There’s been a tsunami of bad news this month for The World’s Oldest Junior Senator, Bernie Sanders. The political media reported on shakeups at the top of his presidential campaigns in New Hampshire and Iowa, which is never a good sign. The Working Families Party, which heartily endorsed Sanders in 2016, gave its nod to Sen. Elizabeth Warren instead. He was bedeviled by a throat thing which limited his effectiveness in the most recent debate and caused him to cancel appearances in the early primary state of South Carolina.
And the Sanders campaign’s response to all of this: Crack down on leaks and blame the media.
Also not a good sign. Don’t shoot the messenger, folks.
Then there’s the biggest and most inconvenient truth for Sanders: He isn’t making any headway in the polls. If anything, he has slipped back a bit from his uncontested second place standing at the beginning of the year. Warren, the other contender for the left/progressive vote, is the only candidate who’s climbed significantly. In most polls she’s taken second place away from Sanders, although he’s still a close third — often within a poll’s margin of error.
In truth, all this bad publicity doesn’t matter very much. The political media like to pile on when there seems to be a trend forming.
The worst news for Team Bernie is that, after all these months and all that organizing and speechifying and social media activity and Ben Cohen ice cream socials and the million-plus unique donors, the Sanders campaign is stuck in the same position it’s been in since day one.
Back in January, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver assessed all the Democratic candidates’ prospects. His take on Vermont’s hometown hero: “Sanders looks like a candidate with a high floor and a low ceiling.” By which he meant that Sanders had a strong and solid base of support, but relatively little opportunity for growth.
His floor hasn’t fallen, but his ceiling has yet to rise.
And his pitch hasn’t changed at all. He hits the same marks in his speeches. He makes the same attacks and proposes the same solutions. He and his campaign tout this as a strength: Bernie is the most consistent progressive champion, the guy who’s always been on the right side of the fight. (Except on guns, ahem.)
Now, consistency is a virtue — a rare one in politics. But when a candidate has a high floor and a low ceiling, then consistency is a net negative. The challenge of the Sanders 2020 effort is to change the minds of people who’ve already decided that he’s not their candidate. He’s doing nothing to accomplish that.
I have to admit I don’t have any great suggestions for the Sanders campaign, not that they’d listen to me anyway. Consistency is at the heart of his popularity. Problem is, his popularity is too limited to win him the nomination.
He can’t change his spots, nor should he. But he could be changing up his stump speech and his debate answers. He could reframe his talking points to reflect today’s concerns. His team should change the way it runs his social media effort; instead of sticking largely to stock arguments and talking points, it should be actively engaged with current events. His Twitter feed, for instance, is dull and predictable. I’ve seen it all before.
This much is certain: Whatever the Sanders campaign has done so far isn’t working. He’s retained his base, and has failed to grow it. If that doesn’t change, then the most Bernie could accomplish is to play spoiler — split the progressive vote with Warren and throw the nomination to Joe Biden. That would be an awfully bitter legacy for what’s almost certainly Sanders’ last presidential campaign.