The Memo: What happened to Bernie Sanders?

Where did it all go wrong for Bernie SandersBernie SandersExpanding tax credit for businesses retaining workers gains bipartisan support The battle of two Cubas Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Ro Khanna MORE?

Only a week ago, the Vermont senator looked like he was closing in on the Democratic nomination. A decisive win across many of the 14 Super Tuesday states could have given him a delegate lead that his rivals would have struggled to reel in.

Instead, Sanders’s campaign is in mortal peril.


Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points Biden: 'We are a nation in pain, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us' MORE exceeded expectations on Super Tuesday, winning 10 states to Sanders’s four. It is Biden who now holds a significant delegate lead. And Biden is moving onto even more favorable territory in the six states that vote on Tuesday.

Sanders appears to be putting all his chips on winning Michigan, where he sprang a surprise on eventual nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump campaign launches Asian Pacific Americans coalition Van Jones: A 'white, liberal Hillary Clinton supporter' can pose a greater threat to black Americans than the KKK Taylor Swift slams Trump tweet: 'You have the nerve to feign moral superiority before threatening violence?' MORE four years ago. He has held big rallies in the state and has talked up his opposition to free trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement — a key difference with Biden.

But the polls look grim for the left-winger. In five major polls in recent days, Biden’s advantage over Sanders in the Wolverine State has never been less than 12 points. Biden’s lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average in the state was 22.6 points on Monday afternoon.

Sanders is still expected to take Washington state and Idaho — and probably North Dakota, which holds caucuses rather than a primary — on Tuesday. But his chances in Mississippi seem vanishingly small given Biden’s strength with black voters, and he faces an uphill climb in Missouri.

There could, of course, be an upset. Sanders might yet roar back to life just as Biden did after a dismal start in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the odds are against him. The flame of the 2020 Sanders campaign may be close to extinguished.

That leaves Democratic strategists searching for an explanation.

There are plenty from which to choose. But most revolve around one central problem: the Vermont senator’s seeming inability to expand his coalition from its 2016 levels.


Exact comparisons are difficult because, in 2016, Sanders was the de facto sole alternative to Clinton, whereas he has been competing in a multicandidate field this time around.

But some Democrats say that has been part of the problem. Sanders’s 2016 numbers, they say, were inflated by a sizable anti-Hillary vote.

“His base probably got him to about 30 percent of the vote last time. The other 15, 16 points was an anti-Hillary vote,” said Joe Trippi, who was campaign manager for another insurgent candidate, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, in 2004.

Referring to the widespread skepticism of Clinton in some quarters of the Democratic Party, Trippi added, “Joe Biden does not engender that. There is no ‘Anybody But Joe’ campaign.”

If Trippi is right, it would appear to further reduce the chances of Sanders springing the kind of Michigan surprise he needs on Tuesday.

There are other issues too. A number of sources who spoke to The Hill raised, unprompted, Sanders’s refusal to formally affiliate himself as a Democrat.

“I think if he embraced the party more, the activists would be more inclined to not feel threatened by him,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Basil Smikle. “When you rail against the stakeholders of the enterprise you are trying to lead, you are going to engender a tremendous amount of pushback.”

The related issue of the behavior of Sanders’s supporters, especially on social media, is a difficult one.

Sanders has drawn attention to the abuse meted out online to his supporters, including campaign co-chairwoman Nina Turner. And his aides also note that he cannot be held responsible for every tweet sent by anyone who supports him.

At the same time, there have been instances — notably the widespread use of snake emojis directed against Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Memo: Trump ratchets up Twitter turmoil Hillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump tweet for 'glorifying violence' | Cruz calls for criminal investigation into Twitter over alleged sanctions violations | Senators urge FTC to investigate TikTok child privacy issues Warren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in MORE (D-Mass.) at an earlier stage of the race — that have fueled a narrative of intolerance by his supporters.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez rips de Blasio after police cruiser drives into crowd of protestors NYPD police cruisers lurch through group of demonstrators protesting Floyd's death States respond with force amid another night of protests MORE (D-N.Y.), a key Sanders backer, conspicuously warned against the dangers of factionalism and exclusion when she spoke at a University of Michigan rally with the candidate on Sunday.

For now, Sanders is banking on an ability to raise doubts about Biden. 

On Monday, he blasted Biden in a tweet for the former vice president’s promise that America could “return to normal” under his leadership.

“We cannot return to normal. We need real change,” Sanders insisted.


A debate on Sunday could give Sanders one last shot at a game-changing moment.

But other sources fear the pattern is already set — and that the Vermont independent has failed to do what he promised in terms of the electoral calculus.

Sanders has long claimed that his pledge to fundamentally shake up American society will draw young voters to the polls who would not otherwise vote. His campaign has also put considerable work into improving his standing with black voters above its 2016 levels.

There has been virtually no evidence of the former, and very mixed evidence of the latter.

“The bottom line is Bernie had a strategy and it didn’t work,” said Simon Rosenberg, the founder of the center-left New Democrat Network. “The non-Bernie vote coalesced around Biden, and [Sanders] wasn’t really able to galvanize and mobilize the new electorate the way his campaign had hoped.”

There is, of course, one other huge factor: the desperation on the part of Democrats to oust President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE in November.

For some, Sanders may have looked just too risky. 


Some fear his democratic socialist worldview would be too unpalatable to voters. Others worry about specifics, such as whether his views on the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro would have doomed Democrats to defeat in the crucial state of Florida.

Tad Devine, who worked on the 2016 Sanders campaign but for businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangAndrew Yang discusses his universal basic income pilot program Andrew Yang on the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis McConnell challenger on how Yang endorsement could help him MORE this cycle said, “The most powerful force in the Democratic primary is not any of the candidates. It is Donald Trump. That was not the case four years ago.”

Democratic voters, Devine added, “are just looking for someone to beat Trump.”

Right now, it seems not enough of them think Bernie Sanders is the man for the job.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.