What the Pundits and Experts Fail to Understand about the Bernie Sanders Phenomenon

There is something very interesting happening in American politics today, something which has the potential to drastically shift the direction of the country for decades to come. The longest serving independent congressman in U.S history, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, is running for president… and boy is he making waves. As he campaigns across the country he has been amassing crowds that would make any political figure jealous. His first trip to the west coast posted an impressive 11,000 supporters in Phoenix, 15,000 in Seattle, 28,000 in Portland, and 27,500 in L.A. Well over a hundred thousand people have attended his rallies in a relatively short period of time.Bernie Sanders Crowd


Interestingly, however, all of the political experts and pundits are uniform and unyielding in their response – “Bernie Sanders can’t win.” This seemingly unshakable position among experts filters their interpretation of the data, and has already yielded some embarrassing positions. After a small plateau in the polls in July for example, the usually insightful Fivethirtyeight published the following chart in an article titled “The Bernie Sanders Surge Appears To Be Over.”

July 55% 26% 45% 35%
June 51 29 47 30
May 57 16 62 18
April 59 9 51 13

The surge of course was far from over. Soon after new polls came out showing Sanders gaining ground in Iowa and taking a seven point lead in New Hampshire, prompting what was essentially an apology article appropriately titled “We Got Berned.” As of the writing of this article a recent CBS poll now shows Sanders with a 22 point lead in NH and a 10 point lead in Iowa. This is not an isolated incident. Turn on CNN, MSNBC, or FOX and the narrative is basically the same – they are all very surprised by his success, but still very sure he can’t win. So what exactly, if anything, are the experts missing? The answer is actually rather simple, but its implications are profound. The reason political experts and models have failed to predict the rise of Bernie Sanders is that he is not playing by the established rules of the game.

Political races are (sadly) covered and analyzed in an almost identical fashion to sports or horse racing. Although the mainstream media takes the lion’s share of the blame for this, it can also be attributed to the tired but mostly true adage that all politicians are the same. Different candidates have different strengths and weaknesses, but they more or less play the same game. Under these conditions every political statement becomes a strategic play, and experts have to analyze the “attributes” of each candidate in order to identify statistical advantages. Hillary’s gender gives her an edge with women, Bush’s wife gives him an edge with Latinos, Rubio’s age gives him an edge with young people, etc. Once you account for those margins in relation to current demographics and add how much each candidate was able to raise in order market themselves, you have a model which can reasonably predict the outcome. This is what the experts do, this is what they are good at. And to be fair, more often than not, this is the correct approach. So why not now?

Let’s take for example the issue of campaign finance. If there is one political topic in which you can find bipartisan agreement among most Americans, it is the disastrous effects of money in politics. Both republicans and democrats understand that the current system in the United States essentially amounts to legalized bribery, and they aren’t happy about it. Yet politicians and pundits proudly tout the massive sums raised by each Super PAC as a statistical strength. And its true, if your Super PAC raises $60 million and mine raises $40 million, by all accounts you have a $20 million dollar advantage. But what happens when a candidate who’s Super PAC raised say $50 million goes up against a Sanders campaign which raised $15 million dollars in its first quarter without a Super PAC and an average donation of $33.51?

That is a much more complicated question, and it has numerous components. First the obvious, being the only candidate without a Super PAC will give Sanders an incredible favorability boost (and yes, even Trump has a Super PAC). And what about the balancing act that political favorites like Clinton and Bush have to find between donors and average voters? Normally all the participants are walking the same tight rope, Hillary has her backers and Bush has his (and often times they are the same). Under those conditions the best acrobat has an advantage, the most charismatic and efficient question “handler” (aka the best spin doctor) will win the race.

So the pundits look at Sanders, a man who is clearly not a political acrobat, and conclude he couldn’t possibly win the tight-rope race. But of course Sanders isn’t walking a tight-rope, he’s competing on foot. So we shouldn’t be asking ourselves who is faster between Clinton and Sanders, that is what the pundits are doing and it is precisely why they keep getting it wrong. The real question is can she walk a tight-rope faster than Bernie can run on the ground? I suspect some Clinton supporters will take issue with that claim but I would suggest they take a good look at how she has had to tiptoe around issues like the Trans Pacific Partnership, Keystone XL, and Glass-Steagall. It is also a fact that in a post-recession America, Wall Street and corporate regulation will be a topic of debate in the democratic primaries. The fact that Clinton’s largest campaign contributors are companies like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Morgan Stanley is not an irrelevant factor. If you don’t think this will create difficulties for Clinton that Sanders will not have, you are vastly underestimating the influence donors have over candidates (you can see her top 20 contributors here). Sanders has and will continue to have an unparalleled freedom to speak his mind on each and every issue, a trait which will continue to captivate an electorate starving for political honesty and transparency. This is an advantage that he has not only over the democratic candidates, but all the presidential candidates alike.

The one and only complement that experts can seem to give Sanders is that there is a certain “authenticity” which endears him to voters, an attribute which they consider positive but marginal (much like Jeb Bush’s wife being Mexican endears him to hispanics). But they fail to see how profound the statement they are making really is, so let me decompress it. What pundits are saying is that people seem to like Bernie Sanders because they believe that he is the only candidate who isn’t lying to them or taking money from special interests to satisfy his political ambitions. Take a second to truly think about that statement, and ask yourself how “marginal” of an edge that is.

What Sander’s incredible rise in Iowa and New Hampshire actually shows has nothing to do with demographics, hair styles, or resentment towards the Clintons. Once people are exposed to his record and his message they don’t just like what they see, Sanders often re-awakens peoples faith in the political system. This is really where the standard models used to predict these elections truly fall apart. They operate under the assumption that some people like candidate A, others prefer candidate B, and a few will go back and forth… its a tug of war you see? Problem is, Sanders fans don’t seem to go anywhere once they land in his camp. Go online and see for yourself the thousands of twitter handles and facebook groups created around the country to support him, or comb through the political discussions on Reddit. Or read about the legions of tech volunteers which have banded together to create an issue by issue case for sanders. Or perhaps look at the creators of voteforbernie.org, a website specifically created to educate people on when and where to register to vote for Sanders in the democratic primary. And understand this, these are not coordinated efforts by Sanders’ paid staff, they are instead independent pockets of support sprouting out throughout the country… they are Citizen PACs. As you read this hundreds of thousands of Sanders supporters are attempting to convert their parents, friends, and co-workers with a level of purpose and conviction that is simply non-existent in other campaigns. An incredibly large portion of Bernie’s supporters aren’t just voters, they have become activists.Crowd Love

Take a second then to re-examine the claim that Clinton has a big financial edge. You need a minimum amount of money to at least run a competitive campaign sure, but Sanders crossed that threshold long ago. How big of a financial edge does she really have when her campaign has to spend $2 million dollars in television ads about her mother in order to make herself “more personable” to voters. I suspect you won’t be seeing the Sanders campaign spending millions of dollars to advertise how much he likes bacon, that he knows how to use a chainsaw, or how good he is at catching footballs. He also wont be spending money running negative campaign ads since in a political career spanning over 40 years and numerous campaigns at all levels he has never (yes you read that right) run a negative ad. And if you’ve ever watched shark tank you may be familiar with another question often posed to entrepreneurs; what is your customer acquisition cost? How much money, on average, does a candidate have to spend in order to earn an extra vote? And again, this is why the model crumbles, for all the reasons mentioned above, political pundits are oblivious to the reality that on average, Clinton will have to spend much more money to win over a Sanders supporter than vise-versa. When all of these factors are considered it becomes less clear whether she even has a financial advantage at all.

And just how different is the game Sanders is playing? Consider this, a Pro-Hillary Super PAC launched their first negative attack on Bernie Sanders, comparing him to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Again I will ask you to take a second and ask yourself how most politicians would respond to this, how would Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz respond, how would Donald Trump respond? Sanders responded by emailing his supporters expressing his disappointment, explaining that “It was the kind of onslaught I expected to see from the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelson.” Here is the kicker, Sanders’ supporters didn’t just provide him with moral support, “We’ve never seen an immediate donor response like what the Sanders’ campaign received on Tuesday. At one point, it drove 180 contributions through our platform per minute.” Just two days following the email Sanders had raised $1.2 million as a direct result from the attack, the play had backfired… still don’t believe the man is playing a different game?

Perhaps the most stark reminder that Sanders is in a league of his own came from his recent speech to an evangelical crowd at Liberty University. In an era where politicians are expected to change their tune and message based on the composition of the crowd and recent polling data, Sanders began his speech by re-affirming with conviction his support for marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose. He followed this by making a moral appeal, a request that they consider whether or not our society is structured in a way which follows the message of Jesus, a message of caring for the poor and sick. This moral appeal caused at least one evangelical to draw comparisons to John the Baptist, and has now begun actively campaigning on behalf of Sanders. So tell me again which of the pundits could predict that a pro-choice LGBT friendly democratic socialist Jew could win over not just an evangelical voter, but a volunteer campaigner? There is a reason why, when Sanders ran for senate re-election in Vermont he received 71% of the popular vote, beating his rival by over 46 points. From his incredible achievements as mayor of Burlington to his tenure as a Senator there seems to be a consistent trend in this Senator’s career; the more familiar people become with him, the more they like him.

Let me end this by providing you with a quick but fascinating historical anecdote. In 1815 after escaping from his island prison of Elba, Napoleon landed on the French coast with approximately 1,000 men and began marching towards Paris in an attempt to regain his empire. King Louis XVIII naturally responded by sending the 5th and 7th regiment to crush Napoleon’s rag-tag army comprised mostly of loyal militia. Any military expert would have confidently predicted that the King’s forces would easily defeat Napoleon’s; they had superior numbers, training, and most importantly fire-power. The King’s advisers concluded that not even Napoleon’s military genius could overcome those odds, and they were probably right…. problem was, Napoleon was playing a different game. Upon encountering the 5th regiment Napoleon ordered his men to lower their weapons as he walked over to the enemy lines alone, ripped open his coat and said “If any of you will shoot his Emperor, here I am.” In a fit of nostalgia, patriotism and love, the men joined Napoleon en masse, he had won without firing a single shot. Napoleon would go on to convert every regiment he encountered en route to reclaiming his throne. A practical joker even put up a message on the Place Vendôme which read: “From Napoleon to Louis XVIII: my dear brother, it is not necessary to send me more troops, I already have enough of them!”

Its not so much that the military experts were wrong in predicting that a battle between the two forces would result in a loss for Napoleon, they were probably right. Their predictions fell apart not because they were ignorant or stupid, but because the very models they were using to predict military conflict could not account for Napoleon’s charisma and the deep rooted loyalty he inspired among French soldiers. In other words, Napoleon was simply operating at a different level… he was playing a different game. Pundits who insist on evaluating the Sanders campaign through the lens of conventional politics will continue to see their predictions fall flat. Bernie Sanders is not running a political campaign, he has instead become the leader of a movement whose message transcends the personality of the candidate. It is the American electorate’s response to decades of corrupt campaign financing, divisive politics, and continuous foreign interventions and war. While the other candidates are playing at politics, Bernie Sanders is making history… its a completely different game.





  1. This is by far the BEST summation of the Bernie Sanders phenomenon I have yet seen.

    • Thank you! I’m hoping to get it out there =)

      • A similar effect was seen in the UK when Jeremy Corbyn was appointed leader of the Labour Party, he was on the level told it like he saw it and his honest down to earth approach worked perfectly. A new style of politics seems to be emerging and not before time.

        • I thought that too. Hopefully “the time has come” for a legitimate revolution. I think Pope Francis may have helped; I’m glad the daily news didn’t notice the possibility

      • wow what an amazing article. Shared.

      • Very nice work Karim. And I agree with every word. I would further add that all the models in use today deal with likely voters. Bernie is literally changing the math there because he is attracting mass numbers of the never-voted-before crowd, and results in a much changed formula for tabulating expected victories. Consider that according to Pew Research non-voters are much more liberal than the typically voting population, often made up of the disaffected, those who feel (correctly) the Establishment abandons them, or at best uses them.

        So why is this so significant? Consider in 2014, 63% of the voting population DID NOT VOTE. Ergo, if a candidate can bring in just a small percentage of these into the process on his/her behalf, it’ll swing an election.

        For those more interested, I wrote a detailed diary about this on DailyKos some weeks ago.

        GO BERNIE!

        • What was the title of the DailyKos essay on non-voters. Would love to read it. Pew Reaearch. Kudos on the Sanders revolution essay. Excellent read.

        • This is an excellent point and a huge factor. I wish I could have covered more details but I feared I had already made the piece too long. My blog has virtually no traffic but if you share your link I will definitely make it available, plus would love to read it myself!

          • After reading this, I believe your blog deserves LOTS of traffic. Well written and inspiring. I found it thanks to a link and summary from Daily Kos, and shared it. I hope it brings you more readers!

        • Let’s not forget the simple fact that this is an honest man who refuses to devalue himself and what he stands for. We are seriously insane by thinkint it odd. When in reality he is just that; an honest man. Any human being knows that when they see it. He is in it for you and me, not himself. Why don’t we recognize that and simply say it? Instead we are distracted by the unreality we all live in. It is very sad when being honest is considered odd….”running a different campaign”. He is here to save us from ourselves. I hope we get it and see how monumental this action is. We are being given a reprieve from our own depravity, our own fear, our own lack of trust and thinking it is normal. He is opening the door for us to walk through and finally lay down our weapons and delusions and get back to the truth. I hope we take him up on it. This is our greatest chance in years at something real, caring, that will take us beyond the veil of our own ignorance.

        • The work to be done is to help 1st time voters register n be certain they have a ride to the poll for Primaries AND the general election!

      • I just posted your very well written piece on my facebook page. Good job and keep up the good work, Karim

    • +1 to this comment. Complete perfection.

  2. Excellent article. Can you imagine, running not just for political office, but the highest office in the land, when your average campaign contribution is less than $34.00 ? If you look at that stat alone, you would think no way should this guy even be showing up on the political radar.
    Maybe, just maybe, if enough of us have finally decided, no more politics as usual, we can really make a difference in 2016!

  3. Excellent article. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Bernie Sanders is bringing back our democracy.

  4. thank you for this wonderful article… just so absolutely right on…had me laughing and crying at the same time… it’s hard to believe this is happening… but it is… finally at long last…

    • Your words are very kind, and believe me I wrote it with the same passion you read it. And it is happening, we all just need to stand together, revolutions have happened before, they will happen again. I believe this is one of those times =)

  5. an extremely well-written article… I’d already decided that Bernie Sanders has my vote, but the article helped explain to my head why Bernie has already won my heart…

  6. Your insights and examples far surpass all the famous “name” pundits who garner respect and ratings of the news shows, spouting cliche after cliche. You are far more intelligent and insightful than they.

    • These are extremely kind words, I am not used to publishing my writing and your compliments are an incredible encouragement. I think this topic resonates with readers as it did to me when I wrote it, because we understand we might be looking at a once in a generation opportunity.

  7. Thank you for an excellent article. It is such a good feeling to have honesty, integrity and respect as the main ingredients of any race but especially this one! I have supported Bernie for years and so happy he decided to run.

  8. Insightful article about the Bernie Sanders phenomenon.
    Anent the numerous small donations to Sen Sanders’ campaign, and his support among Americans of ALL ages: I friend of mine from Florida was visiting his mother here this August. His mother is 98 years young, and still residing, by herself, in her home in a small, former mining and lumbering town, in the Lake Superior Region. My friend wanted to make sure that his mother was balancing her check book – she still writes all her own checks. While going through her ledger, he noticed that she had written a check for $15 – payable to “Bernie Sanders for President.” !
    Bernie is going to be our next President, and he is going to win because of people like the 98 year old widow, whose husband worked in the iron and copper mines, who still has a sharp mind, pays attention to what politicians say, to what is happening in our nation, and who votes, and who, as she nears her time on earth, cares enough about the future of this country to take action. The small $15 check from out of her social security and small mine pension, is a BIG reason Bernie is going to win! Bravo! Continue, Senator, the best is to come!

  9. In many ways you have read my mind. This really needs to be published. I hope you have submitted it to the Huff Post or The Hill, or somewhere. What a wonderful piece of writing and you are spot on in your analysis. I especially love the Napoleon analogy. The tightrope one was good too. The pundits need to read this, try to get it out. Feel the Bern.

    • Wow thank you so much. The truth is I am not an experienced writer and don’t really know how to submit it to a larger entity or if they would accept it considering my lack of experience.

      • Karim, It’s hard to believe you are not an experienced writer. Your style is compelling, your arguments are solid, and the article is perfectly structured. You have a new fan!

  10. Wonderful article. You have a new fan.

    • You have no idea how much your comment means to me. Thank you for taking the time to make this comment, it has made an amateur blogger happy =)

  11. Amazing Article! I only wish it would have also spoke of the opportunity for “The People” to take back the responsibility of The Republic through The Political Revolution he speaks of, and will be able to lead us and guide in As Acting President of the United Sates with all the Power of The Oval Office and the added bonus possible opportunity of him being able to hand pick 3 of the 9 Supreme Court Justices Seats that may become available in the next term>
    Awesome Article…. Thank you!

    • You have an excellent point. As I’ve mentioned to someone else I feared the piece was already too long, but I am so grateful individuals like you are making such insightful additions in the comments. Thank you so much for your participation, I hope people read your comment

  12. This puts it all in perspective. Well written. Thanks. Have to share!

  13. It’s possible that Bernie is making history, but I that doesn’t seem to be his main objective. The way I see it is he genuinely wants to make a difference, which is both more important and more compelling.

    • I agree with you completely Phil, I did not mean to imply that was his intention. What I meant was that by running an issue oriented campaign and focusing on the people, the response from the electorate will make history. Thank you for your observation

  14. My sense is those “pundits” know exactly what they’re doing. They see what Bernie’s doing. They know his impact. But their paychecks inform them differently.

  15. …except for his foreign policy and his support of obscene military budgets and an obscene military. Sanders is a hawk. Listen to what Noam Chomsky says about Bernie. I would probably still vote for him, but I would stay realistic….

    • John Maclaren, I don’t know where you get your misinformation. But the fact is, Bernie Sanders does NOT support giving military aid to Israel. He favors a two-state solution. He does not have a chummy relationship with Netanyahu. What more do you want?!

  16. Excellent article. You got to the heart of why this campaign is different.

  17. Thank you so much for this article. I will be sharing it on my facebook page. I believe you have very correctly pointed out why “they” can’t or won’t see the phenomenon that is occurring right under their noses. I thank you for helping to show clearly that Bernie does have more than just a chance and so does our country by his doing so! I also very much believe and wish that you submit this to Huffington, don’t worry about whether or not you have anything else published or not, send it to them Please! What you have written deserves to be read and thought about by Many people who currently would like to support Bernie but want to make sure their vote will count properly and your analysis I believe will help many understand his viability. Once again, thank you.

  18. Thank you for this insightful article, Karim. I will be back to read more of your other blogs, for sure. In the mean time I am sharing this blog on Facebook; on my page, my timeline, and on Bernie Group pages that I subscribe to.
    I also admire the work of Huffington post blogger H. A Goodman. He also seems to understands that there are several fundamental,
    transformative, actions manifesting within the Sander’s campaign BECAUSE of Bernie’s integrity.
    All the best to you Karim. You deserve to be widely read.

  19. Beautifully written! I have read a LOT of articles about Bernie in the last many months, and I have to say that this is by far the best one…(in my opinion) I thank you for taking the time to put into words- what all of his supporters feel, and just how wrong the media has it! I hope this gets shared a million times over!

  20. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. I concur: You must submit this article to other publications. ASAP. Best Bernie narrative thus far! Keep up the amazing work, Karim. You have another new fan. Did I mention, this is AWESOME…?

  21. Wonderful post that will be shared momentarily on my local Bernie FB page…I’m sitting at my dining room table right now putting in data for the campaign from the rally last week, but I have to stop right now, because I’m tearing up again, thinking about how much we need this man in office…You captured perfectly the essence of what makes Bernie’s campaign different, and why so many of us have hope for the first time we can remember.

  22. Excellent. Just excellent. Easy to understand too for people who aren’t very politicly savvy.

  23. Love your analogy of the tightrope verses running on the ground! What a balancing act the Super PAC candidates have to negotiate compared to Bernie’s simple, funded by the people, campaign.

  24. This was a fantastic read. Thank you! #FeeltheBern

  25. I am a political science major, so i read alot of political commentary. That being said, this is the best political analysis of Bernie’s campaign I have ever seen. I’m not entirely sure how you submit this for publication, but it needs to be seen by the masses. Keep up the amazing work, Karim!

  26. Well said, thank you! Great comments too. Keep up the good work. We need you (all!!)

  27. Pope Francis and Senator Sanders have pretty much the same “stump speech”. Bravo for both

  28. Excellent analysis. I shared on FB and here is what I wrote: “This is an interestng perspective regarding the rise of Bernie Sander in the American Politic. I found it on an interesting blog site titled: ‘Secular Nirvana: Science, Happiness, Prosperity and Humanism’ which, in its self, is an intriguing concept!”

  29. Oh dear, the delusion is strong on here. This is Howard Dean 2.0, folks. He also drew huge crowds. Bill Bradley did too, when he ran. Neither one came close to winning the nomination. It will be the same with Bernie. Polls this early don’t mean too much.

  30. Beautifully expressed and written. This speaks for so many of us.

    • Just posted to my facebook page and Red Border Towns for Bernie Facebook page. Got the link myself from Google+/People for Bernie Sanders. So it’s making the rounds. Hope that’s ok, since my comment is still awaiting moderation.

      • Of course that is ok, thank you very much I appreciate it. Sorry it took so long to get to your comment, not much free time =)

  31. Great article. Posted in on FB – keep at it.

  32. This was discussed at a meeting last night with Julian Assange and Yanis Varoufakis.

    Julian Assange of the view, Hilary Clinton would win. But he draw this conclusion from mainstream media. Same mainstream media that could not see a win for Jeremy Corbyn, could not see Labour wiped out in Scotland.

    In other words, mainstream media clueless.

    Yanis Varoufakis made the point Bernie Sanders had already won in that he had shifted the debate, things were being discussed that would not have been, Hilary Clinton forced into opposing TTIP.


    What we also have to remember is the tax-dodging oligarchs who own and control the mainstream media. They filter the news to suit their own ends.

    We were told Jeremy Corbyn unelectable. And yet he was addressing larger and larger meetings across the country.

    Now we are told he cannot win an election.

    We are always told do not shoot the messenger. Maybe in this case that is what we should do, or at the very least, ignore the messenger.

    Very good analysis, and it would be equally true of the Jeremy Corbyn campaign.

    Every one I talk to, sick and tired of corrupt politicians in the pocket of bankers and big business.

    What credibility Hilary Clinton when she is funded by bankers?

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