The establishment, which I guess I’m a part…knows as much about electability as a donkey knows about calculus. We always get it wrong. . .The voters are going to tell us who’s electable.
— Steve Rosenthal
History will recall that 2020 was the year climate issues finally mattered enough to voters to guide their hands when it came time to mark their ballots. Will history also record that the 2020 election resulted in the break-up of the Democratic party and that an underlying cause of the separation was the rise of the youth climate movement around the Green New Deal (GND)?
The battle for the Democratic nomination is a battle for the party itself, and it’s something of an age thing--OK? Ironically, a septuagenarian piper is at the forefront of a generational change in Democratic politics, while a 38-year-old former mayor is a moderate whose policy positions are more in keeping with the Democratic establishment. In between are a couple of billionaires, two senators, and a former vice president.
Unlike the 2016 election, climate change has become a prominent and distinguishing feature of the Democratic party’s message to voters. Although differing in degrees, every contender for the Democratic nomination has made the defense of the environment and the transition to a low-carbon economy a priority—one they vow to act on from their first day in office to their last.
The only way the environment loses in November is if the Democrats do. Because of internal party conflicts between moderates and a full-on left-wing populist, the possibility of a Novem-ber loss to the unarguably worst environmental president in history is growing. As reported in the Washington Post:
The dawning realization for many in the party is that what Democrats had envisioned as a jubilant national convention in Milwaukee … has the potential to turn into a pitched battle among multiple can-didates and their supporters, each representing dueling ideological wings of the party and convinced that the other side would lose to Trump.
The current odds[i] that there will be no clear winner at the end of the primary season are a bit higher than those of Bernie Sanders entering the Fiserv Forum as the presumptive nominee. (Figure 1). The last time either major party needed more than a single ballot to nominate its standard-bearer was in 1952—the year Adlai Stevenson took the prize on the third ballot.
If, as Sanders’s and his supporters suspect, the Democratic establishment is looking to force a second ballot in Milwaukee, it could easily mark the end of his second campaign for the nomination and possibly of the Democratic Party as we now know it. For Sanders, it would be déjà vu all over again. This time, however, he would be entering the convention as the leading vote-getter in the primaries.
When the Philadelphia convention was first called to order, neither Sanders nor Clinton had amassed enough delegate votes to secure the nomination on the first ballot. Clinton was shy 149 votes. Sealing the nomination for her were 609 (of 714) superdelegates.
Superdelegates are not elected to their positions; they are party insiders and include Democratic National Committee (DNC) members, governors, senators and representatives. Superdelegates are unbound by the results of their state’s primary. A 2018 rule change pre-vents them from casting their votes on the first ballot.
The change was partially the result of charges by the Sanders forces that the nominating system was rigged in favor of Clinton and the establishment. Even with the rule change, the bar for Democratic outsiders remains high.
Sanders will need 1,991 pledged delegates on the first ballot to secure the nomination. After the first ballot, the 771 superdelegates can cast their lots. On the second and subsequent ballots, 2,375 votes will be needed for the nomination.
As Biden’s light dimmed following the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, establishment Democrats began to look to the former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, to seize the baton. Recent rule changes by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and appointments to the rules and platform committees of Hillary Clinton allies lend credibility to charges that Bloomberg was the establishment’s designated back-up hitter. His performance in the Nevada and South Carolina candidates’ debate has changed all that—at least for now.
Although Sanders holds a substantial lead over each of his major competitors, 63 percent of Democrats prefer someone else. (Figure 2)
The presence of six not-Bernie[i] candidates not only divides the votes, it complicates efforts to analyze and understand the numbers within the numbers, i.e., which cohorts support which candidates and whether the supporters of losing candidates will switch their allegiance.
As I’ve written before, 16 percent of Bernie-ites said they wouldn’t support any other nom-inee. That number compares with the 87 percent of Biden and the 90 percent of Warren sup-porters who would vote for whoever walked away with the nomination. Five percent of Biden’s folks said no to anyone else, while ten percent of Warren’s indicated it would depend upon the winning candidate. Although survey numbers for Bloomberg, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg have not been found, it is fair to assume that their supporters would act in a manner consistent with those of the other not-Bernies.
Cash is king in a run for the presidency. The 2020 election is no exception. What is remarkable about the current race is the amount of money all the remaining candidates have at the moment—enough it would appear to make it through South Carolina and possibly through Super Tuesday when 14 states accounting for 1,357 or 34 percent of all pledged delegates will be on the line.
The cash-driven staying power of the not-Bernie’s may keep them in the race long enough to garner sufficient delegate totals to deny Sanders the needed first-ballot votes. It had been expected—perhaps hoped is the better word—that the field would have narrowed by now. The presence of two billionaires, the reach of social media, the willingness of a lot of small donors, and super PACs have kept the active candidates “flush,” as opposed to being flushed.
One mistake that the establishment Democrats may be making is to under-estimate the diversity of Sanders supporters. In his previous run, white men favored Sanders by 26.4 per-centage points more than white women. The pronounced presence of so many men gave rise to the tag Bernie Bros.
Today the majority of Sanders’s supporters are women. They are also his major dollar contrib-utors in number. Sanders scores well with multiple critical demographic groups. He ranks first with voters under the age of 44 and Hispanics[ii]—particularly Hispanic women. He continues to outpace other contenders with white males and is second to Biden with Hispanic and Black men.
Sanders is second to Biden, with voters having less than a college education and nearly tied with Warren with college-educated Democrats. Unsurprisingly Bernie ranks behind Biden and Bloomberg with conservative Democrats. He lags Biden by a sizeable amount with moder-ates. Interestingly, Warren ranks highest with liberals with Sanders a close second.
The dilemma of establishment Democrats is how to deny Sanders the nomination without losing the active engagement of his supporters. What’s meant by support in this instance is both stumping and voting for whoever is the nominee—something Sanders did for Clinton despite what she has said about it.
It is important to distinguish this argument from one often put forward by the campaign that Sanders’ candidacy will dramatically increase voter turnout—especially of young balloteers. It is also the argument used by Sanders to deflect questions about the unpopularity of some of his more strident socialist positions—notably the GND, eliminating private health insurance in favor of Medicare-for-All.
There’s little evidence to suggest that voter turnout is what will swing the pendulum to the Democrats or that Sanders's name on the ballot would increase voter participation over what it would otherwise be. Although the number of cast ballots in the 2018 midterms was higher than usual for a non-presidential election, research by the data firm Catalist concluded that 89 percent of the Democrats’ winning performance was the result of people who voted for Trump in 2016 voting Democratic in 2018.
It was opposition to Trump and unpopular actions by the Republican Congress, e.g., efforts to repeal Obamacare’s existing conditions provisions and tax cuts for the wealthy, motivated 2018 voters. Moreover, Democratic victories in the 2018 congressional midterms mostly repre-sent districts that are either moderate or conservative—often having recently voted Repub-lican.
The most notable exception was New York’s 14th congressional district in which Ocasio-Cortez defeated the very establishment Democrat Joe Crowley. Crowley was often spoken of as the presumptive successor to House Speaker Pelosi (D-CA).
Ocasio-Cortez is the left-wing populist phenom who brought the Green New Deal with her to Washington. She and Sanders have developed a tight relationship both in Congress and on the hustings. They’ve authored several bills together that reflect their democratic socialist philo-sophies on topics ranging from the environment to loan sharking.
Individually, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are credible threats to the Democratic establishment. Together they’re striking terror into the enablers of the establishment like James Carville who has taken his fears of a Sanders’s candidacy on the road:
I'm scared to death. I really am. If we go the way of the British Labour party, if we nominate Jeremy Corbyn, it's going to be the end of days.
Sanders's momentum has prompted increasingly harsh and divisive language on the part of the not-Bernies. Before leaving Nevada, Buttigieg sounded an ominous warning about a poten-tial Sanders candidacy.
Before we rush to nominate Senator Sanders…let us take a sober look at what is at stake for our party, for our values and for those with the most to lose…to defeat Donald Trump…is to broaden and galvanize the majority that supports us on critical issues. Senator Sanders believes in an inflexible, ideological revo-lution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) said he thought Sanders's identification as a democra-tic socialist would place a real burden on Democrats in keeping the states and congressional districts they captured in the 2018 midterm elections. Clyburn characterized those districts as not liberal or what you might call progressive. They were, Clyburn said, basically moderate and conser-vative. Clyburn has now endorsed Biden.
Beyond his core litany of policies like Medicare for All, Sanders’s comments commending Fidel Castro for his literacy program worries Democrats like freshman Representative Shalala whose district includes refugees from Castro’s totalitarian regime. Shalala’s concerned about more than how Sanders will fare in November, she’s also worried about her chances for re-election with him at the top of the ticket.
Electability in November is undoubtedly an issue for many Democrats—moderate or populist. It is not, however, the only problem not-Bernies have with a Sanders candidacy.
Establishment Democrats like Carville and Clinton fear their loss of hegemony over the party. Sanders is not just a candidate; he’s a movement that is roiling the big-tent party filled with anxiety over embracing him. In this regard, he’s not unlike what Trump has been to establishment Republicans.
Sanders is the titular head of the movement. He is not its only leader. Joining him are other left-wing populists like Ro Khanna (D-CA), the national co-chair of the Sanders campaign, and Ocasio-Cortez.
The palpable tension between moderates and democratic socialists is both philosophical and generational—almost to the point of exclusion and not only on the part of the moderates. Ocasio-Cortez was recently quoted in New York Magazine as suggesting that the Democrats can be too big of a tent--going so far as to say that in any other country, Joe Biden and I wouldn’t even be in the same party.
It is a stark statement that flies in the face of traditional Democrats who value and pride themselves on being a party of inclusion—as messy as that might be on occasion and, per-haps, not even as truthful as it might be.
If Ocasio-Cortez’s words were not enough to cause shivers down the spines of moderate Democrats her recent announcement of the new website for her political action committee, the Courage to Change PAC probably were. From the PAC’s website--
…working-class candidates and progressive leaders face systematic disadvantages in our electoral system. Corporate interests, elite donors, and insular party power structures disincentivize many po-tential leaders from running for office.
The Courage to Change PAC is our answer to that broken system. Officially affiliated with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Courage to Change seeks to reward challengers and incumbents who refuse to bow to es-tablishment pressure…and who have lived the same struggles as the people they seek to represent. (emphasis added)
Ocasio-Cortez did more than just best Joe Crowley at the ballot box. She turned his name into a verb. Moderate and conservative incumbents in the crosshairs of progressives are said to be Crowley’d. At the time of her PAC announcement, she released the names of seven candidates the PAC was endorsing. Six are running for the US House and one for the Texas Senate.
Two of the endorsees are running against Democratic House incumbents Henry Cuellar (TX) and Dan Lipinski (IL), both of whom are members of the House Blue Dog Coalition[iii]. Running against Cuellar is Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year old immigration attorney who once interned for Cuellar. Marie Newman is challenging Lipinski for the second time. She lost in 2018 by just over two percent of the vote.
Ocasio-Cortez and the Courage to Change PAC are not the only left-leaning populists supporting Cisneros and Newman. Sanders and Warren, along with leading progressive clim-ate organizations including Justice Democrats, 350Action, the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, MoveOn Political Action, and the Sierra Club, are doing the same.
Sanders’s candidacy and the movement he has given rise to is often spoken of by moderates and conservatives as an insurgency—a phrase most commonly used to describe an armed revolt against an established government. Sanders’s allies like Abdul El-Sayed, see things dif-ferently saying what we’re seeing is a necessary and natural readjustment in the Democratic Party.
No matter how one sees Sanders’s candidacy, one thing is sure—the more delegates he accumulates the more strident will be the claims of his opponents that he’s too radical and divisive to win in November. The louder the charges and warnings of the establishment the more ardent will be the efforts of core progressives to attack them in the press and through social media.
It is difficult to believe the promises of both moderates and progressives that there will be a coming together of the various competing factions. Blood has been let in the fight for the nom-ination. Accusations have flown back and forth of malintent and flaws of character.
Although each side speaks of inclusion and garnering coalitions of diverse interests, the truth is other. Membership tests are being applied by both sides. You may join, but not if you seek the support of the wealthy. We’ll embrace you, but only if you are willing to accept our defin-ition of democracy. The conflict between moderates and left-leaning populists seems less of a natural readjustment and more of a tribal war that takes no prisoners.
It may be that after the 2020 election progressives and democratic socialists no longer see the Democratic Party as home—choosing instead to form the Green New Democratic Party rather than waiting for established politicians to relinquish their hold on the policy and nominating machinery.
It may be that following the election moderate Democrats are made uncomfortable by the now adjusted party—choosing instead to form a New Democratic Party built on the rip rap of the old. Or, as in the case of Republicans, they may simply roll-over in defeat.
In the meantime, the political question of 2020 is not which of the crop of Democratic presidential candidates is electable, but whether today’s Democratic Party can withstand the competing pressures long enough to defeat Trump in November. For the sake of the envi-ronment, I hope it can.
[i] Note that non-Bernie does not mean never-Bernie.
[ii] This was confirmed in Nevada’s primary as Sanders was the choice of 54 percent of Hispanic caucus participants.
[iii] The Blue Dog Coalition, commonly known as the Blue Dogs or Blue Dog Democrats, is a caucus of United States congressional representatives from the Democratic Party who identify as fiscally conservative, centrist Democrats. The caucus professes independence from the leadership of both parties, and a mission of fiscal responsibility and promoting national defense. Originally the term was attributed to Democrats from southern states.
Lead image: Screengrab Democratic Debate 20 February 2020
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.