From “Feel the Bern” to “Settle for Hillary”

It was fun while it lasted, but Bernie Sanders’ improbable rise was followed by a predictable slide, which now threatens to become an avalanche.

For a while, Senator Sanders seemed as though he was catching lightning in a bottle. His singular, impassioned focus on income inequality and his willingness to unload on Wall Street banks endeared him to many liberal voters who wanted a pound of flesh for the recession and felt left behind by the recovery. His momentum seemed infectious. Poll after poll suggested he was quickly closing the gap with Hillary Clinton (who is all too familiar with losing to out-of-nowhere upstarts), even going so far as to beat Clinton in a national poll. Incredibly, Sanders also seemed to be polling well in Nevada and unexpectedly okay in South Carolina, the two early-voting states that the Clinton campaign labeled their southern and western “firewalls,” that could not be breached.

And then it all began to fall apart. After a tough loss in Nevada, where an upset would have enabled him to keep riding the wave, and an utter trouncing in South Carolina, his numbers began to slide. At this point, it’s impossible to underestimate the impact that South Carolina had. Clinton won the Palmetto State by an unheard of 50-points, a margin that portended huge wins across the South, which makes up a solid chunk of the Super Tuesday states. That loss seemed took some of the luster off Sanders campaign, as if voters realized that he was a fun dalliance, but not ultimately someone who they wanted as the party’s standard bearer.

The New York Times’ reports:

“Bernie Sanders’s odds of getting the nomination are maybe not that great,” said Mitchell Westall, 19, of Suffolk, Va., who added that he had been intrigued by the Vermont senator’s vision. “So I’m looking at the other Democrat.”

Mrs. Clinton, the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, is not used to being “the other Democrat.” But as voters cast ballots Tuesday in 11 states that could give her a prohibitive lead in the race for the party’s presidential nomination, she seemed to be enjoying something of a homecoming: After eyeing, enjoying and encouraging Mr. Sanders’s insurgency for months, Democrats seemed ready to restore to Mrs. Clinton and her candidacy the air of inevitability with which she began her campaign in April.

. . . [M]any Democratic voters said that despite being aware, and sometimes wary, of Mrs. Clinton’s trust issues, they were more than ready to support her. Often, they said they were swayed as much by the arguments of Mrs. Clinton’s most persuasive surrogates — delegate math, and “Fear of a Trump Presidency” — as by the candidate herself.

These are not the grounds that Hillary Clinton hoped to win on. Even as she won convincingly in all of the delegate rich Super Tuesday voters, and relegated Bernie Sanders to a handful of relatively small states, there was a sense that voters weren’t voting for her, they were voting against something else.

That feeling has been embodied at recent campaign events in which audience members can be seen wearing “Settle for Hillary” t-shirts. That’s about as far from “Feel the Bern” as you can get.

It’s an important dynamic. Democrats aren’t supporting Clinton because of her ideas, because of her tenure as Secretary of State, because of her policy track record. No, they’re voting for her because they know she’s going to win the primary, and Democrats would rather fuel her margin of victory than feel as if they’ve wasted their vote. And while that rationale may carry an establishment favorite through the primary season, it’s not exactly a motivating cry to on-the-fence voters who will decide the next president.

Framed a different way, Democrats just aren’t feeling energized by the choices in front of them, a problem that hit insurgent Sanders harder than establishment Clinton. As Dana Milbank writes for the Washington Post:

The Sanders challenge was doomed by a fatal flaw: Democrats aren’t as unhappy as he needed them to be.

It is an article of faith this year that voters are angry. But this shorthand misleads. Certainly, there is real economic anxiety in the United States, but Americans are, overall, quite content: 87 percent of Democrats and 87 percent of Republicans alike said in a Gallup poll in January that they are satisfied in their personal lives. The anger that’s out there is directed at the malfunctioning government in Washington — and this anger is mostly on the Republican side.

I think the problem is broader. Democrats simply aren’t as enthused as they need to be. And Clinton sailing through the primary season relatively unscathed is going to make that problem worse, not better.

Photo credit: Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA