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.
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.”
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.
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.