Bernie Sanders is giving his presidential campaign a “reset” as he goes head-to-head for the Democratic presidential nomination with Joe Biden, amid signs that the political revolution he hoped to ignite through a surge in voter turnout of young and marginalised Americans is failing to catch fire.
The Sanders campaign is seeking to reboot following disappointing results on Super Tuesday, which saw Biden prevail in 10 of the 14 states holding primary elections. In the wake of the surprising setback, the US senator from Vermont is repurposing his insurgent pitch for the White House on several fronts.
They include a renewed push for dominance in the midwest before a crucial primary in Michigan on Tuesday. Sanders is also discarding his aversion to negative political campaigning and sharpening his attacks on Biden, running TV attack adds over the former vice president’s record of supporting social security cuts and free trade agreements, which could be particularly damaging in the Midwestern states.
In addition, the campaign is scrambling to make fresh appeals to African American and older voters, electoral groups that both came out heavily for Biden on Super Tuesday, when he swept the south and won 10 of the 14 states at stake.
The Sanders team signalled that it was shifting focus to the midwest when it canceled a planned rally in Mississippi. Instead, the candidate headed to Michigan for an event on Friday night.
The move was a tacit acceptance that Biden now has a stranglehold on southern states, propelled by his popularity among black voters. It was also recognition of the high stakes of the primary in Michigan, with its rich pickings of 125 delegates out of the 1,991 needed to win the nomination.
Sanders sees Michigan as a chance to regain his stride after the knocks of Super Tuesday, having beaten Hillary Clinton there in 2016. He hopes that his focus on policies appealing to working-class Americans, such as a federal $15 minimum wage, will play well not only in that state but across the rust belt in Illinois and Ohio, which hold their primaries on 17 March.
“Michigan is an enormously important state,” Sanders said in a post-Super Tuesday press briefing in his home town of Burlington, Vermont. “The people of Michigan were devastated by trade agreements which I vigorously opposed and Joe Biden supported.”
No matter how much of a bounce he enjoys in Michigan, Sanders faces threats as the race enters its next punishing phase. In particular, the Super Tuesday results exposed a fundamental failure to expand the Democratic base by bringing in millions of new voters.
Sanders was in a reflective mood after the Super Tuesday result. “It is not easy trying to bring in people who have not been involved in the political process,” he said. “Have we been as successful as I would hope in bringing young people in? The answer is no.”
John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School’s institute of politics, whose researchers has been studying the youth vote since 2000, reviewed exit polls from 12 of the most competitive elections. While turnout overall was up in all of the 12 states compared with 2016, the pattern for young people aged 18 to 29 – the very core of the Sanders revolutionary army – told a different story.
In four of the states youth turnout increased, handsomely in the cases of Iowa (36%) and Virginia (38%). But in two states youth turnout was flat, and in six states it actually declined, as much as 18% in New Hampshire and 20% in Texas.
By contrast, voter turnout for older voters who tend to favor Biden increased in all but one of the 12 states. In South Carolina, where Biden’s campaign was rocket-launched with a landslide victory last Saturday, the projected turnout of voters aged 65 and older increased 124% – the very surge that Sanders had dreamt about for younger voters yet failed to deliver.
“For any candidate to be the nominee of the Democratic party they have to build a broad and diverse coalition across gender, race, age and educational levels,” Della Volpe told the Guardian. “It’s terrific that Bernie Sanders is building such a great relationship with young voters, but he needs to maximise that support and then expand beyond it, and that’s not what we are seeing.”
Sanders partially blamed his difficulties in mobilising a wider coalition of support on his enemies in the “corporate media” and “establishment politics”. As he told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC: “One of the problems we have is that people say, ‘Bernie is an extremist’. There is nothing we are fighting for which is extreme. It is what the American people want.”
But there is danger for Sanders here too. By doubling down on his attacks on the media and the “Democratic establishment” he risks reinforcing the stereotype of himself as a grievance-ridden politician promoted by that same media and Democratic establishment.
“That rhetoric, in my view, signals to voters that he’s a factional candidate,” said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist who advised Sanders in 2016 but is unaligned in 2020. He said such critiques distract from his core economic message, which remains popular with Democrats and independent voters alike.
“There’s Bernie Sanders on message and Bernie Sanders off message,” Longabaugh said. “One can win and the other is going to stay at 25%.”
Behind the scenes, there are indications that the Sanders camp are attempting to address the candidate’s weakness in the two demographic groups that have flocked to Biden – older voters and African Americans. Sanders’ campaign co-chair, Ro Khanna, told Politico it would be emphasising healthcare issues for seniors as one way to focus in on the high-voting over 65s.
With black voters, the latest Sanders advert to be broadcast in Florida raised eyebrows as it consists of a series of clips of Barack Obama praising him as a politician of “great authenticity, great passion”. For Sanders to look to Obama to rescue his fortunes has an air of desperation, given that Biden’s overwhelming popularity among African Americans is largely due to his role as Obama’s vice-president.
But then, the figures do look desperate. Exit polls from Super Tuesday showed Biden trouncing Sanders with black voters by 41 percentage points. In Alabama that disparity rose to 63 points.
Biden built his firewall with black voters in South Carolina based on the endorsement of the influential congressman Jim Clyburn. Sanders’ defeat there was compounded with the embarrassing disclosure that he hadn’t even asked Clyburn to back him.
There is hope in inroads made with Latino voters, which helped Sanders clinch California, the biggest delegate prize of any state. In the coming weeks, he will rely on that support to remain competitive in states like Arizona, New York and New Jersey.
But he is struggling in Florida, where his comments on 60 Minutes praising Fidel Castro’s literacy program in Cuba has apparently hurt his standing with the state’s Latinos. The most recent Florida poll taken on 4 March has Biden soaring to 61% with Sanders languishing at 12%.
Against such deeply worrying indicators for Sanders, progressives warn that the lessons of the past are once again being ignored. Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist who works with progressive candidates, dismissed the idea that Sanders is the risky option in the 2020 race.
“Sometimes the safest choice is also the riskiest choice,” she said. “Remember that John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore were all safe choices.”