This time two weeks ago, Bernie Sanders was the favourite for the Democratic nomination. Fresh off a stunning victory in Nevada – and with the right-wing vote split between several candidates – the prospect of Sanders facing Donald Trump in the general election seemed within touching distance.
Since then, however, the primary has spun out of control: a big win for Joe Biden in South Carolina, the moderates dropping out on the eve of Super Tuesday and a week of press coronation has all contributed to the former vice president emerging as the frontrunner and building a significant delegate lead.
At this point, it will take a seismic shift for Sanders to wrestle the nomination away from Biden – although in this climate, stranger things have happened.
Before unpacking how things started to go wrong for Sanders, it is important to understand and appreciate the extraordinary victories which secured him his place in the two-man showdown.
Building a movement.
Sanders’ two biggest victories were in Nevada and California, the result of the grassroots and volunteer-led ‘big organising’ that the Sanders campaign became famous for in 2016, and expanded in 2020.
The backbone of the Nevada victory was the Latinx vote, which came out somewhere between 51 and 70 percent for Sanders. In a seven-person field, featuring a former vice president, that’s a staggering result, which illustrates the power of deep, long-term organising within marginalised communities.
“We’ve been organising these guys for eight months,” national adviser Chuck Rocha told press out of the East Las Vegas office just before caucus day. Crucially, the ‘we’ in question did not refer to Sanders HQ, but the local members of the community – mostly young people – working out of that very office.
On the doorstep, even if residents only spoke Spanish, they’d smile and nod at the name ‘Bernie’: because they’d heard about him on Spanish-language radio; because their local advocacy groups had endorsed him; because their children had persuaded them.
“Do you have any of those pictures we can send to Bernie?” Rocha asked one such volunteer returning from a packed early-vote station. “He’d love to see them.”
It was clear that there was a level of trust for ‘Tío Bernie’ that could only come from talking to and being persuaded by those from their own community. This required a dedicated operation, which meant getting on the ground early and properly funding local organisers.
A ‘worker-led’ win.
But the most extraordinary tale of the Nevada victory was that of the so-called strip caucuses. These were caucuses held in casinos along the Las Vegas strip so that workers could vote without leaving work. In just seven caucus rooms, they elected two percent of the delegates across the whole state, making them a key battleground for all of the candidates.
Back in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the strip caucuses handsomely on her way to a narrow victory in Nevada. This time around, Sanders was faced with a challenge from the Culinary Union of Las Vegas, one of the most powerful unions in the country. The union had negotiated excellent healthcare over several years and, only eleven days out from the caucus, began briefing their members that Sanders would ‘end’ this healthcare as part of his Medicare For All plan. As a result, Sanders was left in danger of losing support in the sort of union workplaces that were supposed to be his strength.
“I flew out at the drop of a dime,” said Colette Perold, a volunteer who formed part of a committed crack team focused solely on the strip caucus voters, often working hours of 6am to 8pm.
The team quickly realised that their campaigning efforts were not starting at ground zero; there were already lots of workers along the strip organising and pushing back against the union bosses’ anti-Bernie line thanks to local Latinx organising.
“As union workers we know how to organise and we thought we need to speak to our fellow members and show strength,” explained Monica Smith, a local Latinx activist.
“It was worker-led,” echoed Perold, “It was as if they were saying: ‘we’re the union, not them.”’
By tapping into these pre-existing local networks, Sanders’ team was able to reach a whole new pool of voters. Their work took them from Ethiopian comedy nights to food markets to hotel taxi pits. Occasionally, they’d encounter housekeepers holding flyers with union anti-Sanders messaging, only to find them break into a grin at the mention of his name – “Bernie!”
By the end of the ten-day operation, it was running with military precision and thousands of voters had been engaged.
And then caucus day arrived. And it was a landslide. Sanders won five and a half out of seven strip caucuses, most of them by large margins – including at the Bellagio, the Rio and Mandalay Bay.
Kyle Eleveld, a pit volunteer – in what was his first ever political activity – recalls the story of Jamal, a taxi driver who had been canvassed by the campaign only a few days earlier. He’d given up 3 hours of his work and a great deal of money to caucus in the grand halls of the Mandalay Bay. When it was time for the realignment speech before the second round of voting, Jamal stood up and railed against the billionaire class – “Bernie fights for us!” Almost all of the remaining voters went over to Sanders.
In subsequent press interviews, the rank and file of the Culinary Union kept saying the same thing: ‘yes I have good healthcare from my union – but my husband doesn’t; my children don’t; and I won’t if I get fired.’
“Union workers need to band together,” Smith reaffirmed, undaunted the day after the Super Tuesday results. “Our livelihoods are worth fighting for.”
And in Kyle, as with many others, the campaign has politicised, trained, and locked in activists for life. “I just want to keep organising,” he says, now back in Arizona and working on the primary there.
The Sanders campaign proved that even on the Las Vegas strip, within these heady monuments of capitalist power, marginalised workers could build a progressive, left-wing movement. This wasn’t exactly canvassing; this was labour organising – and it worked.
A flawed strategy.
Not long after, California – the most delegate-rich state – delivered Sanders a similar victory built upon the Latinx vote, bursting with stories of organic grassroots organising: the San Francisco Mission office breaking the dialler from too much phone-banking; the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America helping to organise community colleges and bakery workers.
Meanwhile, voters in all states thus far have polled in favour of Medicare For All , while 57 percent of Democrats in Texas were found to have a favourable opinion of socialism.
The Sanders’ campaign was on a high, but it wouldn’t last. Their strategy relied on having the momentum coming off of Super Tuesday. They had focussed their grassroots resources on the early states, and the delegate haul of Super Tuesday, in the hopes that they would gain enough traction there to then be able to run a more traditional campaign of adverts and favourable press coverage – proving Sanders’ electability by winning.
But of course, that didn’t happen. Biden won South Carolina by a landslide – along with nearly two-thirds of the black vote – and took that momentum for himself, riding the wave of media support and candidate endorsements, leaving Sanders with relatively little infrastructure in delegate-rich states like Michigan and Washington.
Despite Sanders’ campaign doing the same deep, long-term organising in South Carolina – and this time with an 80 percent black staff – their efforts did not have the same impact on black voters as they did with the Latinx population in Nevada and California.
Sanders was able to capitalise on Latinx voters’ suspicions of established Democrats – they tended to associate the Obama administration with increased deportations (under Obama 3.2m people were deported) and detention infrastructure. Black voters had a much stronger relationship with not just Obama and Biden but the Democratic party, which has been the bedrock of self-organisation and self-defence for black communities for decades. As a result, making inroads with black voters over eight months of his organising has proved difficult for Sanders, who wasn’t a Democrat until 2015.
That said, it’s worth noting that the outpouring of support for Biden is concentrated in older black voters. Sanders actually won the black youth vote in South Carolina at about 40 percent– the significance of which should not be underplayed when considering the future of the party.
The bigger picture.
Looking beyond South Carolina to Sanders’ performance across the states, it becomes clear that his campaign’s favoured deep organising tactics achieved the best results in concentrated communities united in struggle and in places with large workforces – like Las Vegas or San Francisco.
In more atomised, suburban and high-income areas, however, the task is more resource-consuming. It takes longer for volunteers to knock the same number of doors and there are not the same local networks, waiting to be tapped into. Voters in these areas are typically the consumers of more traditional media sources – and polling suggests ‘electability’ is their main concern.
Even in some of the more working class counties in Michigan – which Sanders won in 2016 – without that long-term, grassroots infrastructure in place, coupled, of course, with a week of negative press coverage, the Biden surge could not be resisted.
Where implemented, especially in the long-term, Sanders’ big organising model has mostly proved extremely successful. It is the reason he is in this two-person face-off at all.
But without national communications and momentum to support it, the strategy cannot carry a whole campaign. Sanders has simply not yet won the argument on ‘electability.’ Moreover, the lack of progress with black voters from four years ago shows the limits of doing this work only in a campaign season.
And that is in many ways the open question for the big organising model: whether this extraordinary movement of dedicated volunteers and activists can be harnessed outside of elections. If Sanders wins, they will be vital in forcing his agenda into reality. If he loses, they will be equally crucial in defending communities from the worst of decaying capitalism and building a path to victory for the left in four years time.
Calum Jacobs is a writer based in London. He spent four weeks campaigning for Bernie Sanders in Las Vegas and San Francisco.