For Bernie camp, Iowa debacle triggers déjà vu

Why We Wrote This

Beneath the outrage over Democrats’ bungling of the Iowa caucuses lies a wounded trust that dates back to the 2016 campaign.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally Feb. 4, 2020, in Milford, New Hampshire.

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Democrats profess themselves united around a common goal: beating President Donald Trump. But it’s becoming clear that fissures from 2016 have yet to heal – and may be deepening.

The division is in part ideological, between progressives and pragmatists. At a deeper level, it is an emotional wound, with lingering bitterness between Sen. Bernie Sanders’ core supporters and those who backed Hillary Clinton – each of whom still holds the other at fault for 2016’s loss.

The Iowa Democratic Party has nearly finished tallying Monday’s caucus results, though inaccuracies persist. Senator Sanders today declared victory, noting a 6,000-vote edge in the popular vote. But former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, already appears to have gained significant momentum in New Hampshire from what initially looked like a victory in Iowa for him.

For Sanders supporters – who believed they were stymied by the Democratic establishment four years ago – it feels infuriatingly familiar.

“Sanders voters ... are saying, ‘Look, we tried it your way last time, and we got Donald Trump,’” says Andrew Smith, director of the New Hampshire Survey Center in Durham. “The political energy of the party shifted left some time ago. And while the party resisted it in 2016, they’re going to have a much harder time this year.”

Throughout the 2020 primary cycle, Democratic voters have professed themselves united around a common goal: beating President Donald Trump in November. But in the wake of Monday’s Iowa caucus debacle, it’s becoming clear that the intraparty fissures from 2016 have yet to heal – and indeed, may be growing deeper.

The division is in part ideological, between a progressive faction that wants radical change and a more pragmatic establishment. At a deeper level, though, is an emotional wound, with lingering mistrust and bitterness between supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and those who backed Hillary Clinton – each of whom still holds the other at fault for 2016’s loss.

The latest results out of Iowa now show a virtual tie between Senator Sanders and Pete Buttigieg in state delegate equivalents, with Mr. Sanders leading in the popular vote. On Thursday, amid reports of new inconsistencies, the Democratic National Committee chair called for a recanvass (essentially an audit of the results). But Mr. Buttigieg already appears to have benefited from what at first looked like a victory for him, showing significant momentum in the latest New Hampshire tracking poll.

For supporters of Mr. Sanders – who believed they were unfairly stymied by the Democratic establishment four years ago – it feels infuriatingly familiar.

“I’m particularly concerned by establishment Democrats’ efforts to inhibit Bernie’s campaign,” says Parker Dooley, a “democracy tourist” from Virginia who has already cast a ballot for Mr. Sanders and is in New Hampshire with his wife to observe the state’s first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 11. 

“I was going to say assassinate,” Mr. Dooley adds, as other Sanders supporters snap pictures of his T-shirt featuring Mr. Sanders in a “Back to the Future” motif. “But maybe that’s too strong.”

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Parker Dooley, a self-proclaimed "democracy tourist" from Virginia, stands outside a Bernie Sanders rally in Derry, New Hampshire, on Feb. 5, 2020. Inside, multiple people ask to take photos of his T-shirt – a limited edition, he says, due to a copyright violation complaint.

While it’s not uncommon for nomination battles to pit a left- or right-wing insurgency against a more moderate establishment, the Democratic Party’s overall leftward lurch in the wake of President Trump’s election has given its progressive wing new power. And at a time when distrust of institutions is already high, the sense of grievance among Sanders supporters about their candidate’s treatment could pose a significant problem for party unity if he fails to win the nomination again – particularly if no one wins convincingly, which now seems entirely possible.

“The political energy of the party shifted left some time ago. And while the party resisted it in 2016, they’re going to have a much harder time this year,” says Andrew Smith, director of the New Hampshire Survey Center in Durham. “Sanders voters or activists are saying, ‘Look, we tried it your way last time, and we got Donald Trump.’”

Ruptured trust

After 2016, many Sanders supporters came away feeling robbed, obstructed by a party machine that coalesced early around Mrs. Clinton and worked behind the scenes to preserve her advantage. Among their grievances was the Democratic National Committee’s decision to give Mrs. Clinton a greater degree of influence over its staffing and policy after she bailed out the indebted organization.

Another sore point was former DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile’s sharing of CNN town hall topics with the Clinton campaign ahead of the televised events, giving the candidate extra time to prepare. This was revealed thanks to Russian hackers who procured thousands of DNC emails, which were published by WikiLeaks, revealing a pattern of bias against Mr. Sanders despite the organization’s proclaimed neutrality. One DNC communications official was quoted as suggesting that they promote a narrative about Mr. Sanders that “Bernie never ever had his act together, that his campaign was a mess.” The DNC later apologized, but the damage was done.

At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, angry Sanders supporters launched protests and wore tape over their mouths to symbolize having been “silenced.”

“I don’t trust the DNC,” says Nico Gillespie, a college student waiting outside the Derry Opera House in Derry, New Hampshire, to hear Mr. Sanders speak on Feb. 5. “They want to delay [the Iowa results] so Pete Buttigieg can have the momentum.”

Mr. Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, gave a victory speech Monday night before any official results were released. Those results have been delayed, due in part to technical problems with an app meant to help tally results according to new rules that were put in place after Sanders supporters complained about a lack of transparency in 2016. The Boston Globe/Suffolk University daily tracker poll shows Mr. Buttigieg has gotten an 8-point bounce since then, compared with only 1 point for Mr. Sanders.

More than 48 hours after the caucuses ended, the Iowa Democratic Party released updated figures with 97% of precincts reporting. They showed Mr. Buttigieg leading Mr. Sanders by only 0.1% in state delegate equivalents, while Mr. Sanders was shown winning the popular vote by about 6,000 votes on the first alignment.

“We here in northern New England call that a victory,” declared Mr. Sanders in Manchester on Thursday.

Minutes before he spoke, DNC Chair Tom Perez called for an immediate recanvass of the Iowa caucus results. 

Mary Altaffer/AP
Supporters cheer as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally, Feb. 4, 2020, in Milford, New Hampshire.

“I think what has happened with the Iowa Democratic Party is an outrage – that they were that unprepared, that they put forth such a complicated process, relied on untested technology,” said Mr. Sanders.

When asked whether the current mess has caused him to doubt the results of the 2016 Iowa caucuses – in which he lost to Mrs. Clinton by just .25% – he responded: “I don’t want to revisit 2016.”  

He did, however, credit reforms that came about as a result of his campaign’s complaints last time around. “The fact that we now have clear results from the popular vote [in Iowa] is something that we fought for,” he said.

Those reforms were specifically meant to help heal the breach between Mr. Sanders and the establishment wing of the party, which blamed the senator’s less-than-enthusiastic backing of Mrs. Clinton as contributing to the party’s loss to Mr. Trump. One of the biggest changes has to do with superdelegates, another sore spot from 2016. At this summer’s nominating convention, superdelegates will not be able to vote on the first ballot unless a candidate has already secured a majority of pledged delegates.

“Certainly there are grievances that the Sanders people had going back to the party in 2016, where it was very clear that the party’s thumb was on the scale in favor of Clinton,” says Professor Smith. Nevertheless, he adds, “parties exist to win elections – if you don’t win elections, you’re out of business.”

Style vs. substance

In 2016, the party didn’t see a self-proclaimed democratic socialist as able to win a national election. And many appear to have the same reservations in 2020.

The tension has as much to do with style as substance.

“My concern with Bernie is he never talks about what he’s accomplished in the Senate,” says Camille Brown, waiting in line for a selfie with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at an event in Nashua. She notes that Mr. Sanders can claim very few concrete accomplishments after nearly 30 years in Congress. “I don’t see him working with other senators. ... He has very much an attitude of ‘my way or the highway.’”

Some Democrats see that same uncompromising – even combative – approach reflected in his supporters.

“It’s ‘either my candidate or I’m not going to vote,’ which is not useful when we really need to unite and defeat Trump,” says Caroline Yang, a soft-spoken mother of two from Massachusetts lingering at the Warren event after getting a selfie with her senator. She voted for Mr. Sanders in the 2016 primaries, and understands the fervor for him then, especially given the antipathy for a candidate with as much baggage as Mrs. Clinton. But Ms. Yang sees far better options this time.

“Among the candidates, I think [Ms. Warren] is the one – she has the plans, she has the heart,” she says.

Ms. Brown echoes that thought almost precisely. In the end, though, she’ll support whoever is on the Democratic ticket. “Would I vote for [Mr. Sanders] if it came down to it? Yes.”

Still, these measured comments don’t come close to matching the fervor of the Sanders supporters back in Derry.

“Bernie is going to crush this primary,” says Mr. Dooley.

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