So I didn't go into this interview with Bernie Sanders's "brain trust" by Bloomberg News's John Heilemann thinking to myself, Aha! Now we'll finally learn details of how Sanders thinks he can win. This was despite the headline promising essentially that: "The Sanders Brain Trust's Plan to Beat Hillary Clinton."
What's outlined in the interview is a strategy that can be summarized as follows: Don't be afraid to get dirty, emphasize Clinton's policy flips, leverage Sanders's small-donor advantage. There are some other points, which we'll get to, but that's the big picture. Team Sanders would like Heilemann (and Bloomberg readers) to come away thinking they've got a good shot at the ring. (The most-picked-up line from the interview is an awfully presumptuous — however joking — assertion that Clinton would "make a great vice president.")
But if the plan is close to what's articulated, it must be very, very early in the process — because it hasn't done much.
Let's take the words of Sanders's brain trust and overlay them on top of a more robust strategy for beating Clinton, and see how Sanders fares. Items marked with a checkbox have been completed.
1. Compete on money
The strongest argument in this piece is Sanders's ability to raise money, demonstrated in the third quarter of 2015 when his campaign raised nearly as much as Clinton's. Moreover, that Sanders has converted the energy of his supporters into a small-donor juggernaut, which means that he has a lot of people who can keep giving small amounts to add up to big numbers. We looked at this earlier this month, but the upshot is this: The light blue area on the graphs below depicts how much more donors who gave to Sanders and Clinton in the second quarter could still give during the campaign.
The campaign says that winning Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which are possible, would spur donations immediately afterward, and that that would allow Sanders to out-spend Clinton on the air. It's a smart plan — assuming that Iowa and New Hampshire go the way the campaign expects.
2. Turn Democrats against Clinton
For all of the melodrama about Clinton's national favorability, she remains the most popular Democrat in the race. Monmouth University released a poll this month showing how Clinton and Sanders compare. Sanders is less well known, meaning that he necessarily has fewer people viewing him favorably or unfavorably. But the number of people with no opinion of Sanders has dropped significantly.
This is where the Sanders "get dirty" plan comes into play, starting with his unsubtle digs at Clinton at a dinner in Iowa over the weekend. Clinton's lead isn't entirely dependent on her favorability among Democrats, which we'll get to, but it's linked. So far, Democrats aren't terribly inclined to turn their backs on her.
3. Be competitive with black voters
The black vote in the Democratic Party overall is substantial. It is far less important in Iowa and New Hampshire, meaning that Sanders, who doesn't do well among black voters, has an advantage in those states.
But looming shortly after the first two votes is South Carolina, where Sanders trails badly. Sanders aide Tad Devine explains the campaign's thinking by saying that "we don't have to win 50 percent of the African American vote in South Carolina to win. Probably only need to win 30 percent."
In 2008, 55 percent of the Democratic primary vote in South Carolina was black, according to exit polls. That was probably a higher percentage than we will see in 2016, given the historic nature of Barack Obama's candidacy. (Obama won 78 percent of the black vote.)
But even if Sanders can win with 30 percent of the black vote — probably meaning well more than 60 percent of the white vote — he has a problem. He's a long way from 30 percent.
CNN/ORC polled in South Carolina earlier this month, and the non-white vote broke down like this.
Vice President Biden decided against a run — but most of his support went to Clinton. Sanders needs to at least triple his support among black voters in the state to hit the 30 percent mark, which itself is iffy.
That's only one state. Sanders faces the same fight in other states with significant black populations, and he doesn't seem to have made much headway on it. The plan is to talk about "living wage, health insurance for all, free college [for] kids, testimonials from African Americans, interesting African American leaders who have been for him."
Sanders introducing himself to a population that largely knows and supports Clinton is probably a bigger challenge than this strategy might suggest.
4. Convince Democrats he can win in November
At the end of the day, the most important thing to Democrats is that a Democrat win the presidency next November. This means that, as voters make up their minds, they will gravitate toward a candidate they think can win — or at least probably will gravitate away from ones they worry cannot.
In an AP/GfK poll conducted this month, more people view Sanders as having no shot at winning next year than view him as having a chance to win. Clinton's numbers are significantly different.
Sanders's team must convince Democrats that he can win if he can ever hope to be the person competing in that general election.
It's critical to note that the convincing has barely begun. Most people aren't paying much attention to the campaign yet, and Sanders won't be running ads in primary states until November. (This point was noted by the brain trust to Heilemann.) These numbers will change, as will the dynamics of the race.
Sanders's brain trust certainly has a plan, and it is a plan that the operation will not share in detail with any reporter. What we need to consider when evaluating the effectiveness of that plan is how the numbers above change, if at all, not their assurances that the numbers will work out.
"It is perfectly possible, to be sure, that in a little more than three months, talk like this will seem in retrospect supremely fanciful, if not delusional," Heilemann writes, which is correct.
By March, the conversations about who will be whose vice presidential running mate may not look the way the brain trust wants us to believe they will.