The Paradox of the Democratic “Stop Bernie” Campaign

Is it even possible?

Sanders smiles and raises his fist onstage.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-V.T., participates in a Fox News town hall at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Monday.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders’ strong early position for the Democratic nomination is giving powerful Democratic players who dislike him all sorts of feelings, none of them good.

Sanders’ fundraising prowess and base of support have surfaced what the New York Times this week referred to as the “What to Do About Bernie” question. But the Democrats who don’t want to see him win the pennant—a collection of donors, operatives, and national officials who find Sanders’ politics too far left for their personal taste, and presumably the electorate’s—feel boxed in as to how they should respond. If they do nothing to stop Sanders, then they will have done nothing to stop Sanders. But if they put together some coordinated effort to stop him, then Sanders will channel those efforts into his “anti-establishment” messaging.

It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t moment for leading anti-Sanders figures. It’s not particularly complicated, though, why they feel so powerless: Essentially, they are. This is something to keep in mind when reading about supposed “establishment” plots to “stop Bernie”—or when Sanders himself is advantageously fundraising off of supposed “establishment” plots to sabotage his candidacy.

When I was reporting my recent feature on Sanders’ second run, I asked several current and former aides whether they expected any coordinated anti-Bernie strategy from party leaders, professional Democrats, or Clinton loyalists still seething over Sanders’ 2016 campaign. The typical response was: Yeah, those people exist, but what can they do about it?

“I don’t think they’re in a position to move pieces around the chessboard here,” Tad Devine, Sanders’ 2016 chief strategist, told me. (Devine is not working on the current campaign.) “If Bernie Sanders starts winning in Iowa and New Hampshire, and has a bunch of resources, and goes in and wins some of these big states and gets 300 or 400 delegates ahead by mid-March, I don’t think they’re going to stop him, you know?”

What, after all, would a coordinated strategy from such a contingent even look like? David Brock, the Clinton loyalist who established a pro-Clinton super PAC in 2016, “has had discussions with other operatives about an anti-Sanders campaign,” according to the Times, and “believes it should commence ‘sooner rather than later.’ ” Other vague references are made to consideration of a “heavy-handed intervention” or “rallying the party’s elite donor class” against him. So are we talking … attack ads? What else? Members of the party’s elite donor class are not afforded magical powers, and David Brock is not, in fact, a wizard.

What elites could do is rally their resources around a single alternative to Sanders early in the race—as in, a few months ago. This kind of collective action will be difficult now, with powerful players already split among Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, and anyone else.

This is the key difference between now and 2016, when the argument that the “establishment” was working collectively to stop Sanders had more teeth: The power then wasn’t centralized in a disparate set of donors and operatives; it was centralized in Hillary Clinton. As the prohibitive front-runner entering the race, and with massive early polling leads, Clinton was able to clear the field of mainstream opposition and unite party operatives and officials behind her. Hillary Clinton was the coordinated campaign. By entering the race in such a strong position to win the nomination, she was able to capture much of the race’s oxygen before Sanders could set up a campaign office in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Sanders had a limited political outreach department in 2016. Some of this was because of his personality: Sanders loathed meeting privately with local party poobahs ahead of rallies to solicit their support, thinking they should make their decision on the strength of his ideas rather than any private agreement he made with them. But it was also seen as a waste of time, since Clinton had already locked up so many of these officials. This time around, though, the Sanders campaign has built up a much more robust political department to capture the many more free agents still looking to make endorsements. And the officials are much more receptive to Sanders this go around, several sources told me, because they want to get on board with a candidacy that has a viable shot at the nomination and they appreciate his party-building efforts. Even the Democratic National Committee, Sanders’ nemesis from 2016, now has a fine working relationship with him.

But just as we shouldn’t take too seriously the reports of a powerful “establishment” primed to flip a switch and thwart Sanders, so should we take Sanders’ claims of a such an effort with a grain of salt. Within hours after the Times’ “Stop Bernie” story came out, the Sanders campaign sent out an email fundraising off of it and against the “Democratic establishment.” This just a couple of days after Sanders wrote a letter to the board of the Center for American Progress to complain about a post and video that the think tank’s blog, Think Progress, had published suggesting Sanders was hypocritical for being a millionaire. While neither the blog nor the video was a sterling achievement in the annals of political journalism, they were also … just a blog and a video. If those are the resources that the “establishment” is marshaling against Sanders, then perhaps the power of that campaign has been overstated.