Bernie Sanders has made clear he much prefers talking about his political vision, not the campaign process, but there’s one part of the process the Vermont senator talks about quite a bit. Time magazine reported:
Bernie Sanders told “Nightly Show” host Larry Wilmore at a taping Wednesday evening that scheduling Southern states early in the Democratic primary “distorts reality.” […]“Well, you know,” Sanders said, “people say, ‘Why does Iowa go first, why does New Hampshire go first,’ but I think that having so many Southern states go first kind of distorts reality as well.”
Comments like these are an extension of a standard argument from the Sanders campaign: it may look like Hillary Clinton enjoys a sizable advantage, but her lead only exists because of the South. The “reality,” when it’s not “distorted,” is a lot different.
But the more Sanders makes this argument, the less sure I am of the point he’s trying to make.
I’m absolutely certain that the senator isn’t trying to dismiss the importance of African-American voters – such an argument would be completely contrary to his progressive values and campaign strategy – but when Sanders says “reality” is “distorted” by primary results from states in which black voters dominate, it’s not at all clear which reality he’s referring to.
Perhaps Sanders’ aides have encouraged him to make this argument. Maybe it’s not too late for him to remove this rhetorical arrow from his quiver.
It’s possible the senator is arguing that conservatives tend to dominate in the South, so the primary results in the region are less important. At first blush, this may seem compelling, except Republicans also dominate in states like Utah and Idaho – states Sanders won easily. Do they distort reality, too? Why would Kansas represent reality more than Georgia?
In fact, the same week that Clinton did well in states like Florida and Virginia, Sanders won in Oklahoma and Nebraska. There’s no reason to believe those Democratic voters are any more or less important – or more or less in line with reality – than any other group of Democratic voters.
What’s more, the South may be filled with “red” states, but in Democratic primaries, it’s economically liberal African-American voters who represent the bulk of those who are turning out to participate. Their votes don’t “distort” reality so much as they reflect reality.
Maybe the argument is that Southern voters count, but they shouldn’t have a prominent role at the start of the primary season. Except, (a) the South doesn’t go first; the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire go first; and (b) I don’t know why states with fewer black voters would do a better job of ensuring that reality isn’t distorted.
Perhaps Sanders means Southern states aren’t truly representative of the Democratic electorate. Except (a) given the importance of African-American communities in the party, I’m not sure why not; and (b) are voters in Utah, Kansas, and Idaho more representative of the Democratic electorate?
Maybe he means that Democrats won’t do well in these Southern states in the general election. That’s true, but once again, the same can be said of many of the states Sanders has also won.
As we discussed the other day, the New York Times reported last week that the Sanders campaign deliberately focused its efforts away from the South for a reason: “Sanders and his advisers and allies knew that black voters would be decisive in those Southern contests, but he had been unable to make significant inroads with them.”
As a tactical matter, this made perfect sense. There was no reason for the senator and his operation to build an electoral strategy around states he was likely to lose.
But as a rhetorical matter, arguing that states in which black voters were decisive “kind of distort reality” is a very different kind of message, one that Sanders still has time to change.