Journalists have been cautioning Bernie Sanders against “suggesting the entire political process is unfair,” insisting that doing so could have “negative and destabilizing consequences.” They contend that he must “argue to his supporters that the outcome of the [Democratic primary] process was legitimate” so that he can convince them to vote for Hillary Clinton. According to several recent articles, this argument should be easy to make because “The Democratic Primary Wasn’t Rigged” and “Bernie Sanders lost this thing fair and square.”
The problem, however, is that the Democratic primary was anything but “fair and square.” It may not have been “rigged” in the narrow sense in which some of these writers have interpreted that word (to mean that there were illegal efforts to mess with vote counts), but it certainly wasn’t democratic. That’s why only 31 percent of Democrats express “a great deal of confidence” that the Democratic primary process is fair and is likely why the election conspiracy theories these journalists decry have gained traction.
Defenders of the Democratic primary results make several legitimate points. Clinton secured more votes and more pledged delegates than Sanders. When voting rules were less restrictive, she still won a greater number of open primaries than he did. Caucuses, which are very undemocratic, likely benefited Sanders. There isn’t evidence that the Clinton campaign coordinated efforts to purge voters from the rolls, inaccurately tabulate votes, or mislead Sanders’ California supporters into registering for the American Independent Party. While “the American election system is a disaster” and “should be reformed,” it’s not clear that the numerous and alarming voting rights issues that surfaced during the primary (from Arizona to New York to Puerto Rico) systematically disadvantaged Sanders. And discrepancies between exit polls and final voting results can happen for a number of reasons; they aren’t necessarily indicative of foul play.
Yet at the same time, these points skirt the very real ways in which the primary process was “rigged;” as Matt Yglesias and Jeff Stein have acknowledged, “the media, the party, and other elected officials [were] virtually uniformly…loaded against” Sanders from the get-go. The thumbs on the scale from these groups mattered a lot, more even than Yglesias and Stein surmise.
To quickly recap what those thumbs looked like, the Democratic party threw so much institutional support behind Clinton so long before she even declared her candidacy that political scientist David Karol asserted, in December of 2014, that “Hillary has basically almost been nominated.” The Democratic National Committee’s debate schedule was “obviously intended” to insulate Clinton from challengers and scrutiny. The DNC, in response to inappropriate behavior from a Sanders staffer who DNC staff had recommended and the campaign had already fired, suspended Sanders’ access to important voter data in violation of its contract with his campaign. While Clinton was dinging Sanders on his ostensible disregard for party fundraising, the “so-called joint fundraising committee comprised of Clinton’s presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee and 32 state party committees” was exploiting loopholes in campaign finance laws to funnel the bulk of its resources to Clinton and Clinton alone. Even into late May, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was leaning heavily into biased, anti-Sanders messaging, and leaked emails confirm that she and other DNC leaders actively sought to undermine the Sanders campaign. In addition, leaders of numerous groups traditionally affiliated with the Democratic party – unions and organizations generally more aligned with Sanders than Clinton on campaign issues – endorsed Clinton without polling their members (the groups that did open the endorsement process up to members typically endorsed Sanders).
Mainstream pundits and analysts were hardly any better than the Democratic party. From the moment Sanders entered the race, the media insisted – when they covered him at all, which was not very often – that he had “no chance of winning.” They continued to write off the possibility of a Sanders victory even as his popularity skyrocketed and he took an early lead in the popular vote, inappropriately including superdelegates in their reporting to make it look like Clinton was winning big. They asserted that the hundreds of policy wonks in support of Sanders’ ideas didn’t exist, subjecting Sanders’ proposals to far more scrutiny than Clinton’s, getting their analysis of some of Sanders’ plans flat-out wrong, and attempting to “boot anyone not preaching from the incrementalist gospel out of the serious club.” They began to pressure Sanders to drop out well before even half of all primaries and caucuses had been completed. They helped advance the false narrative that angry, sexist, illiberal White men fueled Sanders’ rise when his supporters were typically more power-balancing than Clinton’s and he was actually most popular among young women, young people of color, and poor Americans. They also helped the Clinton campaign propagate numerous misleading and/or untrue attacks on Sanders.
In general, as often happens when political and media establishments are threatened, they progressed from “polite condescension” towards the Sanders campaign to “innuendos” to “right-wing attacks” to “grave and hysterical warnings” to something close to a “[f]ull-scale and unrestrained meltdown.” It’s not clear exactly how much of that progression was coordinated, but it takes minimal effort to dismantle the claim that the Democratic party and mainstream media outlets were mostly neutral. Whether Clinton surrogates were praising her on TV without disclosing their ties to her campaign or technically unaffiliated newspaper outlets were blasting Sanders in headlines and post-publication edits to their articles, media sources consistently parroted misleading Clinton campaign talking points. Evidence indicates that the DNC was along for the ride.
It is true that Clinton faced a large amount of negative media coverage herself – much of it in the summer of 2015 and by some metrics the most out of any presidential candidate – and it is also true that the Sanders campaign had its issues, especially when it came to reaching out to and addressing the concerns of older Black voters. But that doesn’t change the fact that Clinton got way more coverage at a critical juncture of the race, a huge asset because “[n]ame recognition is a key asset in the early going [and,] even as late as August of 2015, two in five registered Democrats nationally said they’d never heard of Sanders or had heard so little they didn’t have an opinion.” It also doesn’t change the fact that Clinton was considered the de facto nominee even when media coverage was otherwise unfavorable, a dynamic that surely benefited her among Democrats who prioritize uniting the party in the general election above all else. Though Sanders’ popularity increased as voters became more familiar with him, the initial lack of media coverage of his campaign, Democratic party opposition to his candidacy, and the idea that a Clinton win was inevitable all hamstrung him greatly. If the media coverage he received had been more equitable and accurate, it is easy to show that he might have been the Democratic nominee.
That’s why, when writers argue that superdelegates did not “decide the nomination for Clinton,” they’re only half-right. Clinton certainly won the popular vote under Democratic primary rules, but the superdelegates’ early allegiances and the media’s reporting on those allegiances also certainly influenced that popular vote. Roadblocks from Democratic party elites and misleading or downright untrue attacks from the Clinton campaign, its many high-profile surrogates, and the mainstream media were ubiquitous throughout the primary process and certainly influenced the vote as well.
As Glenn Greenwald summarized, premature media reports that Clinton had won the election on June 6, besides depressing turnout in the next day’s primaries, constituted “the perfect symbolic ending to the Democratic Party primary: The nomination [was] consecrated by a media organization, on a day when nobody voted, based on secret discussions with anonymous establishment insiders and donors…[T]he party’s governing rules are deliberately undemocratic; unfair and even corrupt decisions were repeatedly made by party officials to benefit Clinton; and the ostensibly neutral Democratic National Committee…constantly put not just its thumb but its entire body on the scale to ensure she won.” Combine many Democrats’ staunch denial of these problems with undemocratic voting practices that have favored Clinton and that her supporters have too often downplayed, and it’s little wonder that some people believe the election was a sham.
Journalists who disagree should absolutely make their case. They should also, however, more seriously consider where voters’ concerns come from and stop insisting the system isn’t “rigged.” People think “the entire political process is unfair” because it is. And many doubt that “the outcome of the [Democratic primary] process was legitimate” for good reason.
It’s not Sanders’ responsibility to convince people that the primary was something it wasn’t. It’s our collective responsibility to fix our democracy in the months and years ahead.
Sanders has some ideas for how to go about doing that, and they’re a good start, but there’s still much more to offer in this area. Stay tuned.
Update (7/23/16): The following sentence fragment was added to this piece after a Wikileaks release of DNC emails: “and leaked emails confirm that she and other DNC leaders actively sought to undermine the Sanders campaign.” In addition, an earlier version of this piece contained a sentence that read “New evidence suggests that the DNC was along for the ride,” but that sentence was updated to read “Evidence indicates that the DNC was along for the ride” due to corroborating evidence in the Wikileaks release.
Update (10/8/16): Another email leak provides further confirmation that the DNC “anointed [Clinton] the presumed nominee even before the campaign formally began,” as Michael Tracey notes.
Update (10/16/16): Thomas Frank, in a qualitative analysis of Washington Post coverage of Sanders during the primary, finds that clearly negative stories about Sanders outnumbered clearly positive ones by a “roughly five to one” margin, whereas the ratio for Clinton coverage “came much closer to a fifty-fifty split.”