The Revolution Failed Up
History is written by the … losers?
“After last night’s caucus results, we must confront the reality that Donald Trump has an excellent chance of winning the presidency. If Democrats hope to remain in power, they must adopt a progressive agenda.”
Sanders is a hilarious dude – a multimillionaire Marxist with three homes and a thick New York accent who crushes Gen Z Twitter and wins 67% of the vote in America’s most rural state.
But this tweet, on the four-year anniversary of his failure to ignite a revolution in the Democratic caucus in Iowa, is a good reminder of the danger Sanders poses.
Because while very few voters wanted to vote FOR revolution, the Democratic staffer world is too often still working for that very thing.
The failure of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren with voters is important to remember. But perhaps more durable, if under-covered, is their success in staffing the current Democratic Party establishment.
Iowa, Then and Now
First, the failure with voters.
Both the Sanders and Warren campaigns had a clear theory of the path to victory in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary: leftist policy animating a youth voter surge.
And they had the resources to do it. The Warren presidential campaign alone had more than 1,000 staffers and spent more than $100 million. Sanders spent even more and had infrastructure built up from his 2016 race.
But when it came time to vote, there was no revolution. How far short did it fall? Let’s do some math.
There are about 536,000 Iowans between 17 and 29 years old.
Youth voter turnout in the 2020 Iowa caucus has been estimated at 42,000 by FactCheck.org (Why was FactCheck.org putting together an estimate? Because of Sanders’ “pure spin” on the numbers, which fell well short of 2008 youth turnout despite his claims).
GIven their share of the youth vote, Warren received about 5,000 votes from Iowans 17-29 years old, or roughly 1% of that population. About 20,000 youth voters in Iowa, or 4% of the total 17-29 year old population, voted for Sanders.
Here’s how it was framed at the time by Axios:
Sen. Bernie Sanders has based much of his strategy on the hope that he could turn out large numbers of young voters. The apparent decline is bad news for him, but it will also make it more difficult for future-focused issues like climate change to gain political traction.
You Get What You Hire For
Voters – in particular the “Case of the Missing Youth Vote” – may have rebuffed the Sanders and Warren attempt at revolution, but Axios was proven wrong that the “excite the young progressive base” industry would fall on hard times.
Joe Biden’s “ignore Twitter” campaign team is not staffing the majority of the Democratic establishment.
After Biden’s 2020 primary victory, it would have seemed natural for someone on his team to be the DNC spokesperson. Or someone from the campaigns of Amy Klobuchar or Cory Booker or Pete Buttigieg – the optimistic, big tent candidates who dropped out and endorsed Biden after South Carolina.
If you want “future former Republicans,” hire a former Buttigieg staffer.
If you want to communicate with the center-right voters who drive overperformance, hire a Klobuchar staffer.
If you want to embody radical love to unite people across differences, hire a Booker staffer.
If you want to belittle a moderate for laughs and clicks while hurting your chances of winning a contested election, by all means look no further than the Warren campaign. That is not entirely a criticism – there’s clearly a market for it, and it very well may be a smart strategy for many politicians. Including Warren, who avoided credible challengers in her 2018 re-election to the US Senate in a very blue state. Warren didn’t get millions of Twitter followers and raise hundreds of millions of dollars without a high-performing team.
When making people cry is part of your brand (and merchandising strategy) and mocking those who think politicians should live in reality is your communications strategy, your alumni should be forgiven for keeping up the hyper-partisan “fight.”
But, presumably, Joe Biden does not want that. And the voters who elected Joe Biden in the primary, and split tickets to deliver him the general election, presumably don’t either.
The Funky Pivot
After Joe Biden dominated the 2020 primary field and disproved the Sanders-Warren turnout hypothesis, he did a funky thing. Instead of pivoting to the center, he invested so much in a “Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Platform” that it took five CNN writers to fully capture it:
Lost in this politically unscientific pivot was a set of incentives – and social engagements – that allowed the 2020 primary losers to rewrite the history of what happened and re-staff the Democratic establishment in their image.
In Polarization is a Choice, Matt Yglesias recounts how “a broad swathe of influential party leaders decided during the Trump years that a leftward pivot was a good idea.” In it, he quoted a recent book from Franklin Foer on the aftermath of the Clinton campaign, and the next-generation of pragmatists’ entanglement with the Sanderistas:
(Jake) Sullivan and his cohort broke with their mentors and attempted to cultivate the rising Left. One of Sullivan's close collaborators on the Clinton campaign, the economist Heather Boushey, organized a reconciliation tour. Along with Mike Pyle, who left the Obama White House to work in finance, she put together a series of dinners in Washington, New York, and San Francisco. Young establishment wonks broke bread with Elizabeth Warren disciples, labor union officials, and intellectuals from left-leaning think tanks. At these meals, the establishment found itself gravitating toward an alliance — or rather a confluence.
It led, basically, away from Manchin – away from the primary voters, and certainly away from the general election swing voters.
It led away from the winners, and back towards the losers.
The derisive DNC statement mocking anti-Trump Republican Asa Hutchinson that we covered last month was not a problem because swing voters would read a statement from the DNC. It is a symptom of a much larger problem, of an unwelcoming party.
It is consistent with other symptoms, like this June headline from NBC about former GOP Governor John Kasich, who gave a 2020 DNC keynote, and his peers.
And this December headline in CNN, weeks after former GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger said he’d vote Biden over Trump:
Biden knew the DNC’s Hutchinson statement was wrong, and promptly delivered an apology, announced by the Press Secretary. Hutchinson showed grace on CNN, invoking a bipartisanship that can overcome such “ridicule”.
Democrats need all the winners back in the tent, pulling from the center.