While he has talked about economic inequality almost to the exclusion of other forms of inequality, Sen. Bernie Sanders has found the most success so far in states where inequality is low — and he has lost in 16 of the 17 states with the highest levels of income inequality.
During an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd this weekend, Sanders tried to explain those losses by saying that “poor people don’t vote.” Having promised to raise a new army of voters from the disenchanted and dispossessed, Sanders now blames their low turnout for his defeats. “I mean, that’s just a fact. That’s a sad reality of American society,” he said.
But Sanders is wrong to say that he would do better if more poor Americans voted. In fact, the proletariat is voting in these primaries; they’re just not voting for him.
Sanders has lost Democratic voters with household incomes below $50,000 by 55 percent to 44 percent to Clinton across primaries where network exit polls have been conducted. (He has lost by a wider 21 percentage-point margin among voters with incomes above $100,000, and by 9 points among middle income voters.)
After Hillary Clinton’s crushing New York win last week, there was some attention to the plight of registered independents who were locked out of the Democratic Party primary, feeding continued denialism among his supporters.
Yet there are several reasons to doubt that an open primary would have changed things, chief among them being that the word ‘independent’ is not at all synonymous with ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ or even ‘moderate.’ The independents who might choose to vote on a Democratic ballot will break closely enough like other kinds of voters that they make little difference in the overall outcome.
Just as there is no advantageous series of states left that might give Sanders the needed surge of delegates, no magical demographic will appear to save this doomed candidacy: not the young, not the educated, and not the working class or the underclass.
Which is weird, right? Sanders speaks to the interests of poor and working Americans almost to the point of monotony, but has nevertheless failed to close the deal with them at the ballot box.
His campaign platform rearranges the American social contract to relieve poverty, reduce inequality, and shift the burden back up the income scale. His ardent supporters emphasize his promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 rather than $12 an hour, as Clinton has vowed.
Yet tomorrow, Sen. Sanders is expected to lose races in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware, falling behind by as many as 300 delegates and more than three million votes in his bid to upset Clinton, an effort which will then have no clear path forward.
Why didn’t his message resonate better with poor and working class Americans? One easy answer is race. Clinton wins handily among African Americans, who are disproportionately poor, and they were a dominant force in her winning coalition during Super Tuesday. But that isn’t the only answer.
In many ways, the Sanders phenomenon is the first campaign-season flowering of the Thomas Frank school of progressives who ignore political science and focus almost exclusively on populist answers to the economic distress of the working class. The most passionate supporters of Sen. Sanders in my social media circles always seem to think that minds will change if matters are simply explained to them repeatedly, and with enough conviction; they are students of the Frank school.
But the fundamental premise of this ‘theory of change’ — that Republicans have merely distracted working class voters from their true, rational interests using culture war issues, which said Republicans don’t really care about anyway — is deeply flawed. Democrats still remain the party most associated with working class values, while Republican legislators have become more fixated on welfare, abortion, gender, and sexuality in recent years, not less. The end of the Sanders campaign is a failure of Frankism.
Furthermore, I suspect that slacktivism has failed here, with harsh lessons for the netroots: trending hashtags does not get out the vote. A viral Facebook meme does not vote. The size of a candidate’s (very expensive) rallies shows how enthusiastic their supporters are, not how numerous his or her voters will be on Election Day. ‘Get out the vote’ rules the day no which class those votes come from — rich, poor, or middle. Oh, you have a candidate who’s as pure as the driven snow and fueled with a bazillion small donations? That’s nice, but it’s no guarantee that anyone will show up to vote for them in Harlem. If you want to get poor people out to vote, it will take courage and shoe leather and knuckles sore from knocking on doors.
There has been a tenor change to the campaign in recent days as they reckon with the daunting electoral math now lying ahead. For once, Sanders is lowering expectations instead of making hope-based predictions that he fails to meet. Last week, his campaign manager Jeff Weaver insisted that the fight would be carried on through California, all the way to the convention floor in Philadelphia, regardless of the delegate count; this week, his senior adviser Tad Devine allows that the campaign may have to “reevaluate” after tomorrow’s results.
Reacting to Sanders’s response on poor voters, Chuck Todd wondered if the discussion — which was taped on Saturday — had been his “exit interview” from the race. On Friday, Sanders had already discussed what his capitulation might look like with Andrea Mitchell, indicating that the level of his support for Clinton will be conditional on her verbal attitude towards his favorite hobby horses.
I want to see the Democratic Party have the courage to stand up to big-money interests in a way that they have not in the past, take on the drug companies, take on Wall Street, take on the fossil fuel industry, and I want to see them come up with ideas that really do excite working families and young people in this country.
Sanders doubled-down on this point with Todd:
(T)he major responsibility will be on Secretary Clinton to convince all people — not just my supporters — that she is the kind of president this country needs to represent working people in this country, to take on the big money interests who have so much power.
Clinton has done just fine with low-income voters, is doing just fine with low-income voters, and will do just fine with low-income voters. In the course of the convention and general election campaign to come, rest assured she will stand close to Elizabeth Warren and make all the right noises about big money versus the little guy. Clinton may even borrow his tropes as requested, but she’s already got a good handle on this situation. It’s why she’s winning.