If you weren’t aware that AOC (and squadmate Ilhan Omar) recently endorsed Bernie Sanders, you’re likely not hanging out in this particular corner of the universe. You also likely figured this is a good thing for him, but not something that’s going to rocket him to the top of the polls.
One could even argue that losing the endorsement to Elizabeth Warren would have hurt him more than having it will help him. I think this is true. Though you can also argue it may help her in a way to not have it. If Warren wants to play Goldilocks between a too left Bernie and a too centrist Biden, maybe more than one candidate benefits here.
Regardless, it means a couple of other things too:
This is a check on Warren
Bernie is a true believer. Warren is an extremely left-leaning politician. It’s not impossible he could ever temper an answer for political purposes, but how they’re each approaching his Medicare for All plan is very telling. He’s quick to explain taxes will go up for middle class voters, but their premium/deductible savings will exceed the tax increase.
She’s incapable of saying the “taxes will go up” part. Perhaps she remembers Walter Mondale saying he would raise taxes in 1984. His line was “Ronald Reagan won’t tell you he’s raising your taxes, I just did.” Reagan won 49 states. Then he passed major tax legislation that lowered marginal rates. Then George Bush the Elder won the presidency. This isn’t a great memory for older Democrats.
It’s easy for Democratic candidates to talk about raising taxes on upper income voters. It’s now easy to talk about wealth taxes. Admitting a family of four with $58,000 in pre-tax income is going to have a larger payroll deduction is a tax too far for Warren to say out loud.
However she ultimately squares this circle, it will result in her either delaying or altering Bernie’s plan. Sanders also has a more aggressive approach to climate change. Like trillions of dollars more aggressive. For all the talk about them being similar, his proposals would put a much larger percentage of the national economy under government control. Because he’s a socialist. She wants to punish specific companies.
With three quarters(ish) of Americans being to the right of this dispute, it’s easy to combine them. It’s easy to think either would be a risk in a general election, or a way to rally the base. Rest assured AOC sees a difference. Sure she can and would campaign aggressively for Warren against Trump. She would even endorse Joe Biden if that’s where the chips fall.
She can count and read polls, and likely recognizes Warren is still, even post-endorsement, more likely to win the nomination than Sanders. But beyond her ideological bond with Bernie and Democratic Socialism, there’s some strategy at work here too.
We already know Bernie isn’t the type to abandon campaigns early. We know he’s going to have plenty of money to compete as long as he wants to. We often forget the delegate rules. For most Democratic contests in 2020, any candidate who hits 15% will get some delegates. Unlike the GOP, they don’t do winner-take-all.
Sanders sits at 15.2% today in the Real Clear Politics average. The combination of AOC and a strong showing in the last debate are very potentially enough to keep him above the line long enough to get through the first couple of contests and have others drop out. In a theoretical contest with Biden, and Warren, he’d easily pull 15% plus in most states.
Even were Pete Buttigieg to do well enough in Iowa and New Hampshire (I’d bet yes on that today) to make this a four person tussle, Sanders still has a good shot at clearing the bar more often than not, even if he’s unable to expand his base back to anything approaching his 2016 market share.
This would make it mathematically impossible for Warren (or anyone else) to capture enough delegates to win on the first ballot. Unlike the contests from 1984 through 2016, superdelegates are not participating. They don’t get to jump in until a second ballot now. And, given Warren’s difficulty in picking up establishment endorsements, it’s unclear which way they would go anyway.
The last convention that began without nominee certainty was the 1976 Republican event. The last multi-ballot convention was back in 1952. Every cycle, people like me get all excited at the thought it could happen again. All it really takes given the current rules are three candidates going the distance. If Republicans had these exact rules in 2016, Ted Cruz and John Kasich could have prevented a first ballot Trump nomination without getting a single extra primary or caucus vote.
Having AOC on board increases Bernie’s odds of lasting until the convention, winning enough delegates to prevent someone else from winning on a first ballot, and gives him significantly more leverage to keep the eventual nominee and party platform as close to his positions as possible.
AOC’s primary will be telling
Democrats meet to pick their nominee on July 13, 2020 in Milwaukee. Three weeks earlier, AOC faces the primary voters of NY-14. Already, eight Republicans have announced they’re competing to face her in a general election they would lose. It’s a good way for them to get exposure on Fox News, and raise some money. It means nothing.
But there are also three Democratic opponents. One of whom is Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who has represented the Bronx for multiple terms. He’s not the perfect opponent. For example, he doesn’t live in the district, though he’s adjacent. He is established.
And he’s going to highlight her celebrity status and opposition to Amazon’s stillborn HQ. The majority of NY-14 voters did not agree with AOC on keeping those jobs out of the district, even given the extra traffic, gentrification worries, etc.
He’s older, male, far more socially conservative. Cabrera argues much of the district is more like him than her, and he’s not wrong. AOC defeated Joe Crowley because he was clearly out of touch with the district and didn’t see the threat until it was too late. She’s raised millions, and will not make the mistake Crowley did of sending underlings to represent him at debates and forums in the community.
She’s not going to lose, especially with multiple opponents who could divide the anti-AOC primary vote. But, the score will matter. If AOC wins 70-80% or more of the vote, nobody will remember the opponents. Her status will remain intact and no serious candidate will try this again in 2022.
But if it’s sorta close, if she gets 58%, 63%, it’s a different story. The Dem establishment will watch this closely. Superdelegates will be very aware. The ability of Bernie and AOC to strongly influence the convention is at least partially tied to two things. First, President Trump’s polling numbers. Does it look like any Democrat can beat him, or just a specific one.
Second, how well did AOC put down the more conservative/mainstream opposition in her own mega-blue district? If she’s not in command even there, then it’s a clear signal it’s safe for the left-left center to check the far left.