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The 5 Lessons from 2016 Democrats Need to Understand If They Want to Stop Bernie

History is repeating itself. Democrats can learn how to save their party from seeing how the Republicans lost theirs.
February 21, 2020
The 5 Lessons from 2016 Democrats Need to Understand If They Want to Stop Bernie

Barring a drastic change in the race, Bernie Sanders is going to be the presumptive Democratic nominee 11 days from now.

Eleven days.

Sometimes when I explain this to people I feel like Randy Quaid in Independence Day running around telling everyone at that trailer park that he was abducted by aliens only to be given quizzical looks until the laser beams in the sky start leveling cities and it’s too late to stop Donald Trump. I mean the aliens. The problem is that if I’m the Randy Quaid character, I don’t know who out there is Jeff Goldblum’s satellite engineer, the guy with the genius plan to use a MacBook to take down the hordes of Bernie Bros. I mean the aliens. Sorry. It happened again.

All of which is to say that while Republicans lived through the same situation Democrats are in now in 2016, I actually lived in it. I saw it happen from the inside.

So for those who weren’t probed quite as personally as I was, I wanted to provide an emergency guide to what I learned during the invasion of 2016.

Lesson One: The race is much further along than you realize.

Some context for those who don’t know my background (mom, you can skip to the next paragraph). In 2016 I was communications director for Jeb Bush. Jeb dropped out on the night of the South Carolina primary. Two days later I was lying on the beach in Miami when I got a call from a friend who was running a Stop Trump Super PAC that needed a spokesperson. I gladly obliged, despite being told that this could be a career killer.

At the time I joined the PAC they had run some ads, to decent effect, in Iowa. They had funds for future states and were in the process of recruiting other donors and getting some big-name establishment Republicans on board.

This timeline is important to understand because what I didn’t fully realize is that when I joined the PAC, unless something dramatic happened, the race was already functionally over — two days after South Carolina. That moment when I joined a doomed stop-Trump effort was the equivalent of 10 days from now in 2020 time.

Tick Tock.

One of the problems was that most of the people we talked to also did not recognize that the race was already functionally over. Partly that was because of Trump’s unique nature—no one so manifestly unfit for office had ever won before, so we assumed it couldn’t happen.

But another problem was that we ignored the historical perspective. The reality is that in the modern system the candidate who looks to be winning after Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina wins. Every time. (Except in the Democratic primary of 1992.) There’s a bandwagon effect. Voters like winners.

Assuming that the early state leader won’t become the nominee this time because the person who is leading is ridiculous or unusual or unelectable is a wish, not a strategy.

And I repeat: there are only 11 days until that wish pops, like a bubble.

Lesson Two: The Lanes Are A Figment of Your Imagination 

Lanes? Where we are going we don’t have lanes. Sure, there are certain candidates whose support bases overlap more than others. But not to the extent that you think. In 2016, when Chris Christie lost his voters many of them—maybe most of them—went to Trump, rather than the people supposedly in Christie’s “lane”—Jeb/Marco/Kasich.

Some anecdata: I talked to a California voter this week who doesn’t follow politics closely. She was deciding between Bernie and Biden. Which isn’t supposed to happen if you have “lanes.”

People think that there’s some rational equation for these things. Like:

Mike + Amy + Pete + Joe > Bernie + Elizabeth

That’s not how it works in vivo.

And by the way, just as the lane theory is wrong, so are the ideas that Bernie “has a ceiling” and that he “can’t win once the field narrows to two.” Don’t believe me—these head-to-head polls show how wrong it is.

Lesson Three: Establishment Figures Who Can Make A Difference Can’t Afford To Wait

Back in 2016 as I was trying to recruit name-brand Republicans to join us and create bad news cycles for Trump, I found a two-phase skittishness. The first phase—which is happening right about now on the Democratic side—was “let’s see how the race plays out and I’ll make an endorsement/donation when the field winnows and I can make a difference.”

That sounds reasonable and it’s true that you don’t want to waste your leverage four months from when voting starts. But remember our first lesson: 11 days from now the race will be functionally over. The time to make a difference is now. In less than two weeks, you won’t be able to make a difference.

In 2016 the phase one excuse-making of February ticked over into phase two excuse-making after Super Tuesday. The second phase was “I don’t want to do anything that might harm the nominee.”

Which also sounds reasonable, except that it leaves aside the fact that you just whiffed on your chance to help shape who the nominee would be.

Let me share a phase two email I received from an anti-Trump GOP elected official back in 2016 one week after Super Tuesday:

With very limited options, not sure what your group’s strategy is. A brokered convention—though unlikely—would be a disaster. Wishing you the best, but think I’ll take a pass on your kind offer.

That “wait and see” approach became “it’s too late to do anything” really forking fast!

So let’s take a look at 2020 and which Democratic figures are on the sidelines: the Obamas, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Jimmy Carter, and Al Gore.

Basically every major Democrat who a normal primary voter would know and whose endorsement could command a news cycle is sitting around to see how things shake out.

And I promise you that every one of them who is right now weighing when to put their thumb on the scale will quickly decide after Super Tuesday that they don’t want to be fighting a lonely battle against an inevitable Bernie.

Some of these individuals could shake up the race. Imagine the consolidation pressure if an Obama or Clinton came out for Pete or Joe or Amy in the way Ted Kennedy did for Obama in 2008. That would be the type of event that could legitimately change the balance of the race. If it happened soon.

Again: Tick Tock.


Did these candidates not watch 2016? To be the man, you gotta beat the man. How hard is this?

4(a): The Debates

In 2016, with the exception of Jeb Bush, the only time a candidate criticized Trump was in their last debate before dropping out. It was the surest sign of a death rattle. And while I’m proud Jeb took him on, I gotta be honest: he was not the candidate best suited to do so. In a lot of ways, he served as a helpful foil for Trump. (Hello, Mayor Mike.)

Everyone else went to pains not to target Trump and instead aim their fire at the guys in second, third, fourth, and fifth places. Remember the Christie/Rubio murder-suicide? You would think the non-Bernie Democratic campaigns would’ve learned that shivving one another only helps the frontrunner, not the guy or gal holding the shank.

And yet for two straight debates the non-Bernies repeated the same exact Christie/Rubio nightmare scenario. First in New Hampshire, the field focused on Mayor Pete rather than Bernie. (Bernie’s campaign admitted to NBC’s Shaq Brewster that it was that debate which stunted Buttigieg’s momentum and probably cost him the win.) On Wednesday night in Nevada, they did the same damn thing, with Warren disemboweling Mayor Mike and Pete and Amy continuing their tiff.

Democrats get one more shot at this next Tuesday. After that, the next opportunity is in mid-March. If nobody cripples Bernie at the next debate, they are going to find themselves in Marco’s boots come March, deciding whether to leave without a fight or launch a futile attack on Bernie’s hand size.

4(b): The Ads

In retrospect, the Jeb Super PAC theory of the case—that Jeb needed to go after Rubio/Kasich/Christie to win his “lane” and get to a one-on-one with Trump—was wrong. Clearly that money would’ve been better spent targeting Trump. That wouldn’t have helped Jeb much, but would that have made the difference in stopping Trump earlier? Maybe, maybe not.

But we know for certain that not meaningfully advertising against the frontrunner doesn’t work. (It’s worth noting that there were a few anti-Trump ads from the Jeb campaign, Super PAC, and others—but nothing at scale until the anti-Trump Super PAC I joined got funded ahead of Super Tuesday.)

There is no 2020 equivalent to Jeb’s Super PAC going HAM on Marco throughout the early states. But there is a parallel in that there’s a heavy advertiser in the field who is using all of his resources on something other than beating Sanders. That’s Mayor Mike’s campaign.

Bloomberg has spent $230 million and counting on TV and digital ads in the Super Tuesday states—all to bootstrap his own campaign. (I went in depth on the problem with his game theory and how it might be helping Sanders here.)

If Mike’s goal is to actually beat Bernie—and not just finish Super Tuesday with a gentleman’s 18 percent and embark on a long, losing slog in the hopes something crazy happens—then his paid media needs to shift to targeting Bernie immediately.

Let me emphasize this: Immediately, today, five minutes ago, right the fork NOW.

If Bloomberg embarks on a high-volume ad campaign aimed at Bernie it might have the effect of capping or peeling off enough of Bernie’s support before Super Tuesday to push the decisive window further out than just 11 days from now.

Which could, in turn, give the Democratic elites time to use their leverage and the other candidates to redirect their attacks.

But once again . . . Tick Tock.

Lesson Five: Go Big or Go Home

Once the establishment has gone through the denial and anger stages of grief, political operatives like to settle into the stage where they’re most comfortable: bargaining.

Bargaining always involves strategerizing and Big Think memos on how the unstoppable can be stopped, if only we follow the strategist’s genius, counterintuitive plan.

For example in 2016 we had the “divide the states” strategy which Slate’s Jim Newell shrewdly rejected as the GOP’s “Deeply Flawed Post-Super Tuesday Strategy”

Rubio and his advisers have described an ugly, drawn-out path to the Republican nomination,” Politico reported on Tuesday. “Their strategy relies on picking off enough delegates to hold Trump below the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination on the first ballot at the convention.”

If blocking Trump from winning a majority of bound delegates is the goal, then it could make sense in the short term to keep everyone in the race, since any delegates that Trump doesn’t win count as a victory. Rubio would not have defeated Trump in Texas, so it was useful for Cruz to stay in and take a majority of those delegates for himself. Rubio won’t be able to defeat Trump in Ohio, so Kasich can handle that task. A split field makes it impossible for one candidate to gain a majority over Trump. But it helps to stop Trump himself from getting a majority. The “everyone stay!” strategy appeared to have some adherents Tuesday night. As Time’s Zeke Miller points out, if the goal is to stop Trump from hitting 1,237, a split field can be of use through March 15.

Needless to say this strategy didn’t work. Neither did Cruz’s attempt to shake up the race by announcing his VP pick (Carly Fiorina, if you don’t recall), nor did the eventual attempt to “release the delegates” at the convention.

There is only one thing that we did in 2016 that did work. And another idea that was floated that might’ve worked. Both were of the “all in” variety.

First in Wisconsin, the PAC I advised recruited basically every major Wisconsin Republican political figure to come out either against Trump, or for Cruz. In addition we leveraged the powerful Wisconsin conservative media—including one radio host you may have heard of—to talk to their audience about Trump’s flaws both on conservative orthodoxy and electability. And we put millions of dollars into a TV/radio/digital/mail/phones all-out assault on Trump on every issue imaginable.

It worked. Cruz won Wisconsin. But it was hard to replicate this strategy in other states, because of the lack of support from in-state actors, a less influential and/or aligned conservative media ecosystem, and waning donor support.

The other gambit that wasn’t tried but may have worked was an attempt by Cruz to form a unity ticket with Rubio. (Marco rebuffed it. Because, of course.) Here is a situation where a candidate dropping out could be purely additive to another candidate: if they literally joined the ticket. Unlike the lanes theory—where the voters magically all go to one candidate or the divvy up the states theory—at least this play hasn’t failed yet.

If Sanders is going to be stopped, those are the models. Recognize how substantial his advantage is. Use the maximum possible leverage to reverse it. And take it to him.

You’ve got 11 days.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.