Two stark facts have defined the 2016 Democratic primary since the campaign began last spring. The first is the remarkable success of self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders, who appears to be mobilizing far more support from lower-income voters than any other Democratic underdog in a generation.
The second fact, evident since the beginning of the campaign but even more visible in recent weeks, is the fierce determination of the Democratic Party elite to nominate Hillary Clinton.
With both Sanders and Donald Trump surging in the polls, many observers have framed the 2016 race as one that pits insurgent populist campaigns against consolidated party establishments. It’s easy for this kind of insider versus outsider analysis to become sloppy and conspiratorial. In fact, the contours of “the establishment” are often difficult to define, and a closer examination frequently reveals several different elite factions facing off against each other.
Yet there is abundant evidence that the Democratic Party elite has thrown its full weight behind Clinton — and against Sanders — in ways that surpass any other primary campaign in recent history.
The Undemocratic Party
Naturally, it began with fundraising. In early 2013, Clinton supporters founded the Ready for Hillary super PAC, which over the next two years raised about $13 million. While Ready for Hillary cast itself as a grassroots effort fueled by very small donors, over half the PAC’s cash haul arrived via gifts of $2,500 or larger. A full third of the total came from gifts of $10,000 or more.
The really big money, meanwhile, came from other sources. In January 2014, Priorities USA Action, the largest super PAC to support Barack Obama’s reelection, declared it would back Clinton — a move the New York Times called “perhaps the earliest start to big-dollar fund-raising in support of a nonincumbent presidential candidate” ever.
When Clinton declared her candidacy last spring, the big dollars were ready: Priorities USA almost immediately collected over $15 million, virtually all of it in gifts of $500,000 or more. To date Priorities USA has raised over $50 million for Clinton, with another $42 million in future pledges.
If unprecedented, Clinton’s massive early fundraising was also perhaps unsurprising in the post-Citizens United world. More impressive, and more telling, was the degree to which elected Democratic officials flocked to Clinton.
To be sure, Clinton’s status within the party — thanks to her husband’s presidency, her Senate tenure, her 2008 campaign, and her cabinet service — exceeds that of almost any non-incumbent politician in recent memory. And it would be foolish to deny that Clinton is well-known and well-liked by the Democratic rank-and-file.
Yet before the campaign began, a strong majority of Democratic voters preferred to see a competitive primary, rather than a race dominated by “one strong candidate.” Party officials, however, had decided on a Clinton coronation.
By April 2015, over half of the Democratic Senate caucus had already backed her bid for the nomination — far more early endorsements than any candidate in either party has gained in this century. To date Clinton has won the backing of 38 of 46 Senate Democrats, 148 of 188 House Democrats, and 12 of 18 Democratic governors.
The absence of support for Bernie Sanders among this crowd has been even more remarkable.
Consider two Democratic primary challengers on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. Candidate A has a strong fundraising portfolio: he has raised $44.9 million in the third and fourth quarters of the past year. Still, according to the national polls, he is favored by just a quarter of the national electorate, and he trails the frontrunner by twenty-one points. He is neck-and-neck with the favorite in Iowa and South Carolina, but is behind by seven points in New Hampshire and by double digits in every other state.
Meanwhile, Candidate B has raised roughly $59.8 million over the third and fourth quarters, plus another $20 million in the past month — all from a historic pool of 1.3 million donors. In the polls, his position is different but perhaps comparable to Candidate A. He trails the frontrunner by fourteen points nationally, but is within three points in Iowa and leads by fourteen points in New Hampshire. In South Carolina and elsewhere, he faces steep deficits.
At this point in the 2008 race, however, Candidate A (Barack Obama) had already secured the endorsements of three governors, two senators, and thirty-one members of Congress. Candidate B (Sanders), despite doing as well or better in fundraising and in the polls, has received endorsements from zero governors, zero senators, and two lonely congressmen.
No presidential candidate in modern history has performed as well as Sanders and received so little support from the Democratic Party leadership. In their 2008 book The Party Decides, political scientists Marty Cohen, David Carol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller cite Howard Dean as the clearest case of a Democratic candidate who raised money and polled well but failed to clinch “the invisible primary” among party officeholders.
Yet while Dean led many polls in 2003, his success came against a large and divided Democratic field. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, his national support was at just 19 percent — far less than Sanders’s current mark of 37 percent. Nevertheless Dean managed to obtain pre-Iowa endorsements from thirty-four Democratic congresspeople, two senators, and former Vice President Al Gore.
Even far weaker challengers like Bill Bradley in 2000 (who trailed Gore by 44 points in January) and Bill Richardson in 2008 (who never broke the 5 percent barrier nationally) each cobbled together a modest squadron of Capitol Hill endorsements: eleven for Bradley and seven for Richardson.
The elite freeze-out of Bernie Sanders is without parallel in modern party history.
Liberals Against Social Democracy
Horse-race analysts point to this overwhelming disparity in the “invisible primary” as a reason why Sanders cannot win the nomination. Pro-Clinton pundits, meanwhile, have used it to argue that Sanders is unelectable as a presidential candidate because he cannot rally Democratic Party support.
The anti-democratic premises of this argument are readily apparent, although seldom acknowledged. Imagine a progressive politics that can only go so far as sitting US senators and state legislators are willing to take it, and you have Michael Tomasky’s vision for the Democratic Party.
Any democratic socialist worthy of the name should reject this idea out of hand. But neither can we ignore the powerful institutional obstacles that the Sanders campaign has brought into view.
On the one hand, Sanders’s surprising success in the polls has probably raised the hopes of those who are interested in nurturing a more robust form of class politics within the Democratic Party.
Sanders has demonstrated that a sharp denunciation of the “billionaire class,” combined with a social-democratic policy platform, can engage millions of Democratic voters — and not necessarily just liberals either. He has also shown that it is possible for an avowed socialist to participate successfully in national politics without altering his identity or renouncing his convictions.
On the other hand, the Sanders campaign has also underscored the deep conservatism of the existing Democratic Party. Not only have party elites universally rallied to Clinton and scorned Sanders, but the Democratic National Committee has sent many signals — from its scanty debate schedule to its peremptory action during “datagate” — that it views Sanders as an outside threat to the party’s existence rather than a legitimate contender.
In the past month, the elite liberal counter-attack on Sanders has spread beyond the Democratic Party itself. From Logan Circle to Columbus Circle, at custom standing desks and inside Acela quiet cars, a cavalcade of liberal media heavyweights has assailed Sanders for his political innocence, his quixotic theory of progress, and his delusional support for obviously unworkable programs like single-payer health care. For good measure, it has frequently (if baselessly) asserted that Sanders supporters are sexist abusers, too.
Even the ubiquitous data pundit Nate Silver, whose insider credentials are as sound as any, joked last week that every prominent liberal writer in America seemed to have “attended the same meeting.” But there is no need to speak of conspiracy; for liberal and Democratic elites, ideology is usually more than sufficient.
Few on the Left may be surprised to see what Kevin Phillips famously called “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party” concentrating its fire on Sanders. Yet given the limits of Sanders’s economic platform, and his general embrace of the Democratic line in foreign policy — the very features that have led some leftists to reject his campaign — the cohesiveness of the party’s opposition is revealing.
Certainly we might have expected conservative Democrats like Claire McCaskill to start talking about the Sanders campaign in terms of hammers and sickles. And it is not very shocking to see liberal bastions of the economic status quo, like Barney Frank or Howard Dean, come out as staunch opponents to Sanders’s outsider campaign.
But even the left wing of the party’s elite has shown little sympathy, let alone support, for Sanders. While individual progressives like Ohio senator Sherrod Brown or Georgia representative John Lewis do not seem implacably hostile to social-democratic politics, they, along with dozens in the House Progressive Caucus, endorsed Clinton last year.
And in a campaign where Sanders has forced Clinton to clarify her position on basic policy ideas like single-payer health care and free tuition at public colleges — she’s against them, categorically — elected liberals have remained firmly in her camp. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is literally in Iowa campaigning for Clinton this weekend. Minnesota senator Al Franken has carried the banner in New Hampshire.
In this sense, the Sanders campaign has offered a valuable reminder of how few professional Democrats are willing to fight for a social-democratic platform — and how many are eager to fight against it.
This is why Sanders continues to call for a “political revolution.” To achieve even the distinctly non-revolutionary reforms on his agenda, the millions of Democratic voters drawn to Sanders’s message must overcome the opposition of their own party elites. No matter what happens tonight in Iowa.