Why does the Democratic establishment so dislike Bernie Sanders? Consider this statistic:
Hillary Clinton has raised $26 million for the Democratic National Committee and state Democratic parties so far this campaign. And Sanders? $1,000.
That’s no typo. Clinton is doing more to boost the party’s 2016 prospects than Sanders by the proportion of 26,000 to 1. (Or greater: That $1,000 “raised” by Sanders was technically provided by the DNC to open a joint fundraising account.)
This is the source of the panic that Sanders causes the much-maligned Democratic elites. It’s not about ideology; it comes from a fear that having Sanders as a nominee will decimate progressive candidates down the ballot — and leave Republicans in control of the House, and state capitals, for another decade or two.
The Obama presidency has been a disaster for the Democratic Party nationwide. Clinton has pledged to rebuild the party and has begun to make good on that promise. Sanders, by contrast, has shown little concern for the very real crisis the party faces beneath the presidential level.
Since Obama’s election in 2008, Democratic losses at all other levels have been staggering: 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats, 910 state legislative seats, 30 state legislative chambers and 11 governorships. Democrats are at their weakest position in state capitols in nearly a century; they have unified control of only 11 legislatures, while Republicans control 30 (31 if you include nominally nonpartisan Nebraska).
There are many reasons for this, but one is Obama’s decision to bypass the Democratic Party apparatus in favor of his own, parallel network, now known as Organizing for Action. Under the theory that Obama could directly rally supporters (and therefore didn’t need to rely as much on party operatives or on congressional Democrats), this outgrowth of Obama’s 2008 campaign apparatus competed with the party and wound up starving the party of funds.
The Democratic National Committee, in triage, made Senate and House races its top priority, and state efforts suffered badly. The amount the DNC spends on state parties today is roughly half what it was in 2007. A decade ago, Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean had the party paying for 183 state party workers; that’s down to 115.
Meanwhile, Republicans have made a big push at the state level, and conservative donors such as the Koch brothers have boosted the effort. One indication: The Republican State Leadership Committee, the party arm responsible for state legislative efforts, raised $39.2 million in 2012 and $38.2 million in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Democratic equivalent, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, raised $13.5 million in 2012 and $16.2 million in 2014.
The consequences of the Democrats’ atrophy at the state level are potentially catastrophic for progressives. If the party doesn’t make major gains in the next couple of election cycles, Republican majorities in state legislatures will control redistricting after the 2020 Census, virtually guaranteeing that the party retains control of the House for another decade. Thanks in part to the 2010 redistricting, Republicans now can lose the popular vote by several percentage points but keep control of the House.
The collapse in state legislatures for Democrats has also left the party with few prospects for statewide and congressional offices. In Ohio, for example, Democrats should have a good shot at unseating first-term Republican Sen. Rob Portman, but many prospective challengers were wiped out in 2010 and 2014, leaving a 74-year-old former governor, Ted Strickland, as the Democrat to challenge Portman.
A DNC task force after the 2014 midterm wipeout called for urgent action at the state-party level. The task force recommended a “three-cycle plan” with allied groups that “wins back legislative chambers in order to prepare for redistricting efforts.” It is, in essence, an attempt to revive Dean’s “fifty-state strategy” of building up local parties. That was controversial at the time, but a study of the 2006 midterm election by Harvard’s Elaine Kamarck argued that in congressional districts where the DNC had paid organizers in place for at least a year, the Democratic vote was more than double what it would have been.
Sanders threatens this effort. Like Obama did in 2008, he sees his support coming from outside the party structure. Like Obama, he has a principled disdain for the big-dollar contributions that Clinton is helping to bring in for the party.
Sanders seems to think he doesn’t need a robust party’s backing to enact his multi-trillion-dollar proposals, which Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s former top economist, told the New York Times’s Jackie Calmes this past week are as realistic as “magic flying puppies with winning Lotto tickets tied to their collars.” But if Sanders leaves the Democratic Party for dead, as he is now doing, the odds against his success are even greater.
I’d put them at 26,000 to 1.