Like many of you I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in campaigns during my lifetime—Al Gore running away from Bill Clinton and John Kerry running away from the swift boaters in two more recent campaigns. Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008 had the good, bad, and ugly, but in this year’s primary she is running a much better campaign with a much better candidate, Hillary 2.0. Obviously, she learned a lot from the Obama Campaigns of 2008 and 2012. However, Bernie Sanders is running the worst train wreck of a campaign I have ever witnessed.
In 2008, then Senator Obama showed us all how to run a campaign even while the GOP ridiculed his community organizing background. His campaign had a flawless strategy, zeroing in on the forgotten caucuses for momentum, staking out delegate-rich southern states, hosting huge rallies and intimate settings. Most importantly, his campaign staff and volunteers were well trained. Those strategies, along with Sen. Obama’s youthful presence, soaring oratory, warmth and charm, combined with a brilliant intellect and coolness, made him a formidable challenger to Hillary Clinton and then John McCain.
While many of us were in awe of the Obama campaign, we also saw in Barack Obama the qualities of a strong leader and the potential to be a great President. We simply could not say the same about John McCain. The contrast between the campaigns was too sharply drawn. I can tell simply by watching Bernie’s campaign that he does not possess the qualities of a leader, and his presidency, however unlikely that would be, would be a disaster.
The train wreck started before it even left the station with Sanders’ NPR interview in November 2015. The interview is dismissive of the African-American voter as not just an integral part of the Democratic Party, but as the bulwark and foundation of the party.
Oh boy! Could that have been more obtuse?
Statements such as those, along with his reliance on his long-ago civil rights activism, were offensive to many African-American voters. Then Sanders and his campaign hierarchy claims that Sanders would win the Northern black voters or the Democrats never win the South in general elections not only diminished the importance of southern voters, but were factually inaccurate as well. Social media flipped out after seeing a video of members of the nurses’ union training volunteers on how to “talk to black voters.” After Super Tuesday boxcars were uncoupling and veering off the tracks, but Sanders and surrogates such as Nina Turner and Jane Sanders kept denigrating the Southern states, which observers recognized as code for African-American voters.
Clinton was knocked early on by the punditry and political buffs like myself for her listening tour, but in hindsight it was a genius move. Not only did she establish invaluable contacts along the way, but by mostly shunning the press and large crowds she showed a much more human side to voters. In contrast, Sanders spent upwards of $300,000 (some estimates are as high as half a million dollars) on each of his large, flashy rallies. Not only did these rallies burn through money, but they just didn’t translate into more votes for Sanders. The rally expenses and large amounts spent on ads may have kept some state primaries close but ended up being wasted dollars on devastating losses. Contrast that with the Clinton campaign's much wiser use of its war chest. For example, Sec. Clinton traveled throughout New York, visiting favorite haunts and churches in towns and cities. What became more and more apparent was that Sanders lacked the human, intimate connection with voters, which we know from the Obama campaign is an essential element of a winning strategy. Rather than analyze why Sanders was losing, he and his strategists made no adjustments to the campaign. And the cars kept falling away from the engine. Clearly his staff didn’t want voters to have a close encounter with their cranky, sometimes irascible, engineer.
Looking at New York as a microcosm of the Sanders campaign's strategy illuminated other glaring missteps. Remember in the introduction I mentioned the training provided for Sen. Obama’s staff and volunteers? The lack of training on the part of Sanders’ volunteers really destroyed any hope of a victory in New York. His followers were inflamed when they discovered they could not vote in the closed primary because they were not registered. Surrogate Tim Robbins and “journalist” Shaun King lost their minds over conspiracy theories and “voter suppression.” Where were those trained volunteers and staff before the vote? Nowhere, because there weren’t any Bernie folks to spread out around New York to register independents. Hey folks, we didn’t make you ignorant. You built that. Evidently the conductor, the brakeman, as well as the engineer were asleep when the train pulled into New York. Wait. No, the engineer was at the Vatican for reasons not quite clear but spending oodles of cash that could have been spent on what? TRAINING!
In the meantime and in spite of a promise to run a positive campaign, Sanders unleashed an assault on Clinton’s character, particularly around the time his dreadful interview came out in the Daily News. That was when we discovered Sanders didn't know a damn thing about trains. Not how they work or even how to drive one. A few weeks before the New York primary the Times published what could only be a postmortem by his campaign staff. That was really early for a staff to be throwing their candidate under the locomotive.
The list of mistakes is endless: goofy surrogates, no use of local officials to help with ground game or hosting events, mostly white town hall in Flint, MI, FEC violations, no cap on consultant salaries, bogus paths to victory, and the constant threats of lawsuits, whining about mistreatment, love/hate relationship with the superdelegates, demonizing the Democratic Party, poor money management, the dismissal of over 200 staff, yada yada yada. Notice I didn’t even mention the Bernie Bros? The biggest mistake Sanders made was not getting to know the folks he needed to ride his train. He didn’t go into neighborhoods, local cafes, churches. His volunteers weren’t trained to work in communities and build relationships.
You see, Hillary Clinton has deep ties in the black community, and she has cultivated many of those ties into long-lasting friendships. When the Flint water crisis broke into the national press, Clinton picked up the phone and called the mayor of Flint, whom she knows. When she spoke to African-American clergy in Philadelphia, she was already on a first-name basis with many of them. Sure, there are those who blame her for the crime bill, but the majority of others remember her fighting for them and their children all of her adult life by reforming educational systems, reducing infant mortality rates among the poor, pushing both parties for a bipartisan bill to create children’s health insurance. They know her connection to the Children’s Defense Fund. Women know she has fought hard and long for our rights. By all accounts Clinton is warm, friendly, and funny in intimate settings. Sanders has none of those kinds of connections or interpersonal skills. He has loyal supporters and rabid followers, but he has not formed friendships and coalitions around the country.
Why it is that only one senator endorsed him? Some of the most progressive senators, Al Franken, Sherrod Brown, Barbara Boxer to name just a few, have endorsed Hillary. Bernie's own governor and past governor, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, endorsed Hillary. The fact is no one wants to be on this train wreck with him. So as the big old locomotive with its horn still screeching careens into California with boxcars tumbling off the rails, sparks lighting up the night sky, and debris scattered along the way, Bernie drives that crippled train right through the station’s walls, leaving behind a dusty heap of rubble and a crumpled engine.
Author's acknowledgments: Thanks to Xiomara De Oliver and Melissa Like for ideas and research and Leslie Galen, proofreader extraordinaire.