Bernie Sanders, candidate for the Democratic nominee for president, is not going to win the 2016 election. He won’t win the Democratic nomination. He might not win a single primary state outside of New England. It’s easy enough to chalk his campaign up as one of the inevitable underdog electoral campaigns that pop up every four years, a scrappy contender that’ll get washed out in a month. But Bernie Sanders isn’t your typical Democratic candidate, and it’s worth asking why.
Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist, and consequently his political destiny is not in his own hands. He’s running for the Democratic nomination because he knows he doesn’t have a shot at winning without it, but he’s still on the fence about even joining the Democratic Party – something the Clinton camp will justly call him out on. Technically, he can still run, but there’s probably a disconnect between running for a party’s nomination and not actually being part of that party. He might as well admit that he can’t beat Clinton on her own terms, and that the best thing he can do is stick to his ideological principles. There’s a reason that MoveOn, the left-wing Democratic lobbying group, literally spent part of its Sanders welcome announcement trying to convince the more electable Elizabeth Warren to run.
What does Sanders have to gain? He doesn’t even have enough leverage to use a campaign to bargain for concessions. In most presidential elections, the underdog candidates are trying to set up bargains: Presidential hopefuls John Kasich (Ohio) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) know that in a tight GOP primary race, their endorsements could be huge, and so they have leverage with the Republican frontrunners. But Kasich and Graham are actual threats. Sanders is not. Look at the polls: Sanders’ name recognition will improve, but it’s hard to sugarcoat the fact that Clinton leads Sanders by over 50 percent of the vote. In short, Sanders isn’t in this to campaign for a Cabinet post, because he can’t.
There are three reasons Sanders might be running:
1) Present: Sanders might hope to shift Hillary Clinton to the left by 2016. Just imagine Sanders taking Hillary Clinton to task at a presidential debate. Clinton is a tested debater, so it’s not as though she’s going to crumble under pressure, but Sanders knows that if anything, being a candidate offers him a spectacular opportunity to pull off some political theater. Yet Clinton doesn’t actually need to shift to the left in order to beat Sanders; strong left-wing candidates have shifted elections before, but at least according to the polls, Sanders isn’t a threat. This leads us to the…
2) Future: Set up a future left-wing candidate by introducing Sanders’ ideas into the mainstream, a la Barry Goldwater and the right. Sanders is considered an extreme leftist in the United States, but in Sweden his policies would be fairly milquetoast, and in the old Soviet Union, treasonously right-wing. He can get elected in Vermont because Vermont is the most liberal state in America; the Democrats, who have their eye on the big picture, have never nominated a socialist for President. Can Sanders make it okay to say “What’s wrong with being like Scandinavia?” and still credibly run for President? Can he get Americans used to socialism, or something close to that? I doubt it; fellow Vermonter Howard Dean was the new hotness back in 2004, but although he became Democratic Party chair, he never swung the Democrats towards his brand of social democracy. Which means that Bernie Sanders is left to hope for…
3) Chaos: Basically, the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” scenario. Hillary Clinton is the presumptive nominee – but that means that there is no opposition outside of Clinton and, for now, Sanders. If Clinton falters late in the game and it’s a two-horse race, there’s a possibility that no Democratic establishment candidate can get a campaign up and running before Sanders gets the nomination. To paraphrase Stephen Kotkin, maybe the Clinton campaign implodes. Maybe Clinton wakes up one day and decides she doesn’t actually want to be president. And maybe hell freezes over.
None of these reasons are particularly convincing, and they will only serve to tick Clinton off. To be perfectly frank, if she’s the front-runner by an almost historic margin, there’s little reason for her to actually campaign, because for a near-presumptive nominee like her, every time she goes out and puts herself in front of the cameras is an unnecessary risk – at least until September. People already know who she is. She has little to gain from actual campaigning and a lot to lose.
Clinton is aware of her situation: she even considered delaying her campaign until July, in part to minimize her time in the spotlight. Even now that her campaign is officially up and running, Clinton seems to be campaigning in slow motion; Politico sardonically wrote that she wasn’t running so much as “unrunning.” Now Clinton has to go out and defend her policy platform? Right now her website doesn’t even have a policy platform to defend.
Hillary Clinton is not going to endorse socialism at the Democratic National Convention. She’s arguably started a national campaign nine months before the Iowa caucuses have even begun. But part of her strength has been her aura of inevitability – an inevitability that seemed to transcend ideology. The fact is that if enough people say that Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee, they’ll eventually be right. And while as a Republican I disagree with Bernie Sanders on almost everything, we can agree that the first step towards stopping an “inevitable” Hillary campaign is to find somebody who will actually run.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.