Closed Primaries Did Not Stop Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders is so convinced that his campaign was fatefully hamstrung by “closed” primaries in which independent voters could not participate that he is including the end of closed primaries in his list of convention demands.
There’s no reason to deem this demand self-serving; at 74 years of age, Sanders will not be running for president again and he apparently wants to create a process in which candidates who follow in his footsteps will have a better shot.
Although he has every right to pursue that goal, he’s wasting his time, and squandering his leverage, by focusing on closed primaries. Yes, he was swept in the closed states. But he also lost the open primaries by a 2-to-1 margin.
There have been 40 state contests so far, 27 primaries and 13 caucuses. Nineteen of those primaries were accessible to independent voters. Yet Sanders only won six of them, and two were his home state of Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire.
Hillary Clinton has only won six more states than Sanders, and she won all eight closed primary states. Would throwing all those contests open have made a big difference?
Probably not, because most of Clinton’s closed primary wins were not close. Connecticut was the narrowest at five points, but that contest was also the most “open” of the closed states since independents could switch their registration the day before election. Twenty percent of the Constitution State’s electorate was composed of self-described independents, not far behind the 27 percent share in the Sanders states of Michigan, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
Four others, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana and Maryland, were completely out of reach for Sanders, as Clinton posted margins between 20 and 48 points. Only three closed states might have become competitive if independents could have participated: Arizona, Pennsylvania and New York, where Clinton’s spread was between 12 and 16 points.
The reality is that, in general, primaries were unfriendly terrain for Sanders. His wheelhouse was the caucus, pocketing 11 out of 13. The low-turnout meeting-style contests are known to favor liberal candidates, having buoyed George McGovern and Barack Obama to their nominations. Sanders recently said, “We want open primaries in 50 states in this country.” If he means that literally, and would end caucuses altogether, that would certainly increase voter turnout in those states. But it also would risk ceding what’s now populist turf to establishment forces.
These facts are important for Sanders’ his fans to know. Not to rob them of their comforting rationalizations and make them wallow in their misery, but so they can best strategize for the future.
They want the Democratic Party to change. They want a party that shuns big donors. They want a party that routinely goes big on progressive policy goals.
But if they believe that the nomination process is the obstacle preventing the will of the people from enacting that change, then they are letting gut feelings overwhelm hard facts.
The only explanation for the sudden obsession with closed primaries is that we’ve just had five of them in the last two weeks. The truth is the race was lost long before, when Clinton build an essentially insurmountable lead by sweeping the largely open primaries of the South and lower Midwest. Sanders’ recent defeats stung badly because his die-hard supporters wrongly believed his caucus streak meant he was gaining momentum. They should not let that sting cloud their vision.
One wouldn’t expect the average voter to pore over the intricacies of delegate math. Sanders has, and he should know better. Granted, the intense emotion a candidate suffers at the end of a losing presidential campaign is an excruciating feeling most of us can never fully grasp. Undoubtedly, it’s painful for the candidate to take a step back and make clinical assessments instead of excuses.
If he wants his revolution to keep moving forward, he can’t lead it in the wrong direction. He can’t get caught up in the raw emotion of electoral defeat. He can’t peddle misleading explanations to his supporters as to why he fell short.
Because if he does, he is going to waste their time, energy and precious political capital fighting a convention floor fight for nomination rules reform that is a complete distraction from what they really want: a party rooted in populist principles and funded by small donors.