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What Bernie Sanders gets right when he says the system is rigged against him

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders has outperformed everyone's expectations for his 2016 primary campaign, but he is overwhelmingly likely at this point to lose the nomination. It's a frustrating situation for Sanders personally and even more frustrating for many of Sanders's supporters, who tend to be on the younger side and likely haven't yet had the experience of getting emotionally invested in a campaign that ends up losing.

This has come alongside an uptick in complaints that the nominating system is rigged, particularly via the potential conventional influence of unelected superdelegates who, technically, have the authority to overturn the will of the voters.

The reality, however, is that the system is not rigged — at least not in this way. Sanders is losing the nomination because he got fewer votes and has less overall support from Democratic primary voters. There are a couple of aspects of the nominating rules that have disadvantaged Sanders, but they haven't been decisive. And in many other respects, the rules have given him a helping hand.

The grain of truth behind the sense that the system is rigged, however, comes from something else. Party elites — including leaders of interest groups whose agenda Sanders has always consistently supported — really have worked against Sanders. Not by cheating, but by exercising the normal channels of influence that influential political actors have at their disposal.

These elites make sure that any insurgent candidate is constantly fighting an uphill battle. It's not impossible to win — just ask Barack Obama or Donald Trump — but it is difficult, and Sanders faced some genuinely monumental obstacles that have held him back even as he's mounted an impressive campaign.

Bernie Sanders really is just losing because he’s getting fewer votes

Some Sanders die-hards have alleged that Clinton got more votes by orchestrating a fraud scheme through some poorly identified mix of ballot manipulation, election rigging, and other dastardly ploys.

There is no evidence to support any of this.

The Democrats' presidential primary system is incredibly complex, freighted with confusing state-by-state rules and open to accidental screw-ups from underpaid local officials. Every state primary offers hundreds of opportunities for slight errors or routine snafus from election officials, which can then be mischaracterized by partisans as something sinister.

But reality is not House of Cards, and Hillary Clinton is not Frank Underwood. No independent expert has found anything remotely resembling proof of serious election fraud, vote tampering, or collusion between election officials and Clinton's campaign.

Perhaps just as importantly, even if the ridiculous claims were themselves somehow true, they wouldn't in fact come close to changing the outcome of the primary, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. (Sanders's supporters, for instance, went bananas after 60,000 Democrats accidentally disappeared from the voter rolls in Brooklyn. Clinton won the state by more than 400,000 votes — and given that she heavily carried the borough it's likely that the purge hurt her rather than helped.)

Moreover, we don't even need the vote totals themselves to know that Clinton is the more popular Democrat — the polls have shown this very clearly and consistently.

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The party really did decide against Sanders

Until Trump's victory this year, it had become fashionable to say that party elites routinely determine the outcomes of nomination contests. Some people doubted this was really true (see Andrew Prokop's prescient feature on this), but it seems clear that elites at least speak with a louder voice than rank-and-file voters. Voters choose their candidates not simply through an even-handed evaluation of competing policy proposals but by taking cues from elite actors — particularly the media, the party, and other elected officials — and in Sanders's case those cues have virtually uniformly been loaded against him.

Elites, in particularly, have unleashed some media dynamics that are very difficult for Sanders to deal with.

Back in January, for example, both Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign endorsed Clinton even though Sanders has been a very loyal supporter of reproductive rights and a more loyal supporter of LGBTQ equality than Clinton. Sanders, naturally, was asked to say something about this, and what he wound up doing was dismissing them as part of the "establishment," which created an anti-Sanders backlash among fans of the group.

Sanders probably could have handled that more deftly, but it was a legitimately tricky situation for him. It's one thing for a politician to be attacked by interest groups whose agenda he hasn't supported. When Wall Street figures say nice things about Clinton or give money to her, for example, that's an opportunity for Sanders to reiterate his message. But when groups whose agenda you support attack you, it's very difficult to cope.

The loyal support of several of the nation's largest and most politically influential labor unions — most notably the Service Employees International Union — for Clinton is particularly galling to Sanders supporters in light of his considerably more populist and union-friendly record in the Senate.

The case of the missing wonks

Perhaps the clearest example of how a lack of support among party elites has hurt Sanders is the "wonk gap."

Back in mid-January when it became clear that Sanders had been underestimated by the pundits, I wrote a piece called "It's time to start taking Bernie Sanders seriously," calling on both the media and the Sanders campaign itself to start paying more attention to the often sketchy details of Sanders's policy proposals.

The media, including Vox, began doing this, but the Sanders campaign really didn't. Within weeks the existence of a "wonk gap," in which Clinton had more rigorous, more detailed policy proposals, became conventional wisdom in the press — largely because it was true.

But one important reason why it was true is that Sanders was largely cut off from access to Washington's community of experts who can craft proposals that policy journalists will deem credible. Everyone assumed Clinton would win, and that the smart bet was to rally around her and try to influence her ideas rather than add polish to Sanders's platform. After all, in the unlikely event that Sanders secured the nomination he would, in practice, need to forgive and forget and rely on the help of formerly Clinton-leaning elites. Clinton herself, by contrast, would have a long memory about anyone who crossed her.

As Max Fisher wrote for Vox, this dynamic was particularly pronounced on foreign policy.

This is one issue on which Sanders has largely avoided extreme left-wing positions (supporting the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan, for example) while Clinton has a record that is in many ways to the right of most Democrats. And yet essentially no experts rallied to Sanders's standard even as Clinton has repeatedly suggested that she is more hawkish than Obama on questions relating to Israel, Iran, Syria, and other issues.

Here's Fisher:

The Clintons are notorious for rewarding loyalty and punishing perceived disloyalty — no matter how slight or how long ago. Even when Clinton was part of the Obama administration, her State Department shut out quite a few people who had supported Obama.

If you're a foreign policy professional, you remember that. And you see that a Clinton primary victory still looks likely. So if you think you might want a job in government anytime in the next four to eight years, especially a high-level job, siding with Clinton in the primary is the safe bet.

This elite-driven lack of expert heft made it consistently difficult for Sanders to get the campaign focused on an issue terrain that objectively should have been very unfavorable for Clinton.

Politics ain't beanbag

These are very real examples of how Sanders's lack of elite support hurt him in the primaries. But it's important to be clear — they don't mean the system is rigged.

Obama, for example, faced a very similar set of headwinds with the policy expert community during his 2008 campaign, but he worked assiduously — not after Iowa, but starting with his arrival in Washington way back in 2005 — to build a counter-network. Trump, meanwhile, proved that the open disdain of party elites can be an advantage if the voters hate the elites enough.

Sanders's problem is that he was not successful in co-opting elites or in persuading a majority of the party's rank and file to turn against them. It goes to show not so much that Sanders was cheated as simply that political revolution is hard.

If leaders of the Democratic Party wanted to replace their existing center-left ideology with Sanders-style democratic socialism, they would do so. But they don't. And Sanders hasn't even been a member of the Democratic Party for most of his tenure in Congress. His campaign was, in essence, an attempted hostile takeover of a major political party. That's not impossible (again, see Trump), but it's difficult, and Sanders just didn't get the job done. He wasn't cheated, but he was disadvantaged by a process that meant he was fighting an uphill battle the whole way.


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