Bernie San­ders is no Barack Obama, and 2016 is not 2008, ar­gues Demo­cratic strate­gist Dan Pfeif­fer

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @danpfeif­fer Dan Pfeif­fer is a CNN po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor and a for­mer White House se­nior ad­vi­sor.

Hil­lary Clin­ton is once again cam­paign­ing for pres­i­dent as the pro­hib­i­tive front-run­ner, and once again, she faces a chal­lenge from an in­sur­gent pro­gres­sive out­sider with grass­roots sup­port. Once again, while Clin­ton (re)in­tro­duces her­self to vot­ers in a low-key lis­ten­ing tour of sorts, her chal­lenger is draw­ing huge au­di­ences — 10,000 in Madi­son, Wis., 8,000 in Port­land, Maine, 5,000 in Den­ver and over­flow crowds in Iowa’s small towns and else­where.

Eight years ago, Clin­ton led in the polls for most of 2007, only to lose the Iowa cau­cuses— and, even­tu­ally, the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion — to a fa­vorite of the party’s pro­gres­sive base. It’s feel­ing a bit like deja vu. “If she doesn’t change the terms of the race, she’s go­ing to lose. Again,” for­mer Mitt Rom­ney strate­gist Stu­art Stevens warned in the Daily Beast this month.

It may be tempt­ing to com­pare the race be­tween Clin­ton and Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.) to the epic race be­tween Clin­ton and Sen. Barack Obama: San­ders, like Obama, has con­sol­i­dated a good por­tion of the lib­eral wing of the Demo­cratic Party. San­ders, like Obama, is rais­ing mil­lions from small-dol­lar donors on the In­ter­net. San­ders, like Obama, is chan­nel­ing the anger and frus­tra­tion of some in the party. Then, it was about the Iraq war; now, it’s about Wall Street.

But that’s where the sim­i­lar­i­ties end. From the per­spec­tive of some­one who worked on his cam­paign and in his White House, it’s clear that Obama’s race against Clin­ton is not a use­ful ex­am­ple. Un­der­stand­ing the dy­nam­ics at play in the 2016 pri­maries re­quires look­ing fur­ther back at history. And un­for­tu­nately for San­ders, history shows that there are only two types of Demo­cratic in­sur­gent can­di­dates: Barack Obama and ev­ery­one else.

The cur­rent sys­tem for se­lect­ing nom­i­nees in the Demo­cratic Party is less than 50 years old. Af­ter the dis­as­trous 1968 cam­paign and nom­i­nat­ing con­ven­tion in Chicago, the party aban­doned the smoke-filled rooms of yore and shifted to a se­ries of pri­maries and cau­cuses. The

1972 nom­i­na­tion went to the grass-roots fa­vorite, Sen. Ge­orge McGovern (S.D.), who used the new rules to edge out es­tab­lish­ment picks Hu­bert Humphrey and Henry “Scoop” Jack­son. (McGovern won only Mas­sachusetts and the Dis­trict of Columbia in the gen­eral elec­tion against Richard Nixon.) In nearly ev­ery elec­tion since then, an anti-es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure has sought the nom­i­na­tion.

San­ders is merely the latest such chal­lenger to make some early noise in a Demo­cratic pri­mary race. He’s not even the first one from Ver­mont: In 2004, for­mer gover­nor Howard Dean rode his op­po­si­tion to the Iraq war to the top of the field be­fore even­tu­ally fin­ish­ing a dis­tant third in Iowa. That, com­bined with his fa­mous cau­cus-night scream, was ef­fec­tively the end of his can­di­dacy. Dean fol­lowed in the foot­steps of oth­ers, such as then-Sen. Gary Hart (Colo.) in 1984 (and briefly in 1988), Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Jerry Brown in 1976 and again in 1992, and for­mer sen­a­tor Bill Bradley (N. J.) in 2000. Obama played this role in 2008. The most fa­mous and most suc­cess­ful post-McGovern, pre-Obama chal­lenge came from Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) in 1980, when he al­most de­feated Jimmy Carter, the in­cum­bent pres­i­dent of his own party.

All of these chal­lengers had their mo­ments, ris­ing in the polls, fir­ing up the grass roots and go­ing from un­known un­der­dogs to le­git­i­mate con­tenders. But ev­ery one of them, ex­cept Obama, ul­ti­mately came up short. Their early suc­cesses all had some sim­i­lar ex­pla­na­tions. First, the most lib­eral vot­ers tend to tune in sooner and en­gage more ac­tively, giv­ing an ini­tial boost to pro­gres­sive can­di­dates. Sec­ond, the over­rid­ing bias in po­lit­i­cal press cov­er­age is to­ward a com­pet­i­tive race, which means that chal­lengers of­ten re­ceive media at­ten­tion that ex­ceeds their chances of win­ning. Fi­nally and per­haps most im­por­tantly, skep­ti­cism of the es­tab­lish­ment is wo­ven into the fab­ric of the Demo­cratic Party — if the party lead­er­ship, the donors and the pun­dits are all for one per­son, many in the rank and file start to ex­plore other op­tions.

Of course, ev­ery elec­tion is dif­fer­ent, and ev­ery his­tor­i­cal par­al­lel is im­per­fect. Each of these can­di­dates did things right and wrong in their races; some made gaffes, and oth­ers ran out of money. But ul­ti­mately, sim­i­lar fac­tors played into their defeats.

Pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns are mas­sively so­phis­ti­cated, ex­pen­sive oper­a­tions. In­sur­gent chal­lenges all start as un­der­funded, fly-bynight oper­a­tions, with just enough re­sources to gain at­ten­tion in the early days. But when it comes to ac­tu­ally turn­ing out vot­ers, par­tic­u­larly in the very com­plex Iowa cau­cus sys­tem — which re­quires a can­di­date to have at least 15 per­cent sup­port to get any del­e­gates and gives no ex­tra points for win­ning by big mar­gins in lib­eral precincts— you need a cam­paign or­ga­ni­za­tion wor­thy of that task.

Even if or­ga­niz­ers man­age to set up a strong op­er­a­tion, many chal­lengers still fal­ter un­der the in­tense klieg lights that are at­tracted to a vi­able con­tender for the United States pres­i­dency. Life­long politi­cians who are first-time pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates think they are ready for the scru­tiny, and they are al­most all wrong. Fi­nally, ev­ery anti-es­tab­lish­ment chal­lenger ex­cept Obama failed to ex­pand his base be­yond the left wing of the party. Bradley and Dean, for in­stance, did very well with lib­eral, white Democrats. That can be enough to win key states such as Iowa and New Hamp­shire, es­pe­cially in a mul­ti­can­di­date field, where you may only need a third of the elec­torate to come out on top. But get­ting suf­fi­cient del­e­gates to win the nomi- na­tion re­quires a very broad base of sup­port. It means build­ing a wide coali­tion of vot­ers, in­clud­ing mod­er­ate Democrats and even in­de­pen­dents, as well as African Amer­i­cans and the grow­ing num­ber of Lati­nos in the party.

Obama’s cam­paign suc­ceeded where ev­ery­one else’s failed for two main rea­sons. His tremen­dous pop­u­lar­ity with African Amer­i­can vot­ers was crit­i­cal. Although Obama won the black vote by mar­gins as high as 9 to 1 in some states, this was not pre­or­dained. Clin­ton led Obama among African Amer­i­can vot­ers in most polls un­til af­ter he won Iowa. Obama also found a way to hold his lib­eral base while si­mul­ta­ne­ously at­tract­ing the en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port of self-iden­ti­fied in­de­pen­dents and mod­er­ates. In 2008, we did best in open con­tests, which al­lowed any­one to par­tic­i­pate re­gard­less of party reg­is­tra­tion.

Es­sen­tially, Obama ben­e­fit­ted from two sep­a­rate phe­nom­ena: lib­eral frus­tra­tion with the Demo­cratic Party es­tab­lish­ment for sup­port­ing the Iraq war and mod­er­ate dis­en­chant­ment with Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush over Iraq, Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina and a host of other is­sues. Get­ting the sup­port of those in­de­pen­dents and Repub­li­cans was key for us in a num­ber of cau­cus states, in­clud­ing Iowa.

So far, at least, there’s lit­tle rea­son to think San­ders can du­pli­cate what led Obama to vic­tory. Yes, he’s surged in the polls to be the clear chal­lenger to Clin­ton, a re­mark­ably rapid and im­pres­sive feat for a sen­a­tor from a small state who has never run for na­tional of­fice be­fore in or­der to seek the nom­i­na­tion. If his mo­men­tum con­tin­ues, and if for­mer Mary­land gover­nor Martin O’Malley and oth­ers can take chunks of the vote, San­ders could win Iowa and even New Hamp­shire.

But San­ders still looks likely to fol­low in the tra­di­tion of Bradley and Dean. Polls show that he’s do­ing well with lib­eral white vot­ers and strug­gling ev­ery­where else, and he has neg­li­gi­ble sup­port and lim­ited name iden­ti­fi­ca­tion among black and Latino vot­ers. There is no doubt that San­ders has lit the pro­gres­sive wing of the Demo­cratic Party on fire by speak­ing out boldly against in­equal­ity and ex­cess on Wall Street. But he faces real chal­lenges that Obama did not in ex­pand­ing his base of sup­port. San­ders is from a small state with very few mi­nor­ity vot­ers, while Obama had deeper re­la­tion­ships to build on, es­pe­cially with the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity.

San­ders’s cam­paign is grow­ing rapidly, but even with new field of­fices open­ing fast, it’s still less than half the size of Obama’s or­ga­ni­za­tion at a sim­i­lar junc­ture in our race: In July 2007, Obama had 80 paid staffers work­ing in 25 of­fices in Iowa. Obama was able to raise more early money for his cam­paign; that, cou­pled with his po­ten­tial to make history as the na­tion’s first black pres­i­dent, at­tracted a very ex­pe­ri­enced set of ad­vi­sors with deep knowl­edge of how to run a so­phis­ti­cated op­er­a­tion. While San­ders has de­cided to play the role of the lib­eral chal­lenger to Clin­ton, push­ing her to the left at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, Obama ran a much less ide­o­log­i­cal cam­paign, which al­lowed him to build a broader base of sup­port from the out­set.

If 2008 is not the best par­al­lel for San­ders vs. Clin­ton, what is? Prob­a­bly the 2000 con­test be­tween Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore and Bill Bradley. That con­test, like this one, was about who would get a chance to suc­ceed a two-term Demo­cratic pres­i­dent. That con­test, like this one, was es­sen­tially a two-per­son race (though this could change in the com­ing months). And in that con­test, like this one, the Demo­cratic Party was look­ing to re­de­fine it­self for a new era. Bradley made a sur­pris­ingly strong chal­lenge to a sit­ting vice pres­i­dent, forc­ing Gore to shake up his cam­paign, move his head­quar­ters from D.C. to Nashville and re­tool his en­tire ef­fort. Ul­ti­mately, though, Bradley could not broaden his base of sup­port, and he ended up los­ing all 50 states to Gore.

History says that Clin­ton is likely to be our nom­i­nee and that San­ders is doomed to re­peat the fate of Bradley and the rest. Of course, history said the same thing about Obama, and there’s a rea­son that peo­ple say “any­thing is pos­si­ble in pol­i­tics.” But the odds are that by this time next year, the 2008 cam­paign will re­main the ex­cep­tion, not the rule.



TOP: A Bernie San­ders rally July 6 in­Maine. BOT­TOM: Howard Dean, left, had the grass-roots mo­men­tum in 2004, un­til the Iowa cau­cuses.


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