Bernie’s Path to Victory

Don’t worry about the naysaying pundits and polls. Bernie Sanders’s road to victory is through mobilizing the kind of voters who don’t usually vote. Whether or not he can pull it off is up to us.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders shakes hands with supporters following his event at Plymouth State University on September 29, 2019 in Plymouth, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen / Getty Images)

It shouldn’t be surprising that the corporate media has recently ramped up its drive to isolate and attack Bernie Sanders. Nobody ever said that taking on the entire political and economic establishment would be easy.

By insisting that Bernie’s star is fading, liberal pundits, the Democratic establishment, and their progressive proxies have done their best to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, which has then been borne out in recent polls.

But the news isn’t all bad — far from it. We’re still early in the race, with plenty of time for Joe Biden to continue putting his foot in his mouth and for Elizabeth Warren to falter under increased scrutiny as a front-runner.

But Bernie’s path to the White House ultimately doesn’t depend on what the media says or what his political rivals do. It depends on us. By continuing to build a deep grassroots infrastructure to turn out an unprecedented number of disaffected voters, we can win.

The dirty secret of American democracy is how few people take part in elections, especially primaries. Faced with political institutions dominated by the ultra rich, many people understandably feel that it’s a waste of time to participate. In the 2016 presidential primary, for example, the overall turnout was only 28.5 percent — and even this number was significantly higher than normal.

Nonvoters are disproportionately poor, young, and nonwhite. In the 2016 general election for president, more than half of nonvoters earned less than $30,000 yearly, about the same percent were people of color, and 50 percent were under thirty.

Because nonvoters tend to favor redistributing wealth and rebuilding a strong welfare state, the fate of democratic socialist candidates usually hinges on maximizing turnout. By galvanizing just enough new volunteers and voters, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her June 2018 primary by besting Joe Crowley 16,898 to 12,880 (out of 241,570 registered Democrats). Bernie is right to argue that “if we can significantly increase voter turnout so that low-income people and working people and young people participated in the political process, if we got a voter turnout of 75 percent, this country would be radically transformed.”

That’s why polls are not prophecy. Not only do they frequently oversample the wealthy and elderly, their projections are based on normal electioneering rather than insurgent working-class campaigns.

Consider an example from across the pond. Polls had Labour Party leftist Jeremy Corbyn down by twenty points less than two months before the June 8, 2017 general election. On June 7, some had him down by thirteen points. Yet an unexpectedly high turnout of 78 percent — the largest in twenty-five years, driven by youth and people of color — upended everybody’s expectations and brought Corbyn within only two points of victory.

Closer to home, we can look to Bernie’s March 2016 upset in the Michigan primary. On the eve of the vote, Bernie was losing by as much as thirty-seven points in the polling, which gave him less than a 1 percent chance of winning. Bernie nevertheless won Michigan (and made Nate Silver eat crow) by doubling the expected youth turnout (of which he won 81 percent) and winning an unexpected number of black and working-class voters, sweeping those who were “very worried” about the US economy.

Whenever the latest mainstream media hit piece gets you down, remember that the main obstacle facing the Bernie movement is not corporate media smears. A larger number of people today get their news online than they do from television — among working people, particularly the young and nonwhite, traditional media’s influence has bottomed out. Millions more watched Cardi B’s conversation with Bernie than the first presidential debate.

Nor is the problem, as pundits claim, that Bernie is “too radical” for the American people. A solid majority, including in “red states,” already support progressive legislation like taxing the rich, Medicare for All, and a Green New Deal. Not only does Bernie beat Donald Trump by a large margin in poll after poll, but there are compelling reasons why he’s much more likely to defeat Trump than any Democrat to his right.

The fundamental roadblock standing between Bernie and the White House is the following: tens of millions of young people and workers remain politically unengaged. Sanders has made activating nonvoters a central part of his campaign’s strategy to win. But this “apathy” — better understood as political resignation — is a difficult nut to crack.

Every week I canvass for Bernie at Brooklyn College, a working-class commuter school where most students remain reluctant to stop and talk or register to vote.  Politicians always make promises that they don’t keep, why should now be any different?

With families to support, multiple jobs, and classes to boot, this feeling of being “too busy” for politics is common. The daily indignities of working and living under capitalism breed a sense of powerlessness, compounded by the US trade union movement’s dramatic decline. Absent a strong culture of working-class organization, it’s rational for people to seek individual solutions to collective problems.

Ideally, Bernie would be running for president at the apex of a decades-long upsurge in labor and socialist organizing. But we’re in virtually the opposite situation today, despite a promising uptick in public- and private-sector strikes.

Fortunately, the vast majority of those who stop and talk at Brooklyn College agree to support Bernie by the end of our conversations. Whether it’s health-care costs, tuition fees, looming climate catastrophe, or institutional racism, virtually everybody we speak with has some deeply felt personal grievance addressed directly by Bernie’s platform. Our multiracial crew of canvassers is growing weekly.

This, then, is the $64,000 question facing Bernie’s movement: Within the short window of the next four-to-six months, can we recruit and train enough new volunteer organizers to turn out millions of nonvoters to the polls?

The campaign is already making strides forward: Bernie has the most volunteers, the most individual donors, the largest fundraising numbers, the most views on social media, and the largest rallies. But we should have no illusions about how much more work it will take. Since Bernie’s main bases of support — young, low-income, nonwhite — are traditionally the least likely to vote, we face the biggest challenges in terms of turnout, but also by far the most room for organizational and electoral growth.

Unlike with traditional electoralism, the beautiful thing about Bernie organizing is that building this campaign is, in itself, a win for our side. Every new volunteer you recruit, and every new voter you convince, becomes part of an insurgent grassroots movement for environmental, economic, and racial justice.

Political openings like this don’t arise very often — we need to seize the moment to rebuild working-class power by leaning on the Bernie campaign to elevate labor militancy and rebuild an organized socialist Left rooted in the multiracial working class. Regardless of the electoral outcome, only disruptive collective action by millions can force the ruling class to meet our most pressing demands. An accurate measure of the growth and strength of that movement won’t be spelled out on FiveThirtyEight.

So ignore the punditry, and take the polls with a grain of salt. For the first time in US history, we have the real possibility of electing a democratic socialist to the White House. It’s up to us to make it happen.