Less than a week ago, everything was going right for Bernie Sanders. He had won in Iowa (at least by his definition) and New Hampshire and lapped the field in Nevada—where a diverse coalition and an impressive organizing effort had him looking like the kind of candidate who goes on to win Democratic presidential nominations.
And then a lot of things happened in a short period of time. Joe Biden, with a boost from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, won a landslide in South Carolina, and in quick succession, two challengers—Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg—dropped out and endorsed Biden. Another former rival, Beto O’Rourke, emerged from wherever he’s been to endorse Biden onstage in his home state. Harry Reid endorsed Biden. (A little late, but okay.) Suddenly polls showed Biden surging across the same March 3rd map Sanders had once predicted would put him on the path to the nomination.
By the time voters began lining up to get into Sanders’ Super Tuesday victory rally at a county fairground in Essex, Vermont, the enthusiasm of the moment was beginning to mix with a familiar anxiety.
“I guess winning one state in his entire career running for president is enough to create that momentum for some people,” Sophie Lovett, a barista from Burlington, told me when I asked about Biden. She felt like he was getting an undue amount of media attention for his South Carolina victory. “I feel like it’s very fucking sketchy, that’s how I feel about it.”
In the eyes of voters like Lovett, Sanders was a victim of two forces that had long been working against him—the Democratic Party and its allies in the political media. It’s a message that Sanders, who often chides the “corporate media” on the stump and uses the “Democratic establishment” as a rhetorical punching bag, has spent years cultivating. In part, that’s because it’s a necessary foil; it wouldn’t be much of a revolution if there was nothing to rebel against. But the setback on Tuesday also showed the limits of such a message. If you want to win a major party nomination, it helps to keep your list of declared enemies to a minimum.
As he waited for doors to open at the exposition hall, Bill Coleman, a mental health counselor from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom who had just come back from door-knocking for Sanders in Massachusetts, told me he knew something was up when Buttigieg showed up to the debate in Nevada with an uncharacteristic stubble. He took it as a sign that the rest of the field was going to start ganging up on the Vermont senator.
“When I watched the previous debate, I noticed that Buttigieg hadn’t even shaved completely, Amy Klobuchar looked disheveled, and they looked unmotivated compared to the previous ones,” Coleman said. They had quit trying to win, he concluded, and stuck around only to take their shots at Sanders. “I don’t even think that’s a conspiracy theory at all—it’s really obvious. They wanted to have essentially a firing squad that came at Bernie in that last debate.”
The spectacle was “nauseating,” he told me. “And it’s not just them—the corporate news media has just been turned themselves into Biden TV.”
Listen to MoJo reporters Tim Murphy and Fernanda Echavarri share insights about Biden’s big night, Bernie’s long fight, and the knockdown fight for delegates to come, on this special Super Tuesday edition of the Mother Jones Podcast:
The notion that Sanders is a victim of an unfair media was a recurring one at the rally. Irene Poole, who was wearing a green “Make America Vermont Again” T-shirt as she waited for the event to start, echoed Coleman’s thoughts, except she believed the pro-Biden bias had seeped into public media as well. “Last night I was watching PBS Newshour,” she said. “And I’m done with them. I am done with them!”
“I’m a little more concerned about the DNC,” Dierdra Michelle of Burlington told me, referring to the Democratic National Committee. “There’s a very strong pushback against him right now. It’s frustrating. I find it frustrating. Sad…Sometimes I think the Democratic Party we sometimes, as my mama would say, ‘cut off our nose to spite our face.’”
Melissa Warren, a volunteer with a “Bernie Beats Trump” pin affixed to her hat, channeled the candidate when I asked her about the wave of Biden endorsements that preceded Super Tuesday. “‘The establishment’s getting scared’—that’s what he’s saying,” she said. “But at the end of the day there’s no smokescreen that’s gonna block out the revolution.” She started to laugh. “We invented smokescreens in Vermont!”
Over the course of the night, it became increasingly hard to minimize Biden’s successes. Four days after winning his first primary, he won eight more, including Texas—the state where Sanders had promised a victory not long ago. A few supporters pointed with apprehension to Biden’s big victory in Virginia, where the Sanders campaign had invested heavily.
The political maneuvering was real, but this wasn’t all the work of some shadowy “establishment.” Biden drove up large margins across the South by winning black voters, and especially older black voters, overwhelmingly there—something Sanders has failed to do in two campaigns over four years. Biden padded his numbers across the map with strong marks in suburbs where Sanders had been banking on the logjam of candidates to slow his rival down. Sanders struggled, in other words, in the same places he has always struggled, and in the places where his struggles had been momentarily papered over by a disorganized field. He struggled among the kinds of people for whom “Democratic establishment” is not a slur.
Sanders talks about his theory of the race more than most candidates do, in part because his style of campaigning is such an essential part of his message. He’s argued that a “historic” voter turnout operation—“multigenerational, multiracial”—would transform the electorate, both in the primary and in November, in a way that allowed him to circumvent the entrenched opposition he faces. And he has made huge gains among Latino voters, particularly out West. (Listen to my colleague Fernanda Echavarri on this week’s Mother Jones Podcast if you want to start to understand why.) But the electorate hasn’t changed that much nationwide. After Tuesday’s results, more than a few commentators suggested that Sanders might have been better off spending less time using Democrats as a punching bag and more time courting them. “If you treat voters and officials in the party you want to lead as the enemy, a lot of people in that party aren’t going to trust you to lead them,” Vox’s Ezra Klein argued.
The genius of using the “political establishment” as a bludgeon, though, is that losing is its own form of validation. A sudden groundswell of opposition to your movement is proof that the forces that Sanders is railing against really exist and that the suspicions of his supporters are justified.
“I just don’t trust those fuckers,” one voter told me. Put that on a T-shirt.
Still, the mood at the Champlain Valley Exposition was hardly funereal. There was beer and wine for sale, and as the crowd waited to hear from Sanders, two of the four members of the band Phish jammed onstage while CNN’s election night coverage played on screens overhead.
Sanders spoke shortly after 10, telling the crowd he was “cautiously optimistic” of a victory in California (it would be called shortly thereafter) and declaring victory in three states that were already in the win column—Colorado, Utah, and Vermont. He put the best face on it, but his remarks made clear the work that now needed to be done. Sanders criticized Biden (though not by name) for his vote to authorize the war in Iraq, his support of free-trade agreements, and the 2005 bankruptcy reform law, which Sanders had voted against. “Another candidate represented the credit card companies and voted for that disastrous bill,” he said. He was back in the role that felt familiar and settling in for a race that won’t end soon. He reprised his previous criticism of Biden for proposing cuts to Social Security—an attack he’d soon turn into a TV ad targeting seniors in Florida, which votes in two weeks.
“We are not only taking on the corporate establishment. We’re taking on the political establishment,” Sanders said to a burst of cheers from the packed and in some cases slightly tipsy crowd. This week, at least, the establishment was more than ready to fight back.