10 Lessons The Progressive Left Can Take From Bernie Sanders’ Campaign

Photograph courtesy of The Washington Post

There are still two and a half months to go before the last primary, but the race is over: Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee, and Bernie Sanders’ campaign has collapsed. As such, there have been numerous stories these last few weeks about his implosion following Super Tuesday and what comes next for Progressives.

While I was never on board the Sanders train, I feel bad for his supporters — not the bros, mind you — but the honest, hard-working people who want to see the Democratic Party move further to the left. It sucks when the candidate you support loses, and you are entitled to your hurt feelings. But I hope that by analyzing why Sanders lost, we can all glean valuable lessons about building build a better mousetrap not just for Progressives, but for anyone who hopes to work on a campaign or run for office someday.

ONE: DON’T RUN AGAINST YOUR PARTY.

After the Nevada caucus, Sanders tweeted the following:

It’s one thing for candidates to criticize their opponents by suggesting their plans are tired — Barack Obama went after Hillary Clinton in 2008 calling her methods “the same old politics,” for example — but they don’t go after the party itself. Sanders and his surrogates have always lashed out at Democrats with an ire best reserved for Republicans, leading to the perception that he was not a team player. The best Progressive candidates, like Katie Porter and Elizabeth Warren, seek elected office to push the Democratic Party to the left, not stage hostile takeovers.

TWO: SEEK ENDORSEMENTS.

Sanders, who has always disdained back-slapping and glad-handing, did little-to-no work courting endorsements from his fellow Democrats. While Elizabeth Warren actively sought Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement, her staff begged Sanders’ campaign to return just one of their calls. She endorsed him in October 2019, only to distance herself from the campaign after they touted the endorsement of Joe Rogan, a comedian and podcaster with bigoted views, as proof of their ability to bring in new voters. Even more damningly, Sanders never courted South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement of Joe Biden was pivotal to his victory there. Endorsements count for a great deal, and had Sanders tried to get more of them, he might still be a viable candidate.

THREE: DON’T JUST ASSUME PEOPLE WILL SHOW UP FOR YOU.

Although Sanders lost the 2016 nomination by 18 points in 2016, and not a single candidate he endorsed in the 2018 midterms flipped a red district blue, he and his team assumed there was a large base made up of both young voters and Progressives-in-wait that would rise from the shadows and propel him to the nomination. This never happened: young people are notoriously fickle when it comes to voting, and the idea that Progressives would suddenly emerge to vote for him is, in the words of one political operative, like believing in the Tooth Fairy. It turned out that much of his support in 2016 came from people who just wanted to vote against Hillary Clinton, and his “Revolution” turned out to be one of the biggest paper tigers in the history of American politics.

FOUR: DON’T BET THE FARM ON CALIFORNIA.

One thing Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have in common is that in 2008 and 2020, their strategies to win the Democratic nomination ran through California: Clinton because her advisers told her it was a winner-take-all primary (when in fact, it awards delegates proportionally); Sanders because he believed winning there would force the rest of the party to acquiesce to him. But while California has more delegates than any other state, it is still only one out of 49, and a win there can be cancelled out by another candidate’s victories in other primaries. Clinton managed to rectify her error in time to win other Super Tuesday states in 2008, bolstering her delegate count to make up for the difference in Calfornia; Sanders didn’t. While he won California, Biden’s victories elsewhere — plus late returns in the Golden State — gave him a delegate lead Sanders has not been able to overcome.

FIVE: HAVE A BACKUP PLAN.

Prior to Super Tuesday, pundits assumed Sanders would win the nomination the same way Trump did — by amassing a plurality of delegates despite only getting about 30% of the popular vote. Given how many candidates were in the race at that time, this strategy seemed sensible, but they were thrown off course when Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out and endorsed Biden. According to one aide, the campaign never developed a backup plan to win with an outright majority. This goes back to lesson two: if Sanders had courted them, perhaps they might have endorsed him. Instead he blamed their decisions on “the Establishment [wanting] to make sure that people coalesced around Biden and not me” and not his campaign’s failure to plan out alternate paths to the nomination.

SIX: HIRE COMPETENT PROFESSIONALS.

One of the reasons Sanders did so well in 2016 is that he had a campaign staff of experienced professionals, like Mark Longabaugh, Tad Devine, and Symone Sanders. This time, Longabaugh and Devine left in early 2019 after Sanders ignored their ideas, and Symone Sanders went on to work for Joe Biden. While Sanders managed to hire some decent people, like campaign manager Faiz Shakir, he also hired a number of divisive staffers who did a lot more harm than good, like former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner and journalists David Sirota and Briahna Joy Gray. Turner, who was put in charge of South Carolina’s ground game, did more to push local black activists away than to bring them in, and Sirota and Gray spent much of their time as vicious Twitter attack dogs who, if you crossed them, would send their hordes to turn your mentions into a living hell. Throughout all this, they never bothered to hire a rapid response director, giving bad actors like Sirota and Gray more power than they should ever have been trusted with.

SEVEN: RELY ON YOUR STAFF.

When asked about his film 1941, Steven Spielberg takes responsibility for wanting to make every decision himself, even shooting scenes that he should have delegated to the 2nd and 3rd units. Just as Spielberg did with his most famous bomb, Sanders did with his 2020 campaign: all decisions ended up coming from either him, his wife Jane, or one of the few people within his inner circle. Even high-level aides had a difficult time getting Sanders to hear their ideas. Sanders’ inability to delegate tasks or listen to others clouded his judgment and led to unwise decisions, such as when he gave a speech about socialism last June that was nearly identical to one he gave in the 2016 campaign. He could have used that speech to talk about racial justice, or some other issue that people wanted him to address, but in deciding everything for himself, he shut out valuable advice from those who were there to help him.

EIGHT: DENOUNCE BULLIES.

If you’ve supported someone other than Bernie Sanders on the internet, chances are you’ve experienced some intense harassment from his hardcore fans, the BernieBros. They were present during his 2016 run, but became more visible in 2020 with their numerous vendettas against anyone who crossed their path. Last fall they went after the Working Families Party of New York and healthcare advocate Ady Barkan, respectively, after they endorsed Elizabeth Warren. Warren found herself on the receiving end of their ire when they began tweeting snake emojis at her after the revelation that Sanders told her he thought a woman couldn’t be President. Just before the Nevada caucus, they attacked the powerful Culinary Union for not supporting Medicare for All. I could go on about this, and I have in other articles, but the bottom line is that while Sanders occasionally denounced their behavior, he never did so forcefully enough to fully distance himself from them — especially given his hiring of Sirota and Gray.

NINE: EMBRACE THE PRESS.

Both Sanders and his fans complain about the “corporate media” who have supposedly undermined his candidacy. Last summer he asked, “I wonder why The Washington Post — which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon — doesn’t write particularly good articles about me” — remarks he has since walked back. Last February, he lashed out at MSNBC President Phil Griffin for not receiving better coverage on his network. The irony is that both outlets employ journalists who have given him plenty of positive coverage, like Post reporter Dave Wiegel and All In anchor Chris Hayes — and this is to say nothing of online institutions like The Intercept and The Young Turks, whose coverage of Sanders borders on sycophancy. Sanders may embrace some journalists — Sirota, Gray, Shaun King — but he seems to gravitate only towards those who kiss his ring, which only re-enforced the perception that he could not handle criticism.¹

TEN: FACTS TELL, BUT STORIES AND EMPATHY SELL.

Quick: what do you know about Bernie Sanders as a person apart from where he stands on the issues? Chances are, not much. He doesn’t like to talk about himself, pivoting to the issues whenever he’s asked to open up, and this created a huge problem for him as a national figure. This dogmatic focus on the issues made it difficult for him to achieve those moments of empathy that define candidates, even when handed the opportunity to do so.

Last summer at an Iowa town hall, a young man opened up about his experience being unable to afford his healthcare. This man was handing Sanders a gift — a moment tailor-made for him to show empathy or share a personal story — instead, he just went back to discussing healthcare premiums. Compare this to when, in 1992, Bill Clinton told a gay activist “I feel your pain.” He opened up about the people he’d lost to AIDS and re-committed himself to funding research and treatment for the disease. Sanders could have done something similar here, but looked a gift horse in the mouth.

The best candidates win us over not just with policies, but with stories from their personal lives that rouse and inspire us to action. Usually these involve overcoming huge challenges — Bill Clinton standing up to his alcoholic stepfather, Joe Biden losing his wife and children before taking office (to say nothing of his beloved son Beau) — or rags-to-riches arcs like AOC going from bartender to Congressperson. Sanders never allowed us to relate to him on a personal level, and while he deserves credit for making topics like “Medicare for All” national talking points, they were not enough to inspire the mass movement he could have harnessed by allowing himself to be more vulnerable.

THE TAKEAWAY

All these lessons stem from the one thing all candidates must do to be successful: step outside their comfort zones. Sanders refused to be anyone other than his irascible self, something his supporters labeled as “authenticity,” but ultimately reflected the stubbornness with which he conducted his campaign. This is why he failed to grow his base beyond the 25–30% who stood by him through it all. He only wanted to do what was comfortable for him, and his refusal to change his ways, even a little bit, ended up pushing more people away than bringing in new converts.

There can be no doubt that Sanders’ two runs for the presidency have done much to inspire young people (even in small numbers), and a new generation of Progressive candidates will take on his causes. But harnessing their movement into a powerful force will require a greater emphasis on building a broad coalition, seeking support from like-minded allies, and above all else, spinning a personal, empathetic story that will include all Americans — not just those already inclined to support you. Otherwise, Progressives will be consigned to the margins of American politics.

Update: This article originally contained misinformation about Hillary Clinton’s campaign in California in 2008. It has since been corrected.

[1] His campaign has even ignored interview requests from Progressive journalists. Check out this exchange between Vox founder Ezra Klein and Briahna Joy Gray where he revealed she’s been sitting on his inquiry for several months.

Freelance writer and journalist. Bylines: Vulture, The Daily Banter, Rogerebert.com. Former Jeopardy! contestant.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store