The Bernie Sanders campaign is frustrated. Some might even go so far as to say they have had it with all the fake news about the electoral chances of the current runner-up in the Democratic primary race.
At least that was the tone of campaign officials’ most recent press call.
Jeff Weaver said Sanders has gained momentum in the presidential race but he complained that the Vermont senator hasn’t received the coverage he deserves after a strong showing in the second primary debate. The senior campaign adviser told reporters Monday that the imbalance isn’t fair.
“We also wanted to have this call just to encapsulate some of the thinking of the campaign. Last time there was this experience -- which has now been well-documented but wasn’t recognized by some at the time -- called the ‘Bernie blackout,’” Weaver said of Sanders’ 2016 bid for president.
“Now,” he continued, “we are sort of in the phase that I call the ‘Bernie write-off.’”
When Sanders ran and lost to Hillary Clinton, his campaign grumbled that the candidate was only given token coverage. The press was guilty of making a premature judgment, supporters argued at the time. Sure, reporters covered that narrowing race on the trail, but his team seemed convinced that “the corporately owned media” had written Sanders off as a sideshow.
The campaign now fears a repeat in the 2020 race.
“There seems to be a direct correlation between the media coverage of polls and Bernie Sanders’ specific standing in those polls,” Weaver said. In his telling, “the better the number is in the poll, the less coverage it receives. And the worse he does, the more it receives.”
Weaver wondered, for instance, why a recent Quinnipiac University poll showing Sanders trailing former Vice President Joe Biden 32% to 14% received extensive coverage; 47 stories were published about that survey, he said.
But another poll, this one conducted by the left-leaning Democracy Corps, was largely overlooked. It showed Sanders trailing Biden just 31% to 22%. Only two stories were written about it, according to Weaver.
This led to headlines such as “Is Iowa no longer feelin’ the Bern?” and “Bernie Sanders 2020 is in big trouble,” and it was clear during the call that frustration with the press is growing inside the campaign. “The undiscriminating acceptance of polls that fit existing narratives is certainly an issue that all of us need to be aware of,” Weaver warned.
Those comments come at a moment when candidates appear to have become more comfortable criticizing coverage and even confronting reporters.
The New York Times was on the receiving end of this kind of censure recently when a chorus of Democratic candidates complained that the paper was too charitable with its front-page coverage of President Trump. After a speech mourning the victim of the El Paso shooting, the Times headlined its story “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.”
The paper quickly swapped the original headline for “Assailing Hate but Not Guns.”
Earlier, when a reporter asked if there was anything that Trump could do to make the situation better, an exasperated Beto O’Rourke erupted: “What do you think? You know the s--- he has been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. Members of the press, what the f---?”
The Sanders campaign was responding to stories about polling, not a mass shooting that left 22 dead, and there was measured frustration, but no profanity, on the call. All the same, Weaver took the opportunity to knock prominent news outlets — by name.
“MSNBC repeatedly puts polling statistics on the air that are not accurate,” he said, asserting also that CNN ran an unfair story about Sanders’ appeal slowing. Negativity at the Washington Post, he added, “is legion.”
The campaign is rolling out evidence to support an alternative narrative. “The polling data clearly shows that Bernie’s campaign is doing very well in a solid second place and has momentum and has made up ground especially after the second debate,” pollster Ben Tulchin insisted. “There is a lot of data to verify that, as opposed to cherry-picking a couple polls that don’t have Bernie doing as well, which are outliers.”
The campaign believes Sanders won the last debate and has gained the most momentum afterward. In a memo circulated among reporters, officials point to a FiveThirtyEight analysis showing the bump and to the RealClearPolitics average, which has Sanders gaining 2 percentage points after the Detroit contest.
“The FiveThirtyEight’s analysis was bolstered by 11 out of 13 publicly released national polls conducted since August 1st that show Sanders in second place to Biden,” Tulchin wrote in the memo.
The self-professed Democratic socialist might not approve of his current coverage, but other observers see a different set of facts.
“We've been tracking press coverage all primary long and Sanders has consistently been at or near the top of the field in terms of the volume of news coverage he's received,” Nate Silver, the editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, responded on Twitter before the press call was over.
It isn’t unusual for campaign flacks and reporters to go back and forth over coverage. Increasingly, though, that bickering now happens out in the open.
President Trump made attacking the press a hallmark of his campaign, and continues to do so. Democratic candidates are a long way off from matching his animus. However, at a moment when trust in the media has plummeted -- a July survey by Pew Research found that six in 10 Americans think the media intentionally ignores stories that are important -- they may soon find it beneficial to follow suit.