How Bernie Sanders Blew It

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Bernie Sanders at a May rally in California. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Bernie Sanders will not be president. During Tuesday’s primaries, Hillary Clinton decisively won the key states of California and New Jersey, bolstering her already-pretty-insurmountable delegate lead to 2,184–1,804. That’s pledged delegates, not superdelegates—if you include those much-derided free agents, Clinton had already clinched the nomination Monday night, according to the Associated Press. Sanders supporters were enraged that the race was called before Tuesday’s primaries (some even harassed reporters covering Clinton), but it’s becoming harder and harder to deny the simple truth of Clinton’s victory.

That doesn’t mean that Sanders completely lost. He proved that an old Jewish man who called himself a socialist and spent his campaign railing against American inequality and injustice can be not just a viable presidential candidate, but a beloved symbol of America’s youth. He earned the right to name members of the Democratic platform committee, which could push the party’s official stances leftward. He forced Clinton to answer his critiques on everything from Palestine to health insurance, and it was partly thanks to his consistent pressure that she endorsed some more liberal economic policies. He’s also energized a generation of voters who felt left out of politics, many of whom say that they’ll continue his movement after the election.

Some Sanders supporters no doubt feel in their bones that the process was rigged, that they were squeezed out by an unfair system. But insurgent campaigns always face long odds and disadvantages. It’s not strange that Sanders fell short. It’s strange how close he came.

The rub is that he could have come closer, were it not for some campaign miscues that made it even harder for the Vermont senator’s campaign. Here are a few of the most obvious reasons for his defeat:

Sanders Should Have Played to Win from the Start

In the beginning, no one thought Sanders could win—not even Sanders. Unlike Clinton, who has been preparing herself for the grind of her second presidential campaign for years, the Vermont senator split his time between Congress and campaigning in the months after announcing his run.

“He thought he could compete effectively by campaigning about three days a week while the Senate was in session and then making weeklong trips when Congress was on break,” the New York Times reported in April. “As a result, he had limited time to campaign in crucial states like South Carolina; he canceled a visit to Charleston in mid-June after the church shootings there, and he did not return to the city until late August.”

The problem, according to the Times, was that “he was originally skeptical that he could beat Mrs. Clinton, and his mission in 2015 was to spread his political message about a rigged America rather than do whatever it took to win the nomination.” He certainly spread that message, but by the time it became apparent he might have a shot to win the nomination, he wasn’t well positioned to actually do so.

He Should Have Cared About the “Damn Emails” After All

In one of the most famous moments of the early campaign, Sanders told Clinton during a debate that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” It was a big applause line, an indication that the Democrats, unlike those mudslinging Republicans, were going to keep their campaign arguments in the realm of policy, not personality.

It was also an indication that Sanders, at least at the time, wasn’t really running to beat Clinton. There are reasons to care about those “damn emails”—the former secretary of state hiding her government correspondence on a private email server is an indication of her intense desire for secrecy, and after an Obama administration noted for its lack of transparency, that’s a problem. Sanders could have used the moment to denounce a governmental culture of obfuscation and surveillance; instead he played it safe and ended up handicapping himself in the future. From that moment on, he wasn’t able to attack Clinton over the email scandal, even as new details trickled out about the FBI’s investigation of her use of a private server.

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