen? Only one-third of any state’s pledged delegates are awarded on the basis of statewide election results; the remaining two-thirds of a state’s pledged delegates are divided among its Congressional districts. So while Obama lost the statewide popular vote, he won a greater number of district contests and accumulated a greater number of pledged delegates. Just because a state goes to Clinton doesn’t mean that the majority of the state’s districts will follow.
Principle 2: Protracted War, Targeted Fights
In 2008, the Clinton machine expected Super Tuesday to be a knockout punch for the Obama and John Edwards campaigns. They figured that their underdog challengers would find it impossible to overcome Clinton’s name recognition and fund-raising advantages in all 23 states holding primaries on February 5. Based on this entirely reasonable supposition, the Clinton machine prepared itself strategically and organizationally for a quick nomination war whose outcome would be decided by one or two decisive battles.
The Obama campaign reached the same conclusion that they couldn’t possibly compete with the Clinton machine man-for-man, dollar-for-dollar in all 23 Super Tuesday states, so they poured their more limited resources into smaller states like Alaska and Idaho where they could get more bang for their buck in terms of reaching voters and organizing people. The second prong of their Super Tuesday counter-strategy was to focus resources and vigorous grassroots mobilization efforts in Congressional districts with Obama-favorable demographics (areas with large African-American populations, for example) to weaken Clinton’s knockout punch in order to minimize her pledged delegate gains in states she was certain to win.
The end result of all this strategizing and counter-strategizing? Of the 1,681 pledged delegates in play on Super Tuesday, Obama won 845 to Clinton’s 836. Obama lost the pledged delegate races in both California and New York but not by huge margins. Clinton’s Super Tuesday knockout punch not only failed to materialize but Obama improved on his pledged delegate lead. At that point, the Clinton campaign nearly imploded. While she put a mortgage on her house to keep the lights on at campaign headquarters, Obama began tapping into financial reserves set aside for the post-Super Tuesday contests.
Obama was prepared for a protracted war; Clinton was not.
Like Obama, Sanders must wage a protracted war characterized by carefully targeted fights. Fortunately for him, the 2016 primary calendar makes a protracted struggle more likely than in it was 2008. Super Tuesday 2016 consists of 11 contests over 872 pledged delegates compared to 23 contests over 1,681 pledged delegates in 2008, so the likelihood of Sanders suffering a devastating knockout that day will be less than it was for Obama. Another reason Super Tuesday 2016 probably won’t be a devastating blow for Sander is that 4 of the 11 contests will be caucuses, town hall-style debates and discussions where voters assemble, argue the merits of the candidates, and choose who they favor at the end of these mini-debates. Historically, caucuses are won by whichever candidate’s grassroots activists are more passionate, persuasive, and persistent. As Clinton complained in 2008:
“We have been less successful in caucuses because it brings out the activist base of the Democratic Party. MoveOn didn’t even want us to go into Afghanistan. I mean, that’s what we’re dealing with. And you know they turn out in great numbers. And they are very driven by their view of our positions, and it’s primarily national security and foreign policy that drives them. I don’t agree with them. They know I don’t agree with them. So they flood into these caucuses and dominate them and really intimidate people who actually show up to support me.”
With the exceptions Guam and Samoa, Obama won all the caucus contests by 2-to-1 margins and there’s no reason to think Sanders supporters will lose any enthusiasm contests given how fundamentally vacuous and tired Clinton’s candidacy is.
Principle 3: Win the Narrative, Frame the Choice
None of Obama’s shrewd pledged delegate strategies would have worked if he hadn’t controlled the overall political framing of what the 2008 election would be about: change.
Change was Obama’s mantra; he owned it, he embodied it, and he wielded it effectively against Clinton to turn her years in Washington, D.C. into a lead weight that sank her candidacy. Clinton accepted Obama’s framing of her as the experience candidate thinking she could turn his non-existent Washington résumé into a fatal liability. Instead, it increased his appeal by highlighting the contrast between herself as the consummate Washington insider representing politics as usual and Obama as the ‘post-partisan’ outsider. In response to this, Clinton defensively insisted that “real change” could only come from someone with experience. Trying to have it both ways as the change and the experience candidate failed and she was defeated. But she took the first step down the road to defeat when — as the so-called front-runner! — she accepted Obama’s political framing of the election and the candidates.
The fact that Clinton is utterly unable to dictate the narrative framing of the 2016 election and force her competitors to respond to that framing on her terms despite her enormous lead over them in most polls shows that her candidacy is just a glorified paper tiger.
Today, Bernie Sanders represents change and experience. He has been crusading against the big money Establishment and for working and poor people his entire political life, first as mayor of Burlington, then as Vermont’s only representative in the House, and more recently as Vermont’s Senator. Sanders’ narrative — that the country is facing huge problems on a scale not seen since the Great Depression, that income inequality has spiraled out of control, that the American middle class is being obliterated, that the billionaire class is on the verge of locking in their oligarchy by locking out the electorate, and that a political revolution is urgently needed before it’s too late — is compelling, is connecting with and resonating with voters, and is beginning to frame what the 2016 election will be all about.
Here’s the problem: triangulation is neither a competing nor a compelling narrative. Without a counter-narrative, Sanders will frame the choices and the thinking of tens of millions of primary voters. Conceding to the premises of Sanders’ crusade by triangulating with his narrative validates his candidacy, not hers, and makes a tight race between them more rather than less likely. The more she competes on Sanders’ terms and responds within the framework of his narrative, the more likely she is to lose — just like in 2008.
Clinton’s conundrum is this: she would have had to tack ‘left’ in the primary to appease the Democratic Party’s popular base even without Sanders in the race, but since he is in the race, her ‘left’ tacks will have to be more than rhetorical since Sanders is putting forward actionable proposals (and even legislation) to tackle problems like Citizens United, student debt, unemployment among Black and Brown youth, too big to fail banks, and rebuilding the country’s crumbling infrastructure. But the more detailed and specific she gets, the more she risks upsetting her funding base — Wall Street and Corporate America. At the same time, the more ‘left’ tacks she makes, the more voters see her as insincere and phony, feeding the credibility crisis that polls show is slowly consuming her candidacy.
Candidates who have to continually reinvent themselves in this manner to win the presidency usually don’t.
Just ask Mitt Romney.
Or John McCain.
Or John Kerry.
Or Al Gore.
The strengths of each candidate will be critical factors in their fight to win the nomination. Here is a comparison of their strengths and the implications of those strengths for the race:
- Sanders’ strongest and most enthusiastic supporters will likely be younger voters (particularly those who were too young to vote for Obama in 2008), older voters, and unionized, blue-collar, and low-wage workers.
- Sanders will do better in open primary states that allow independents and Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary since he has an uncanny cross-over appeal that Clinton — as a polarizing and partisan figure — lacks.
- Sanders’ geographic strength will be in New England which is readily accessible to his large network of grassroots supporters in Vermont. He will also do better in less populated/more rural, predominantly white states; the more a state is like Vermont, the more likely Sanders is to win it.
- Clinton will have an advantage over Sanders among Hispanic and African-American voters.
- Clinton’s geographical strength will be in her home states of Arkansas and New York.
- Clinton will do better in large states like California where it is very difficult and prohibitively expensive to wage an effective grassroots campaign. In these states, billionaire class dollars, television ads, and name recognition will give her the edge.
- Clinton has huge institutional advantages — the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) finance chief is openly flouting the Democratic Party’s neutrality rules and bylaws by raising money for Clinton; the DNC is keeping the number of debates low to limit Sanders’ exposure to national audiences; President Obama is likely to endorse and campaign for Clinton; and party officials who orchestrate the state and national Democratic conventions and caucuses will use every underhanded tactic they can against Sanders and his supporters.
- The Democratic Party’s billionaire class will not split between the top two contenders the way they did in 2008 — they will be united for Clinton and against Sanders.
Sanders’ Path to Victory
Professional pundits who relish dismissing Sanders’ chances based on today’s polls have learned nothing from the 2007-2008 protracted primary war, but that’s no surprise — they are paid to yak, not to think. Hillary Clinton was far and away the front-runner in 2007-2008 almost until the day people started voting. Her front-runner status was frozen in place until late 2007.
As election day neared, millions of voters woke up, tuned into the corporate media’s non-stop coverage of the campaign, and started watching the televised debates between the candidates. Previously frozen poll numbers thawed and then became fluid. Once the race became heated, Clinton’s seemingly insurmountable lead evaporated and she was never able to catch up to Obama’s early lead in pledged delegates.
To break open the possibility of victory for Sanders, two things need to happen:
- The aura of ‘inevitability’ surrounding Clinton’s coronation must be shattered.
- Sanders has to go from being perceived by millions of voters as a well-meaning but hopeless underdog to being seen as the people’s champ with a fighting chance.
Both of these developments can happen in the pre-Super Tuesday contests, particularly when all six of the presidential debates organized by the DNC are scheduled to take place as the grassroots campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire begins in earnest. Although the limited number of debates benefits Clinton by minimizing Sanders’ exposure, the timing of the debates benefit Sanders. The small number of debates also means that the stakes for Clinton in each debate are higher — any gaffe, flub, or poor performance on her part will be more costly politically than if the DNC scheduled the usual 1-2 dozen debates.
The six debates will be a turning point in the campaign. They will serve as unmatched free advertising for Sanders by elevating his status and legitimacy as he stands should to shoulder with Clinton on stage and goes head to head with her on issue after issue as millions of people watch. After the debates, victory in Iowa and New Hampshire will be within reach (if it isn’t already). If he wins Iowa or comes in a close second, the race will heat up just as it did in 2008 when front-runner Clinton’s loss not only to Edwards but to Obama in Iowa electrified the country and made the dream of the first Black president a real possibility. If Sanders’ strong performance in Iowa is followed by wins in New Hampshire and Nevada or South Carolina, he will blow the rest of the race wide open.
The demographics of Iowa and New Hampshire suggest that Sanders will do well at a minimum if he does not win outright. Both states are rural and (very) white like Sanders’ home state of Vermont and white Democrats are far more likely to be against or skeptical of Clinton than non-white Democrats. Iowa’s caucus-goers rejected Clinton once before by a 2-to-1 margin and New Hampshire is literally next door to Sanders’ campaign headquarters, allowing hundreds (maybe thousands) of Vermonters to do the kind of grassroots campaigning in New Hampshire that propelled him to victory in 13 elections in Vermont. As if that weren’t enough, the focus group-driven consultant-heavy Clinton campaign’s media control-freakery will be a negative in these states where town halls and retail politics — both of which has Sanders mastered over decades of non-stop practice — are critical.
The real challenge for Sanders will be how well he does in states without characteristics so favorable to him such as Nevada (with its large Hispanic population) and South Carolina (with its large African-American population), the two contests after Iowa and New Hampshire. This is where the campaign will get interesting. The Clinton machine will be banking on winning both states to kill whatever forward momentum Sanders develops out of Iowa and New Hampshire — will they go negative and start running attack ads against a man who has never run a negative ad in his life? Will such a move backfire (as it did last time when Bill Clinton trash-talked Obama in South Carolina)? Will Sanders debate Republican presidential contenders on his own once the DNC debates are over and the DNC’s threat to exclude candidates who join unsanctioned debates loses its power? Will the Clinton machine’s bet on the Black vote pay off given that Black voter turnout in places like South Carolina will be significantly lower with Obama’s name no longer on the ballot? How will the South Carolina AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Sanders affect his turnout?
All of these unknowns make generalizations about the state of the race impossible. Whatever happens, we know that the nomination fight will proceed through three distinct strategic phases — before Super Tuesday, Super Tuesday, and after Super Tuesday — and educated guesses about which Super Tuesday states will lead towards which contender based on their strengths and state characteristics can shed some light on what needs to do to win.
|Likely Sanders||Likely Clinton||Toss-Up|
|Colorado (64)||Virginia (95)||Texas (208)|
|Massachusetts (95)||Georgia (98)||—|
|Minnesota (78)||North Carolina (107)||—|
|Oklahoma (38)||Samoa (6)||—|
|358 (Total)||306 (Total)||208 (Total)|
Likely Sanders states were determined in the following manner: Colorado and Minnesota are caucuses, Vermont is his home state, Massachusetts is home to liberal darling Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Oklahoma and Tennessee are white, rural states. Likely Clinton states were determined largely by the fact that Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina have large (20% or more) Black populations and Samoa went with Clinton in 2008. Texas has a combined primary and caucus system making the likely outcome impossible to predict.
Like Obama in 2008, team Sanders must avoid a Super Tuesday knockout. However, even if Clinton manages to trounce him by a 2-to-1 margin in the pledged delegate count (584 to 292), there would still be 2,745 pledged delegates up for grabs in the remaining 42 contests. Even in this worst case scenario on Super Tuesday, a difficult, protracted war for the Democratic presidential nomination is all but guaranteed and that can only benefit Sanders.
The Pace of the Race
Obama established an early lead over Clinton straight out of the gate and she was never able to catch up in the pledged delegate count despite some net gains later in the race. By contrast, the race between Sanders and Clinton is already more like that of the tortoise and the hare — ‘everyone’ knew the hare’s victory was ‘inevitable’, but the overconfidence bred by the aura of inevitability allowed the slower, steadier tortoise to win. Since announcing his presidential campaign on April 30, Sanders has gone from 5% in national polls to 32% against Clinton’s 44% in a recent New Hampshire poll and 41% among Democratic Party officials and activists at a Wisconsin party convention. There is still a year left to go in this race and the tortoise is already hot on the heels of the hare.
- Like the Electoral College, the presidential primary process system that governs how the Democratic and Republican parties choose their respective nominees is a system of indirect elections — voters cast their votes for other people who will do the real voting that counts at the national conventions of each party. No voter will vote directly for Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or anyone else. Furthermore, like (most) electors in the Electoral College, pledged delegates are not legally bound to cast their votes at the party convention for whomever they are ‘pledged’ to. Because the primary process is a system of indirect elections, news stories claiming that Sanders cannot participate in the Democratic Party primary in states like New York because he is not registered to vote as a Democrat are wrong and should be ignored since voters are electing electors, not the candidate himself, on the day of the primary election which makes Sanders’ non-membership in the Democratic Party a non-issue.
- The precise number of delegates will fluctuate until the day of the Democratic Party convention since unexpected events (such as death) could alter the number of superdelegates and therefore the total number of delegates.