Looking for Early Victories, Sanders Lost Chance to Expand Base

A decision after his Nevada loss set up a dynamic that would haunt the campaign for the rest of the race.

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Sanders and His Supporters Reflect as the Primary Ends

Bernie Sanders’ senior advisers were still in Las Vegas the day after the Nevada caucuses when they convened a conference call to plot their path ahead.

Over the previous 10 months, they had focused establishing Sanders as a credible challenger to Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming early favorite in the race. Sanders was drawing thousands of enthusiastic supporters to rallies. As his populist message resonated among restive voters eager for change, he turned a 50-point gap in the polls in Iowa into a narrow loss in the caucuses. Eight days later, he followed up with a come-from-behind landslide win in the New Hampshire primary.

But after the Feb. 20 loss in Nevada, the third contest in the race, Sanders’ team concluded they needed some definitive, and sure, wins. That meant ceding the Southern states that dominated the next round of contests to Clinton and focusing on five primaries and caucuses in states where minority voters wouldn't be as much of a factor.

“The alternative was to spread the resources over more states, like Texas and Tennessee and Georgia and try to accumulate as many delegates as possible,” Tad Devine, one of the advisers who took part in the strategy session, said in an interview. “If we did that we had a very good chance of maybe winning only Vermont, and maybe one other state, but we would not be able to sustain the campaign and we would not be able to relaunch it.”

That early decision set up a dynamic that would haunt the campaign for the rest of the race. While Sanders’ success with white liberals, independents, and young voters led to huge crowds and a flood of small-dollar donations, he would never overcome his crippling deficit with black and Hispanic voters and long-time Democrats. Momentum wasn't a substitute for votes and delegates.

Ultimate Goal

Sanders, 74, made his last stand Tuesday in California, one of six states with contests that essentially wrap up the Democratic race. There he spoke to over 200,000 supporters at over 40 events. Clinton was projected as the winner of the state on Wednesday morning, taking 56 percent of the vote to Sanders’ 43 percent with 94 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press.

Signals already were building that it was over for Sanders' unexpectedly strong bid. Hours before polls closed in California, Clinton, 68, held her victory party after New Jersey's primary ratified, 63 percent to Sanders’ 37, that she had already clinched the Democratic nomination to become the first female presidential candidate of a major party.

If Sanders needed any further confirmation that his race had come to an end, President Barack Obama called both candidates Tuesday night, congratulating Clinton and thanking Sanders for “energizing millions of Americans” with his message. Sanders asked for and got a meeting with Obama at the White House on Thursday to talk about the issues at stake in the election.

If Sanders got a message that he should bow out, he showed no signs of heeding it. At a rally Tuesday night in Santa Monica, California, after Clinton's victory speech and Obama's call, Sanders was talking about continuing into next week's final primary, in Washington D.C., and through the Democratic convention in July.

“We are going to fight hard to win the primary in Washington D.C., and then we take our fight for social, economic, racial, and environmental justice to Philadelphia,” he said. “The struggle continues.”

Whatever the shortfalls of his campaign for the nomination, Sanders succeeded in shifting the agenda for the Democratic Party. With Sanders' prodding, millions of voters were brought into the discussion of whether public college should be debt-free or tuition-free, whether health care should be merely affordable or universal, and whether fracking should be regulated or banned. His biggest impact may have been in elevating the issue of income inequality in both parties.

But Sanders had no intention of being a message candidate. He wanted to win.

“The first conversation I had with him was about how to run a winning race,” campaign manager Jeff Weaver said in an interview, referring to meetings the two began having in late April 2015. 

Warning Sign

As his campaign plotted its post-Nevada path, Sanders had pushed on to South Carolina, where he would intermittently campaign between trips to his targeted March 1, or Super Tuesday, states. 

As the South Carolina primary drew closer, it became clearer that Sanders wouldn't be able to dent Clinton's overwhelming support from black voters, who made up 61 percent the Democratic electorate.

The night of the South Carolina vote, Sanders' chartered plane rushed to take off from a campaign stop in Dallas before polls closed. When he landed in Rochester, Minnesota, the results were worse than expected: Sanders had won 26 percent of the popular vote in South Carolina and, according to exit polls, just 14 percent of the black vote.

“In politics, in a given night sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” Sanders told reporters during a brief gaggle on the tarmac. “Tonight we lost.” He took no questions.

His success with white liberals, independents, and young voters was severely undercut by his inability to make significant gains with black voters. Sanders' problem in the black community was that he didn't have enough time to overcome the Clintons’ “brand recognition” in the African-American community, said former Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, one of Sanders' most visible surrogates and a former Clinton supporter.

In early March, Sanders held a town hall at the predominantly black Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland where he described his own childhood in a rent-stabilized three-room apartment as the most important economic lesson of his life.

“He told his story differently,” Turner said. “Wrapping his story around his platform and that is something I would have liked to see him do more of because he has such a powerful story.” Despite his reception there, Sanders went on to lose Ohio by 14 percentage points, getting just 28 percent of the state's black vote.

Reason for Optimism

As Clinton continued to rack up big margins in states such as Texas, Louisiana, Ohio, and Florida, the Sanders campaign only became more insistent that they could win.

When Sanders started his run for the nomination, his staff knew the path to victory would be difficult. But by the end of the third quarter of 2015, they realized they had a way forward through the thousands of small-dollar donors inspired by Sanders' promise to take on Wall Street and get special-interest money out of politics. When the campaigns released their fundraising numbers at the beginning of October, the Sanders campaign had raised $26 million, just $2 million less than Clinton’s campaign.

“I think that’s when we all realized we could give this thing a run—this is not some symbolic candidacy,” Devine said.

The money kept coming in at prodigious rates after his early victories, often beating Clinton in monthly tallies. But Sanders also was spending money nearly as fast as he was raising it, investing heavily in TV advertising. Despite spending $6.3 million in television ads in five key states that held primaries on March 15, $1 million more than Clinton, he lost in them all.

By April, Sanders' fundraising had slowed, though his spending hadn't, and he started May with just $5.6 million at hand. On June 1, the Clinton campaign announced it had $42 million cash on hand. Sanders aides repeatedly said they didn't know when or if they would release their May numbers before the report becomes public on June 20.

“It's going, actually, really quite well,” Sanders said of his fundraising during a press conference on June 1, one of several he held in the days leading up to the June 7 primaries. “When you have 30 or 40 states ahead of you, you need a lot more money than when you have six states and three non-states. So we have absolutely the financial resources that we need to run a very, very strong campaign here in California.”

Next Steps

The question for the Democratic Party now is what steps Sanders will take to help unify the party and encourage his supporters to back Clinton. In the days leading up to the California primary, aides to Sanders said that the senator was planning a rally in D.C. ahead of its primary—the last on the calendar—and would spend the next few days considering what his options are and preparing for the convention.

“I would argue that his best long-term move, in order of sort of maintaining his movement and keeping his political currency, would be to be seen as doing everything he could possibly do to ensure that she’s elected president and Trump loses,” said Steven Schale, a Democratic strategist who tried to draft Vice President Joe Biden into a presidential run.

While the 2016 primary never reached the level of contentiousness of the 2008 primary, within the top tier of the Sanders campaign there was a disdain for what they saw as the Clinton campaign's ability to spin news. The campaign bristled at suggestions, for example, that Sanders was too critical of Clinton when he held back on attacking her over her e-mails or her family's foundation. 

After Clinton's communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, sought to diminish Sanders' surprise win in Michigan by suggesting the state wasn't very diverse, Weaver lashed out at Clinton. “When it doesn’t suit her political interests, she turns her back on people,” he said in an interview.

For weeks, Democratic Party leaders have been discussing who will be involved in brokering a peace between the two candidates, similar to the closed-door meeting Clinton and Obama held in June 2008 at the home of Senator Dianne Feinstein. A party member involved in the discussions said it would likely be a group effort involving several individuals including Senators Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, and Jeff Merkley, Sanders’ sole backer in the Senate.

The Democratic National Committee's decision to let Sanders pick five members of the 15-person platform draft committee marked a turning point, with both Clinton and Sanders allies praising it as a step in the right direction. Merkley said that prior to the announcement there had been few signs that the DNC was interested in hosting a convention that would bring the two camps together.

“The DNC has largely been regarded as ignoring and even almost campaigning against Bernie Sanders,” he said. “Several of us have been carrying the message back to the DNC that, ‘Look you can’t just say you’re neutral, you have to actually be neutral.’” Merkley said he was “very, very pleased” with the deal, which is a “critical pivot” toward making sure both sides feel the convention is welcoming and neutral.

Merkley said he sees party unity as a three-legged stool, where the Sanders campaign, the Clinton campaign, and the DNC all play important roles. “The convention has to be a place where the two teams are treated with respect and some of the issues get an airing,” he said.

For over a month Sanders has insisted that the Democratic National Convention will be contested, with his aides saying they would begin the work of flipping superdelegates after California. But whenever Sanders, who has promised to do everything he can to beat Donald Trump, is ready to concede the race, most of his supporters will likely follow.

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