Bernie Sanders, Party Crasher: Notes On The (Looming) End Of A Campaign
Photos: Meg Kelly/NPR
Three days ahead of California's Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders made several appearances in Southern California before headlining a rally in San Diego.
There was a Sunday morning walk through a farmers market in Downtown Los Angeles. There was a walk through West Hollywood, LA's gayborhood, with a pre-drag brunch address to diners at a hamburger joint on Santa Monica Boulevard. That was followed by a stroll through Santa Monica Pier, where the candidate rode a merry-go-round and even interrupted an outdoor spin class fundraiser to give an impromptu stump speech.
And there was a stop at Plaza Mexico, an outdoor market that caters to a primarily Latino audience in Lynwood, a bit south of LA. Once Sanders arrived, with traveling press in tow, he walked through the crowded mall, which happened to be hosting a music festival that day. After shaking hands and hugging fans, Sanders tried to take the main stage of the festival. As he and his entourage approached the side of the stage, he was denied by several of the event staff. There were vigorous head shakes of disagreement and, as a female event staffer pulled a barricade closer to keep Sanders and his crew out, she said, angrily, "This is our event."
Sanders staffers walked away from the exchange flustered, some muttering profanities. Sanders himself seemed befuddled. It was the exact opposite of the reception he received earlier in the day when he took over the stage at that outdoor spin fundraiser, stumping in front of stationary bikes and large images of the black and brown inner-city youth the event was raising money for.
Sanders' experience in Southern California offers glimpses into everything that went right — and wrong — for his campaign. In more ways than one, at Lynwood and in Santa Monica and all throughout the primary season, Sanders was a party crasher. Sometimes that worked out for him. And sometimes it did not.
Love and anger
This week marked the final presidential nominating contest for the Democratic Party, in Washington, D.C. Bernie Sanders lost. And he isn't throwing in the towel just yet, he says. But Sanders also says he can do "arithmetic." And that math shows he did not get enough votes or delegates to be the Democratic nominee. (He trails Clinton by millions in the Democratic popular vote, and hundreds in party's delegate count, with or without superdelegates.) Hillary Clinton was declared the "presumptive nominee" last week, and she is now campaigning as one would expect a presumptive party nominee to campaign, complete with the endorsement of a sitting president. It'd be fair to say that the only thing keeping Bernie Sanders' campaign alive is that he hasn't yet said it is dead.
Sanders met with Clinton on Tuesday night for what both campaigns called a "positive discussion," but did not drop out. He has said he will do everything he can to defeat Donald Trump — even if Sanders is not the nominee. And he will address his supporters Thursday evening, online, in a live stream.
His plans for the future aren't yet clear, but looking back, Sanders' insurgent campaign accomplished more than anyone could have expected — even the senator himself. From the way he fundamentally changed how presidential campaigns can raise money, with the millions he raked in from small donations from supporters, often averaging $27 (as he repeatedly proclaimed on the stump), to his introduction of many of the ideas of Democratic socialism into the mainstream.
In many ways, his successes seemed to come out of nowhere. Sanders had been a senator from Vermont for decades, with low name recognition and single-digit showings in early presidential polls. And he wasn't even a Democrat.
It would be easy to see the Sanders campaign as something that just happened. But, in fact, he was part of a concerted effort, the outgrowth of a social movement that began a few years back in Zuccotti Park in New York. The Sanders campaign has direct links to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Winnie Wong, founder of the online group People for Bernie, is one of the former Occupy Wall Street activists who helped draft Bernie Sanders to run. And she said Sanders actually wasn't the first senator activists approached.
"We started the Draft [Elizabeth] Warren effort first," she told NPR. "Ready for Warren came out of Occupy. And People for Bernie came out of Ready for Warren."
Wong is not shy about identifying Sanders and his candidacy as a tool to get Occupy Wall Street ideals into the mainstream. "It was always a tactic," she said at a Sanders rally in San Francisco. "In every way, at every step of the way."
But if Sanders was in some ways an outgrowth of Occupy, his reach quickly expanded beyond that movement's confines. It would have been hard to predict that from the beginning, though. Sanders' press conference announcing his run in April of last year had little in common with the rock concert-like rallies he's become known for this campaign. That April announcement was small, organized on a lawn outside the U.S. Capitol, with Sanders seemingly startled by the microphone itself, urging reporters to keep it quick because he had to get back to his day job as a senator.
In fact, many of Sanders' campaign staff had day jobs as well; early on, a lot of them worked for the campaign for free, after they finished those. But within months, Sanders had made a movement. Tapping into a new wave of progressive populism, first hinted at during the Occupy movement, Sanders' self-described "political revolution to transform our country economically, political, socially and environmentally" quickly became a force.
By February, Sanders' razor-thin finish with Clinton in the Iowa caucuses (he lost by only 0.3 percentage points), it became official: The Sanders campaign was now no longer outsider, but insurgent.
Sanders rallies grew larger and took on their own feel — part concert, part picnic, part love fest. Sanders' fans danced freely before his rallies began. Mothers breast-fed their young children in the aisles. Tie-died shirts could be spotted throughout the crowds. Sanders himself seemed like a kind, loving grandfather to many of his supporters. Famously, at one Sanders rally in Portland, Ore. (because Portland), a bird landed on the candidate's lectern.
In many ways, the Sanders campaign was a love revolution, with a message of unity, diversity and prosperity for all. But under the surface, the Sanders movement was just as much an exercise in anger.
Over time, another side of the Sanders phenomenon began to reveal itself: a palpable disgust not just for Sanders' opponent, Clinton, but for the party she is a part of, the media that covered her and a system that many Sanders supporters thought was rigged.
One big "rigged" conspiracy
The night of California's presidential primary, Sanders held a rally in an airplane hangar at the Santa Monica airport. The tall and wide half-circle roof made for a dramatic scene as thousands of supporters poured into the space to support their candidate, even as his chances at winning the Democratic nomination were all but zero.
Beneath the sweeping metal roof, while a man dressed as Jesus holding a Sanders sign paced the room, the anger that had been building in Sanders' supporters for months was on full display.
When a big screen at the rally showed Hillary Clinton leading in the California race, the crowd chanted "Bullshit!" over and over again until the image on the screen changed. The crowd also chanted things like "CNN sucks!" When Clinton's name was mentioned in Sanders' speech, the crowd booed.
Many in attendance cornered reporters to share disgust with their coverage of the election, particularly reporting on the Associated Press' announcement the night before that Clinton had secured the support of enough superdelegates, or unpledged party leaders and elected officials, to put Clinton over the top to become the party's presumptive nominee.
Many of Sanders' supporters didn't believe he lost fair and square. (Sanders himself still hasn't said he has. The day President Obama endorsed Clinton — and told Sanders in the Oval Office that he was about to do so — Sanders pointed to ballots still out in California. On Tuesday, after a statement about the Orlando massacre, Sanders talked about long lines in Arizona.)
Instead, Sanders supporters, in the crowd in Santa Monica that night and elsewhere, called the delegate count itself a conspiracy. A day earlier, Sanders surrogate Nina Turner (a former Ohio state senator) suggested the AP call, coming the night before California voted, was intended to suppress voter turnout there.
Dutch Merrick was in the crowd that Tuesday night. He said he was hopeful that Sanders would take his fight to the Democratic convention, and "demand an actual count of the actual votes." He felt the Democratic Party establishment had decided Clinton would be the nominee months ago, before the primary election was complete.
"It's a fait accompli. ... That message had not changed in a year," he said, holding a Sanders poster. "All the coverage went to one woman candidate: Hillary."
For Merrick, the entire system was rigged in Clinton's favor. He pointed to voting irregularities in several states over the past few months, long lines at polling places in Arizona, and names disappearing from voter lists in places like New York.
"She [Clinton] just puts a friendly face on fascism," Merrick continued. "I was excited, eight years ago, to vote for an African-American for president. But it essentially put someone that pushed the same agenda, kept the same Defense Department, the same CIA, the same Wall Street policies, with a black face. It didn't do us any good. So now we're going to get a female face on the same policies. Not going to do us any good."
He concluded, "I would probably vote for Trump, to burst the bubble, to finally pop the zit."
Sigma Scott, who was at the rally with Merrick, said, "If she takes it [the nomination] by petty theft, or grand theft, I would rally and vote that she's impeached."
That mood seemed to be present at Sanders events all throughout California in the lead-up to the primary in these waning days of the campaign. It wasn't just that Bernie Sanders was the truth and the light to these super supporters — it's that in their eyes, Hillary Clinton was the lie and the darkness.
Clinton wasn't just an opponent to many Sanders supporters; she was a cheater, perhaps even a criminal. The Democratic Party wasn't just a political party; it was an apparatus focused solely on doing whatever it took to grant Clinton the nomination. And whatever math would justify her win was fraudulent, because the system itself was an undemocratic sham.
At a San Francisco rally for Sanders the previous day, Sanders supporter Aaron Selverston seemed to crystallize the emotions of many who felt alienated by the Democratic Party and the primary process.
"I think the whole argument about the [delegate] math is irrelevant to most Bernie supporters," he said, as Dave Matthews played in San Francisco's Crissy Field before Sanders took to the mic. "Because it's not about some sort of allegiance to a party. The party has failed. The party has failed half of the people who typically vote Democratic. And those are the people who are supporting Bernie."
Mistakes were made
Though much of the anger some Sanders supporters show is directed at the media or Clinton or Trump, some of the blame for Sanders' failing to reach the nomination is his own.
From the start, Sanders said he would run a positive campaign, on the issues, refusing to directly attack his primary opponent, Clinton. He famously declared at one Democratic presidential debate, "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails," when asked about Clinton's use of a private server during her time as secretary of state. The emails have been a constant line of attack for Republicans against Clinton, but Sanders refused to hit her on the issue, even as staffers urged Sanders to find some line of attack on her.
Over time, Sanders did attack, particularly on paid speeches she gave to Wall Street executives after her time as secretary of state, repeating in stump speeches, "I kind of think if you get paid a couple hundred thousand dollars for a speech, it must be a great speech. I think we should release it and let the American people see what the transcript was."
By the time that message stuck, though, Clinton's lead had become all but insurmountable.
Another sore spot for his campaign, that would perhaps inflict even more damage, was an inability to connect with large numbers of minority voters.
In several nominating contests throughout the primary season, Sanders did win a majority of black and Latino primary and caucus voters ages 35 and under. But in South Carolina's primary, after strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders lost the black vote by almost 70 percent, even admitting himself, "We got decimated."
At a Seattle rally last year, Sanders was forced from the stage by two Black Lives Matters protesters; he had to end his own event without finishing his stump speech. For many minority voters, Sanders' message on income inequality failed to connect the dots between wealth disparity and institutional racism, and many people of color felt that white Sanders supporters were too eager to dismiss them as low-information when they did not support the Vermont senator.
Sanders responded. He hired minority staff in key positions, namely hiring Symone Sanders, a BLM activist, as his national press secretary soon after the Seattle incident. Sanders' campaign recruited surrogates of color as well, like the rapper Killer Mike and actress Rosario Dawson. And he had no shortage of key celebrity endorsements from the likes of Danny Glover and Spike Lee.
But it wasn't enough. Sanders' coalition of liberals, working-class whites, and young voters of all colors couldn't shake Clinton's lead with women and older minority voters.
Sanders' campaign also did not focus on the sweep of Super Tuesday states on March 1. That's when Clinton put real separation between herself and Sanders. His campaign was often outmatched by Clinton's superior ground game, with its infrastructure seemingly never dismantled after her 2008 Democratic primary loss, and bolstered, even, by remnants of the Obama political machine.
As time went on, Clinton racked up an increasingly bigger lead, one that Sanders would never be able to overcome, even as he regularly out-fundraised his Democratic opponent and his rallies filled stadiums throughout the country.
Maybe there's nothing Sanders could have done to overcome the Clinton machine on the ground. But University of Vermont professor Huck Gutman, a close friend of Sanders and his former chief of staff, seemed to predict the problems Sanders would have with minority voters in an interview with NPR soon after Sanders launched his presidential campaign.
"One of the differences between Bernie and so many other people who are liberals," Gutman said, "is that Bernie's central concern has always been with the condition of what he calls working-class families. He is consumed by the need for economic justice."
Even as Gutman pointed out Sanders' track record of support for other progressive causes, he said of Sanders, "His central concerns have never been war or civil rights or gay rights or women's rights."
"The very idea that something has failed, it's not a part of our language"
The day of the California primary, after the AP had declared Clinton the presumptive nominee, it was really hard to find anyone saying Sanders actually lost the race — or would lose it soon.
You didn't hear it as Sanders block-walked and greeted thousands on Hollywood Boulevard and at coffee shops and the farmers market in Silver Lake in Los Angeles. You didn't see it when the senator was on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, greeting fans and celebrity impersonators alike. You didn't hear it in his speech that night, or even later in the week, after President Obama endorsed Clinton.
Sanders campaigned that day, and in many of the days before and after, like a winner. And if you just saw those scenes from the trail in California, and not the news, you could have been convinced that Sanders had actually won the whole thing.
And perhaps that is the lingering juxtaposition of the Sanders campaign. Numerically, he has lost. Sanders will not be his party's nominee. But in so many ways, he has won, just by surviving this long. And not just surviving, but at many points thriving and influencing a movement that could have a very long tail.
"One of the great successes of this campaign is that Bernie Sanders has really electrified a whole new generation of young people to become engaged in the political process," Winnie Wong said. "And they're young, and they're not apathetic, and they're energetic, and they're smart."
Wong contends that Sanders fundamentally changed America's political conversation, making a movement like Occupy, and an ideology like Democratic socialism, mainstream.
"Prior to Bernie Sanders, nobody ever dared utter the word socialism," she said. "Forget about the 10 million who cast their vote for a Democratic socialist. Think about the many more millions, across this country, who are talking about it, probably right now. That's even more important."
If you look at Sanders' campaign as part of a larger progressive, populist movement that had been building for years — from Zuccotti Park to Burlington, Vt., and almost to the White House — all of a sudden it makes more sense. And it also feels, in many ways, not finished just yet.
"People in social movements don't really see an end to their work," Wong said. "The very idea that something has failed, it's not a part of our language."
After being rejected from the stage at Plaza Mexico in Lynwood, Calif., that Sunday before the state primary, Sanders walked into a Mexican restaurant at the mall and enjoyed a meal with his family. A mariachi band played and, at one point, Sanders danced with one of his grandchildren.
The embarrassment of the moments before seemed to have been forgotten; the candidate was having a good time. And when he left the mall, a large crowd was waiting to greet him. Regardless of what happened at the stage, he was able to interact, positively, with hundreds of potential voters.
But already, tweets and videos recounting the details of Sanders being blocked from the stage were circulating on social media, with many using the moment to mock Sanders and critique his record of outreach to Latino communities.
Traveling press asked for comment on the incident, and soon spokesman Michael Briggs told a Washington Post reporter that, in fact, Sanders hadn't been denied a microphone in Lynwood, contradicting multiple eyewitness reports.
Briggs told a Washington Post reporter that another supervisor at the event had come to offer Sanders a place on the stage and "to say Bernie was welcome." But, Briggs said, it was, in fact, the Sanders campaign that denied the festival organizers.
"By that point," he said, "we had moved on."
It was a moment that, in several ways, could symbolize Sanders' entire campaign — a victory and a defeat, all at the same time. And, in spite of it all, a dogged determination to keep pressing ahead — and to seemingly never, ever admit you've lost.