Presidential campaigns are long, exhausting exercises for the candidates and their teams, and the fatigue invariably leads otherwise competent people to slip up. It happens in every race, in both parties, whether things are going well or going poorly.
A few weeks ago, for example, Tad Devine, the top strategist in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and an experienced consultant, mentioned in passing the idea of Hillary Clinton adding the Vermont senator to the ticket as her running mate. Asked if Sanders would consider such an offer, Devine replied, “I’m sure, of course.” Soon after, Devine realized that this made it sound as if the independent lawmaker wasn’t really running to win, so he walked it all back. Staffers everywhere had a “there but for the grace of God go I” moment.
The strategist obviously just made a mistake, said something he didn’t really mean, and reversed course quickly. Today, however, I think Devine slipped up again in a way he’ll soon regret. Mother Jones reported:
“[Hillary Clinton’s] grasp now on the nomination is almost entirely on the basis of victories where Bernie Sanders did not compete,” said senior strategist Tad Devine. “Where we compete with Clinton, where this competition is real, we have a very good chance of beating her in every place that we compete with her.”Devine named eight states where he said the Sanders campaign did not compete with a big presence on the ground or much on-air advertising: Texas, Alabama, Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and Arkansas.
According to a report from Business Insider, Devine added, “Essentially, 97% of her delegate lead today comes from those eight states where we did not compete.”
No matter which candidate you like or dislike, I think it’s fair to say Team Sanders has generally run a strong campaign, exceeding everyone’s expectations, and positioning the senator as one of the nation’s most prominent progressive voices for many years to come. Sanders isn’t the first presidential candidate to run on a bold, unapologetic liberal platform, but he is arguably the first in recent memory to do in such a way as to position himself as a leader of a genuine movement.
But whether or not you’re impressed with what Sanders has put forward, his campaign’s latest pitch is an unfortunate mess.
As a matter of arithmetic, there’s some truth to Devine’s assessment: when it comes to pledged delegates, Clinton leads Sanders by about 250. Add together Clinton’s net delegate gains from Texas, Alabama, Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and Arkansas, and it’s about 250.
But as a rule, presidential campaigns don’t get to lose a whole bunch of key primaries by wide margins and then declare, “Yeah, but we weren’t really trying.” If these eight nominating contests have left the Sanders campaign at a disadvantage they’re unlikely to overcome, it’s actually incumbent on his top aides and strategists to explain why they didn’t make more of an effort in these states.
It’s easy to imagine folks from Team Clinton saying they weren’t exactly going all out to win in Idaho and Utah – states Sanders won easily – but competitive candidates for national office don’t get to use that as an excuse when things aren’t going as well as they’d like.
At its root, Devine’s argument is that Team Sanders identified a series of early, delegate-rich states, but they chose not to bother with them. That’s not just a bad argument; it’s the kind of message that’s probably going to irritate quite a few Sanders supporters who expect more from their team.
Making matters slightly worse, Tad Devine’s pitch isn’t altogether accurate. In Virginia, for example – one of the eight primaries in which he says Team Sanders chose not to compete – plenty of campaign watchers know the senator actually made an effort in the commonwealth and lost anyway. The senator also campaigned in Texas, which is another one of the states Devine said the campaign wrote off.
As for the argument that Sanders wins “in every place that we compete with her,” even taken at face value, it’s not an especially compelling argument: Team Sanders made a real effort to win in states like Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, and Massachusetts, but he lost in each of them.
Don’t be too surprised if Devine walks back his comments today. It’s just not a message that does Team Sanders any favors.
Update: Devine also said the Sanders campaign chose to compete for state victories, rather than compete for delegate victories. I have no idea why the campaign would deliberately choose to compete by the wrong metric that would lead to defeat, but if I were a die-hard Sanders backer, this kind of rhetoric would be incredibly frustrating.