Super Tuesday was never going to be an easy ride for Bernie Sanders. It’s an election day heavy on Southern states like Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama, where Hillary Clinton enjoys a strong advantage, owing to her deep political roots in the region going back to Bill Clinton’s days as governor of Arkansas, as well as the support of the black political class and the African American church. But what made Super Tuesday salvageable for Sanders is that it also includes a few states where he could win. His home state of Vermont was a natural, but he also polled well in Colorado, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. If he could resoundingly win these states and lose by not too large a margin in the states where Clinton is strong, Sanders would have ample grounds for continuing the fight.
The worrying fact for the Sanders campaign is that in the run-up to Super Tuesday there has been a slippage in his poll numbers even in the states he was expected to win. According to the Huffington Post aggregation of the national polls, Sanders was narrowing the gap with Clinton until February 17, when the former secretary of state led by just under eleven points. Since then—likely influenced by Sanders’s loss in Nevada and sound trouncing in South Carolina—the gap has extended to nearly 13 points.
More troubling is that this slippage extends to at least one of the states Sanders should have a lock on: Massachusetts, which neighbors both Vermont and New Hampshire, where Sanders won his only outright victory to date. Going by the Huffington Post aggregations, Sanders peaked in Massachusetts on February 16, when he overtook Clinton. Since then he’s been sliding, and is now down by 5.5 percentage points.
If the results of the Massachusetts polls hold, and Sanders sinks in even one of his supposed Super Tuesday strongholds, then the reasonable inference is that he peaked shortly before the Nevada caucus. His loss in Nevada then can be seen as the beginning of a slide that now threatens to become an avalanche.
Of course, polls can be wrong, and if Sanders defies the seeming trends on Super Tuesday, he’ll have a strong argument to continue his campaign. He certainly doesn’t lack for either money or an enthusiastic fan base.
As we head into the biggest day thus far of the primary season, it is a good occasion to appraise Sanders’s successes and failures. He’s opened a space in the Democratic Party to the left of the conventional liberalism of Barack Obama and Clinton. Sanders has pushed, with some success, for an economically populist politics of a sort we haven’t seen since the heyday of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s, which advocated for stronger social programs that were meant to unite disparate groups that had been left behind by the Reagan Revolution.
Yet the comparison to Jackson highlights the weakness of the Sanders movement. The Rainbow Coalition called for economic populism, but also spoke directly to distinct communities within the Democratic Party. Jackson won South Carolina in both 1984 and 1988, in sharp contrast to Sanders, and his success was only in part due to him being African American (he did very well in predominantly white states like Iowa as well). More pertinently, Jackson was able to adapt his message to black voters in a way that Sanders has so far failed to do.
Sanders has taken a class-first approach to politics, leaving issues of identity open to Hillary Clinton, who asked a crowd on February 13, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism? Would that end sexism?”
Radio host and activist Bill Fletcher Jr., who was active in the Rainbow Coalition, made a telling comparison in an interview on the Majority Report show: “I would put a dollar to a donut that if you had Jackson on the speech circuit supporting Sanders he would be able to tell the story much, much better than Sanders is. And the result is a strategic problem for Sanders that many black voters look at him cautiously. They are not anti-Sanders but there is this irony ... that even though Sanders is to the left of Clinton, Hillary Clinton is much more comfortable, almost fluid, with language around race and gender than Sanders is.”
Lacking fluency in the language not just of race but also gender, Sanders is revealing that his class-focused coalition, paradoxically, may be too narrow to win.