OP-ED: Why the left lost, a post-mortem

If we want to win in 2024, we’ll need to listen to the voters

Andy Burnstein, Senior

When Bernie Sanders lost Super Tuesday and subsequent primaries by an embarrassing margin to Joe Biden, and again when he dropped out this past Wednesday, many of his supporters were not just angry, but confused. How could the party pick someone so uninspiring to be the nominee, let alone, a man with a history of working with segregationists, wanting to cut social security, voting for the Iraq War and writing the disastrous 1994 crime bill? Even more confusing was that on the issues, voters agreed with Bernie. A majority of Democratic voters supported Medicare for All, even as a majority of those voters pulled the lever for a man who opposed it. Leftists threw around a lot of different explanations; Biden voters (many of whom were working class and black) were “low-information” voters who were too stupid to know what was good for them, the sudden consolidation of moderate candidates dropping out to endorse Biden was a unique and rare political moment that no one could have prepared for, and/or Democratic voters were just centrists who hated poor people. All of these explanations cast the blame anywhere but the Sanders Campaign, and that’s a problem; when you lose an election, if you blame anything but your own campaign, you’ll never learn from your mistakes. We on the left need to do our best to understand our losses and not obfuscate, and I feel that my time as an intern for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign in Iowa gave me unique insight into Democratic voters’ concerns. The simple fact of the matter is, the Bernie and Warren campaigns were out of touch with mainstream Democratic voters, and what those voters cared about more than anything else: electability.

“Electability” is, as others have noted, a loaded concept. Because our media has depicted the typical Trump swing-voter as a racist white guy in a diner, Democrats have become obsessed with winning over this kind of voter, and have therefore written off presidential candidates who they feel can’t “relate” to a guy like this. Cory Booker in any other year would have been a favorite to win the nomination; moderate enough to retain Romney to Clinton voters, progressive enough to excite turnout among the base and to top it off one of the best orators in Democratic politics today, but his campaign was never able to get off the ground, because voters didn’t think a black man could win over racist white people. A similar phenomenon happened with Kamala Harris; to quote one white Iowa caucus-goer who was riffing to me about why they weren’t considering Harris, “it’s not gonna be a black, sweety.” Indeed, Obama Communications Director Dan Pfieffer has even made the point that if Obama were running in 2020 for the first time, he would be unable to win because of how the “electability”conversation privileged white candidates. 

While electability-justified racism driving the decision-making of Democratic voters is disturbing, it is ingrained nonetheless, and the failure of a politician as talented as Booker should have been a warning to the Bernie and Warren Campaigns that the “electability” problem wasn’t about to go away. However, both campaigns were loath to address it. It was an especially difficult issue for Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign was seriously impacted by electability-sanctioned sexism. I cannot tell you how many times I talked to caucus-goers who said that Warren was their favorite, but they were supporting another candidate because they thought their neighbors wouldn’t be able to vote for a woman. The Warren Campaign, always substantive and rare to compromise on its values, tried to get voters to look past the issue of electability. As Warren thundered in her 20,000-person New York rally at the peak of her candidacy, “I am not afraid, and neither should you be” (the campaign even made merch out of that quote). But voters didn’t bite, and her campaign collapsed virtually overnight when Pete Buttigieg decked Warren on her support for Medicare for All. Now, as exit polls show, a majority of Democratic voters support Medicare for All. The issue is not that voters didn’t agree with Warren, but rather that they felt single-payer healthcare was a losing issue in the general election. The campaign attempted to switch its messaging in the weeks leading up to the Iowa Caucus to say Warren was a “unity candidate” who would keep Bernie voters from bolting like they did in 2016 and win moderates and therefore she was the most electable, but it was too little, too late. Concerns about her being too progressive to win, combined with her gender, compounded fears about her candidacy, leaving her with a devastating third-place finish in her own state. 

I was sad to see Warren doing so poorly in the primary, but my consolation was that Bernie Sanders was doing exceptionally well, and looked poised to win the nomination after his stunning performance in the Nevada Caucus. But as Bernie took the lead, electability-based fears of his progressivism impacted him as well. The Bernie Campaign, in some ways, did a better job at handling the “electability” question than Warren; viral town-halls on Fox News certainly helped his case, and his working-class white persona gave him an advantage. Bernie also made the (accurate) case he could win third-party and independent voters, and generate strong turnout among young voters. However, the Bernie Campaign’s electability pitch was overshadowed by a fatal mistake that the Warren Campaign also made: it ran on the issues. The Bernie Campaign worked hard to elevate the importance of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal to introduce these ideas to the electorate, and we should all be grateful for the work they did, but in this election year, Democratic voters didn’t care about the issues, they just cared about winning.

Joe Biden understood that. His entire campaign was based around the idea that he would have the easiest time beating Donald Trump, and voters, especially black voters, responded. As Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar realized they had no path forward without black voters, they dropped out and endorsed Biden. Biden, running on virtually nothing besides electability and the idea that progressivism loses, is now the presumptive nominee after being written off for most of the cycle. The Bernie Campaign never really countered Biden’s electability attacks other than citing the popularity of Medicare for All (while it is popular among Democrats, it is not popular nationwide) and saying Bernie’s socialist identity just wouldn’t matter in the end. Basically, they said not to worry about electability, which is a hard case to make to an electorate that worries almost exclusively about electability. 

There are certainly other issues at work here. Warren was held to a higher standard than her male counterparts, and lost her credibility as the “woman with a plan” when she struggled to create a healthcare policy, even as her male competitors had less-detailed plans. The Bernie Campaign probably overdid the anti-establishment message, and alienated voters who identified with the establishment (which, spoiler alert, in a Democratic Primary, is most voters). Furthermore, the fantasy that youth turnout could overwhelm mainstream democrats was not based in any sort of reality. The Bernie Campaign was also hurt by a searingly-damaging newscycle on Bernie’s positive comments about left-wing governments such as Cuba. Still, despite these issues, it is my belief that had the campaigns listened to the voters’ concerns and not written off their fears as illegitimate, they could have won instead of leaving us with a Biden. In campaigns, the voters are right even when they’re wrong, and while I am deeply appreciative of both campaigns for raising the profile of issues like universal healthcare and a wealth tax, I would much rather they have won. Next time, the left needs to do what it takes to win and campaign on what the majority of Democrats care about, even if it is anathema to what we personally value. Indeed, the very wellbeing of this broken nation depends on it.