I follow quite a few Twitter accounts of people volunteering for the Bernie campaign. I read a lot about people canvassing for the first time, and how rewarding they find it. In both Iowa and New Hampshire these past few weeks, Bernie’s team attracted thousands of activists, many from several states away, to knock on doors and get people out to vote in the primary. (It worked.) But knocking on strangers’ doors can be terrifying if you’ve never done it.
In 2003, while Joe Biden was browbeating Congress to accept President Bush’s case for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq and their non-existent WMDs, I canvassed with the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. We went door to door in some of the richest areas, asking people to sign our petition or make a donation to push for campaign finance reform—‘to get Big Money out of the political process’. We pounded that tree-lined pavement, wending our way up and down long driveways, meeting various shades of resistance ranging from voices shouting through closed doors that they would call the police, to residents gesturing towards the numberless McMansions and asking if we were stupid. In one case, a scowling middle-aged man cut me off with the bald statement ‘I am Big Money’ and abruptly slammed the door in my face.
It felt very much like a losing battle.
Keep the number 1991 in mind.
That’s how many pledged delegates Bernie (or any other candidate) will need to win to become the Democratic nominee for the race against Donald Trump in November. Think 1991, like the year Nirvana released Nevermind, because if Bernie doesn’t hit that number—well, never mind. No candidate wins outright, which means that the shower of shitheads known as superdelegates vote in a second ballot, and you can bet your whole maxed-out overdraft that they will vote for anyone but Bernie. Most superdelegates exist to keep the party elite’s grip on power, and the fact that they’re not voting in the first round was a sop to Bernie supporters in 2018 whom they feared would abandon the party altogether. And they need us, even though they despise us.
Don’t let this complicated bullshit put you off. Bernie is the frontrunner. He won the Iowa caucus by over 6,000 votes, despite Pete Buttigieg declaring victory when none of the results were in, and the media worldwide running with this dog food narrative. Nonetheless, Bernie’s win translates as the same number of delegates as Mayor Pete. Bernie also won outright in New Hampshire, which brings him to 21 pledged delegates. Mayor Pete currently has 22. When you look at these numbers, it looks like Bernie is struggling. But remember this: Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the whitest states in the country, and Bernie won them both, despite having the most diverse support base of all the candidates. As voting takes place in more diverse states, and candidates with no viability drop out of the race, the delegates pledged to these dropouts will be reallocated and the vote share of the remaining candidates will shift. That shift will most likely benefit Bernie Sanders.
The Democratic Party relies on the support of Americans from minority backgrounds: African-Americans, Latinos, and newly naturalised citizens born in other countries, as well as the working class. People of colour are the Democrats’ vital voter base. Without them showing up to vote, and voting Democrat, they can’t win elections. African-American and Latino communities overwhelmingly dislike and mistrust Mayor Pete. In fact, the only candidates with any support from people of colour are Joe Biden—who currently has the lowest number of delegates of all the viable candidates—and Bernie Sanders, who singularly polls to win in every state and also in an election against Donald Trump. Bernie’s voting base is made up of precisely the under-represented groups of Americans that the Democrats need to mobilise in order to win: working class people from a diversity of backgrounds.
Bernie’s grassroots popularity is evidenced by his campaign funding. The Bernie 2020 campaign has raised over $100 million so far, most of which was comprised of millions of small individual donations averaging around $18. Bernie’s campaign keeps breaking records for the amount it’s received in this primary month after month, as well as the number of individual donations. The most common stated profession of donors is ‘Teacher’. The rest of the campaign’s donations come predominantly from people working for low pay at tax-dodging companies like Amazon, Starbucks, etc. The movement to elect Bernie Sanders for president is funded by the same people struggling to make ends meet despite working full-time at booming companies.
Compare this to Michael Bloomberg, the erstwhile Republican billionaire who is buying his way into the primary. Bloomberg’s campaign spending has already passed $400 million—of his own money. To put that amount in perspective relative to his vast $60 billion worth, it is roughly the equivalent of a person on an average wage buying a bus ticket. It is also ten times more than Bernie’s campaign spending. And this from a candidate who has not even run in the first three states.
A huge chunk of this money is being spent on television ads, a whopping $132 million. Such a vulgar spending strategy is aimed not only at reducing Bernie’s visibility (and skewing what visibility Bernie has with red-baiting attacks on ‘Bernie Bros’ and ‘communism’), but it also gives Bloomberg a platform without holding his record or his policies up to scrutiny. While all the other candidates battle it out in the arena of open debate, with their campaigns canvassing on doorsteps and putting forward a vision of their prospective presidencies that is open to criticism, Bloomberg beams his ads into the privacy of voters’ living rooms. His viewpoints are simple because they lack substance: Bloomberg is whatever Bernie Sanders is not. And as advertisements, they are expressed in a deceptively crafted medium of persuasion without debate or discussion, on prime time television, all day, every day, in every state.
But this might be a good thing. Maybe we need to be confronted with a stark choice between a positive vision of America on the one hand, one that draws its power from a movement of working class people of all backgrounds, and the slyly constructed fear-mongering of some racist, misogynistic billionaire with contempt for ordinary people on the other. Having this choice, it doesn't feel so much like a losing battle anymore.