The Slatest

Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Picks a Bad Time to Play the What-If Game

Supporters wave signs as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at West High School on March 21 in Salt Lake City.

George Frey/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders is vowing to fight on, but, facing a nearly insurmountable delegate deficit in his race against Hillary Clinton, he and his team of advisers are already wondering aloud what could have been. The New York Times recently spoke to more than a dozen members of Team Sanders—including the candidate and his wife—about his surprisingly strong run, and the resulting story, published on the paper’s front page on Monday, paints a picture of a campaign grappling with the reality that it is nonetheless poised to come up short.

Among the political decisions questioned or lamented by those close to Sanders include:

  • not campaigning more in 2015;
  • waiting to blanket Iowa airwaves with ads until late fall;
  • opting for larger rallies over smaller retail events in the Hawkeye State;
  • spending too much time in New Hampshire, where he ended up winning by 20-plus points, and too little in Iowa, where he lost by a mere fraction of a point;
  • failing to invest more in a Nevada ground game ahead of the state’s first-in-the-West caucus;
  • not reaching out to the black community—via TV, radio, and other means—sooner;
  • and waiting too long to hit Hillary Clinton over her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs.

None of that is surprising in and of itself. Most of these decisions were of the resource-allocation variety, which are easy to second-guess with the benefit of hindsight. Knowing what we do now, you don’t need to be a high-priced political strategist to say that Sanders should have focused a little more on Iowa and a little less on New Hampshire, or that he should have spent more money in Nevada or more time making inroads with the black community well before the primary race reached the South. But a candidate only has so much time and so much money, and spending those resources in one place means you have less to spend in another. Given Clinton’s massive advantages, Sanders could only look so far ahead without running the risk of being knocked out early. Sure, his blowout win in New Hampshire probably came with some diminishing returns, but a loss there would have brought a swift end to his campaign before the race even reached more diverse states like Nevada and South Carolina. (To say nothing of the fact that Sanders entered the race with the primary goal of pulling Clinton to the left—and he succeeded!—something that required a different strategy than a better-positioned challenger would have used.)

The fact that the Sanders camp is playing the what-if game in the midst of an ongoing campaign isn’t a shock, but the fact it was willing to put those concerns on the record with the Times is more than a little surprising. Among those quoted by name in the report were Sanders; his wife, Jane; his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver; and another senior adviser, Tad Devine. While I’m betting Bernie and his staff didn’t expect their quotes to be weaved into something of a campaign obituary, that doesn’t change the fact that’s what ended up happening at a time when he’s desperate to keep his supporters energized in the face of the cold delegate math working against his candidacy.

There was one silver lining for Team Bernie in the report, though, which was that the Times also got one of Hillary’s endorsers to do some of Sanders’ work for him with regards to her paid Wall Street speeches. “Making the transcripts of the Goldman speeches public would have been devastating [to Clinton],” Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska governor and senator, told the paper. “When the GOP gets done telling the Clinton Global Initiative fund-raising and expense story, Bernie supporters will wonder why he didn’t do the same.”

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Read more Slate coverage of the Democratic primary.