Photo: AP

Bernie Sanders can’t win: Why the press loves to hate underdogs

May 21, 2015
Photo: AP

On the eve of the 1948 presidential election, Newsweek asked the 50 reporters on President Truman’s campaign train to forecast the winner. To a man they went the way the Chicago Tribune infamously would on election night: “Dewey defeats Truman.” Lay historians will recall that not only did Truman defeat Dewey—he clobbered him. Sorting out how the media got it so wrong, The New York Times’ James Reston concluded that he and his brethren had been a lot like the aloof Governor Dewey himself, who was said to be the only man who could strut sitting down. Dewey played well with plutocrats and publishers. “[J]ust as he was too isolated with other politicians,” Reston wrote, “so we were too isolated with other reporters; and we, too, were far too impressed by the tidy statistics of the polls.”

This was true, but it fell to A. J. Liebling, the nonpareil of The New Yorker, to pick out the crucial vice that Reston and similarly minded colleagues overlooked. “A great wave of contrition hit the Washington newspaper world in the days immediately following the joyous catastrophe,” Liebling wrote, “and men swore that they would go out and dig for the real truths of politics as they never had dug before. But few publishers encouraged them in their good resolutions, and most of them are back again running errands designed to bolster their bosses’ new illusions.” Bad as insiderism, arrogance, and poll-worship were, Liebling knew the real peril was that those sins usually furthered the bosses’ agenda. It is one reason Liebling’s most memorable bon mot is also his most eternal: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

Those of a Lieblingian turn of mind could not have been surprised by the reception Bernie Sanders got last month when he entered the race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Sanders, of course, is Vermont’s junior senator, barber’s worst nightmare, and IKEA socialist (he favors the term “democratic socialist,” as in the Scandinavian variant), who quaintly maintains that people and the planet are more important than profit. Not long ago such beliefs fell well within the waters of the main stream where politicians swam, but the current has since been rerouted, and Sanders now paddles hard against the left bank. For not going with the flow, and for challenging Hillary Clinton, the big fish many elites have tagged as their own, Sanders’s entry into the race was greeted with story after story whose message—stated or understated, depending on the decorum of the messenger—was “This crank can’t win.”

The trouble with this consensus is the paucity of evidence to support it. “This crank actually could win” is nearer the mark. But having settled on a prophecy, the media went about covering Sanders so as to fulfill it. The Times, for example, buried his announcement on page A21, even though every other candidate who had declared before then had been put on the front page above the fold. Sanders’s straight-news story didn’t even crack 700 words, compared to the 1,100 to 1,500 that Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Hillary Clinton got. As for the content, the Times’ reporters declared high in Sanders’s piece that he was a long shot for the Democratic nomination and that Clinton was all but a lock. None of the Republican entrants got the long-shot treatment, even though Paul, Rubio, and Cruz were generally polling fifth, seventh, and eighth among Republicans before they announced.

Other coverage of Sanders ran to caricature, as in Paul Kane and Philip Rucker’s personality piece in the Washington Post, which opened, “He seems an unlikely presidential candidate—an ex-hippie, septuagenarian socialist from the liberal reaches of Vermont who rails, in his thick Brooklyn accent, rumpled suit and frizzy pile of white hair, against the ‘billionaire class’ taking over the country.” The Post’s pieces didn’t lead with Clinton’s hippie past or her age (she will be a septuagenarian in 2017) and didn’t say she rails when she discusses her more ardently held positions (she has a couple). Even the word “liberal,” which doesn’t seem the worst quasi-pejorative to hang on a candidate who calls himself a socialist, sits poorly next to the flattering “populist” that the Post permitted Clinton, especially since she is a mere recent and rhetorical convert to the creed that Sanders has acted on for 40 years.

Other major news organizations ignored Sanders as nearly as they could a sitting U.S. senator who entered the presidential race. ABC’s World News Tonight gave his announcement all of 18 seconds, five of which were allotted to Clinton’s tweet welcoming him to the race. CBS Evening News fitted the announcement into a single sentence at the end of a two-minute report about Clinton.

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In past races, when editors have explained why they scorned the likes of Sanders, they have tended to recite an editorial recipe for political long shots that is much like the Hollywood recipe for starlets: don’t cover them much, and don’t take them seriously. The trouble with this commonplace is that editors actually love covering long shots—certain long shots anyway. Ted Cruz, for example, received his serious, in-depth treatment in the Times’ news columns even as its analysts were writing pieces like “Why Ted Cruz Is Such A Long Shot.”

The difference is that Cruz has not erected a platform whose planks present a boardwalk of horror to the corporate class atop the media. These same planks of Sanders’s, not at all incidentally, are the very ones on which Clinton most wobbles as she stands before Democratic voters: raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, taxing carbon to fight climate change, killing the Keystone XL Pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, breaking up “too big to fail” banks, expanding Social Security by taxing the rich, and implementing a single-payer healthcare system. Clinton has thumbed her nose at each of these, whether by frank opposition (supporting the TPP and big banks, opposing carbon taxes and single-payer), refusing to state her position (Keystone XL and Social Security expansion), or backing vague alternatives (raising the minimum wage, but declining to say how much). Her corporatism, wed to her social liberalism and her imperial hawkishness, appeals to those in the moneyed Second and journalistic Fourth Estates who would embrace Republicanism but for its misogynistic, homophobic, racist, science-denying core.

But it’s not only Sanders’s opponents who slight him. Even his admirers spike their odes with dismissive vinegar, as in: “Bernie Sanders Won’t Win. But His Ideas Might” and “He Won’t Win, So Why Is Bernie Sanders Running?” and “Bernie Sanders’ ‘socialism’ may have mainstream appeal”—a headline whose promise is belied in the text with a terse “Sanders is never going to be president.” Being ignored is the singular fear of pundit and reporter, so the progressively inclined pundit and the supposedly neutral reporter, knowing the establishment’s disdain for Sanders and wanting to be “relevant,” armor their kind words for Sanders with “He can’t win.” This escutcheon against naiveté comes at the price of a critical faculty they were using only intermittently.

The foregoing would be woeful enough even were it true that Sanders has almost no chance of winning, but it’s not true. I’ll skip lightly over the conspicuous fact that any frontrunner can have a Chappaquiddick, a deceptively amplified “scream,” or a plane crash. Instead, let me dwell on the simple fact that over the last 40 years, out of seven races in which the Democratic nomination was up for grabs—races, that is, when a sitting Democrat president wasn’t seeking reelection—underdogs have won the nomination either three or four times (depending on your definition of an underdog) and have gone on to win the presidency more often than favored candidates.

Some of these seekers were long shots indeed. Jimmy Carter was a lightly accomplished governor from a trifling state beyond whose borders he was little known and less regarded. A few weeks before he entered the presidential race, the Harris Poll asked voters their thoughts on 35 potential candidates. Carter was not on the list. After a year of campaigning, just a couple of months before the first primary, he routinely polled 1 percent among Democratic voters and finished eighth in the narrowed field of eight Democrats. But he won all the same because the other guys were Washington insiders, and after Watergate and Vietnam, Democratic voters (and eventually the wider electorate) didn’t want another insider, no matter how often journalists told them they did. If you don’t see a parallel to the present moment—a discontented time of Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Moral Monday, Fight for $15, the People’s Climate March, Move to Amend, and other anti-establishmentarian agitation—you’re either asleep or a publisher.

Michael Dukakis also polled as little as 1 percent just a few months before he announced (Sanders, by the way, was polling 5 to 8 percent at the equivalent stage), which paled beside the Hillary-esque 40 to 50 percent that Gary Hart was drawing. When Hart’s campaign went down with a boatload of bimbo, Dukakis profited, although even then he was no favorite. Shortly before the first primary, he still polled no better than 10 percent, which was toe to toe with the forgettable Paul Simon and 15 points behind both Jesse Jackson and a resurrected Hart, who mounted a brief comeback because Dukakis and all the rest looked so impotent.

Some observers wouldn’t rate Bill Clinton an underdog, mostly because he wasn’t one for long after he hopped into the race. But so slight was the shadow he cast nationally that nine months before the primaries, pollsters weren’t listing him as a potential contender. Even he thought so little of his chances (Mario Cuomo was supposed to run, and to be invincible once he did) that he didn’t announce until five months out. His odds improved from there.

The quixotic Barack Obama entered the race against a juggernaut whose endorsements were so thunderous and war chest so surpassing that many spectators thought the young senator was only trying to make himself known for a future contest. After campaigning all of 2007, he not only failed to advance on Clinton but found himself a little further back, dropping from 24 to 22 percent, while Clinton advanced from 39 to 45 percent. There were rumblings that he should bow out before the first vote so as not to weaken the ineluctable nominee.

What you didn’t hear much were reports like the following, from an atypically perceptive CNN in November 2007:

The polls tell us Sen. Hillary Clinton is the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination…So is it all over, before it even begins?

Be careful with a poll, says New Hampshire Institute of Politics Director Paul Manuel. “It’s not a predictor. It’s a tool. It’s a useful way to understand what’s happening at that moment and nothing more.”

The same copy could be run today, but if any large news outlet has, I’ve missed it. We may be condemned, à la George Santayana, to repeat the past we’ve forgotten, but it’s less dispiriting to do so when that past lies further back than the lifespan of a well-kept guinea pig.

Spurious though early polls may be as a predictor of who will win the nomination, every large news organization uses them to allot campaign coverage—or to justify the coverage they’ve already decided to give. The media’s other big crutch for deciding coverage, campaign fundraising, is equally specious. While it is true that you cannot win a big campaign without money, it is also true that you needn’t match the financial frontrunner dime for dime. You need only stay in the game. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who won her first Senate race over Rick Lazio even though he outraised her by a third: $39 million to $30 million. Or ask Howard Dean, whose $53 million didn’t keep him from becoming the best-funded early departure in Democratic primary history. To the extent that editors and reporters remember these lessons, their coverage of Sanders’s entry said they didn’t think he could even get in the game with Clinton, whose super PAC had, after all, raised $15 million before she even announced.

As it turned out, though, Sanders had come to play. In the 24 hours after his announcement, he raised $1.5 million, a stout take. On their respective first days, Rand Paul raised $750,000, Ted Cruz $1 million, and Marco Rubio $1.25 million. Clinton refused to reveal her total, but since her campaign usually plays fundraising fortissimo, one imagines we would know the number if it reflected well on her. Sanders, it is true, did not start with a Clintonian $15 million, but his $5 million in the bank was a most respectable earnest. In short, Sanders was in the game. It remains to be seen whether simply being in the game will be enough in our new Wild West of campaign finance; there hasn’t been a contested Democratic nomination since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. But the last contested nomination, in 2008, was itself a huge-money affair, and Obama won despite having started from a worse financial position than Sanders is in now (Clinton had $10 million at the start of 2007, Obama virtually nothing) and having been out-fundraised by Clinton throughout 2007.

For the moment, though, even Sanders’s gainsayers cannot ignore his early totals, and a few of their subsequent dispatches have been colored with something like respect. The Post’s Philip Rucker, for example, said on his blog that Sanders might, after all, be able to raise the $50 million he needs to run a “credible” campaign. His first-day $1.5 million, Rucker wrote, was “a surprisingly heavy haul for a candidate whom some in the Democratic chattering class have cast off as a gadfly and viewed as unable to wrest the nomination from the overwhelming favorite, Hillary Rodham Clinton.” Rucker, himself a paragon of the reportorial chattering class, neglected to say that he had cast off the gadfly as a ranting hippie only the day before.

Other chatterers, less charitable, have continued to say that money or no, Sanders is a non-starter because of his distance from the political center. They do not mention that distance from the center can be an asset in primaries (viz. Dukakis) or that political achievements believed to be impossible only yesterday—a black man in the White House, a gay wedding in Utah—can, under the right circumstances, become possible in a trice. Is the day of the IKEA socialist at hand? The chatterers don’t know the answer. What they know is how to do their damnedest to ensure that day doesn’t come too soon.

Steve Hendricks is the author, most recently, of A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial. His website is