Sanders’ top aides say their man still holds a winning hand

Sanders campaign staffers Tad Devine, left, and Jeff Weaver project optimism at a Wednesday news conference in Burlington after a tough Super Tuesday. Photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — A few hours after Super Tuesday results netted Bernie Sanders a disappointing four states out of the 11 that voted, the Vermont senator’s top strategists smiled as they entered a postgame news conference at the presidential campaign’s national headquarters on Church Street.

Treating reporters to a breakfast of pastries and bagels — perhaps in hopes of softening what has been a spate of pessimistic press reports on Sanders’ chances — campaign manager Jeff Weaver declared, “We had a fantastic night. We shot for five, we got 4.9.”

Weaver and Tad Devine, Sanders’ chief strategist, brushed off any idea that the campaign was floundering, promising to continue the nomination fight all the way to the Democratic National Convention in July.

While delegate totals weren’t in by late Wednesday, Sanders had picked up 321 to Clinton’s 486, and Devine said more were to come.

“We are going to pick our spots, and we did that yesterday,” said Devine, who hailed Sanders’ wins in Vermont, Oklahoma, Colorado and Minnesota. The campaign had projected it would perform well in those four states, as well as Massachusetts, which narrowly went to Hillary Clinton.

“We picked five spots,” Devine added. “It would have been nice if we drew an inside straight flush — we drew to a flush.”

“We still think we have a winning hand in this game,” he added, “and we are going to continue to play it for a while.”

For Sanders, Tuesday was supposed to be a redemptive moment after tough losses in Nevada and South Carolina.

In the Vermont senator’s concession speech in Nevada he looked forward, expressing optimism about the Super Tuesday matchups. But after a rough night, the campaign is now brushing off Tuesday, again looking ahead to future nominating contests in a handful of mostly white, liberal strongholds.

Devine asserted that the Tuesday voting lineup — which included many Southern states with large African-American populations, where Clinton has been strong — created conditions for “the single best day on the calendar for Hillary Clinton.”

“We do not think the calendar ahead looks nearly as good as yesterday,” Devine continued. “Not a single day between now and June.”

The most racially diverse states voted Tuesday, leaving many of the remaining nominating contests taking place in more homogeneous states. Sanders’ core support comes from younger white voters.

In upcoming states that are more racially diverse — including Mississippi, Louisiana and Michigan — Clinton is favored to win.

The Sanders aides listed states where they expect success, or at least a strong showing that will earn some delegates, including Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, New York and California.

Sanders also hopes to make inroads in Michigan and Wisconsin, states where recent trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which he opposed and Clinton initially supported — are blamed for wreaking havoc on the industrial economy.

In Florida, a delegate-rich state, the campaign is looking to bolster support among retired voters with Sanders’ promise to strengthen Social Security.

Polls out of many of these states tilt toward Clinton, though the data is limited. In Michigan, Clinton leads by nearly 20 points. She’s up 13 points in California and nearly 30 points in Florida.

The Sanders campaign acknowledged the deficits but said that early internal polling from the Super Tuesday states he won had showed large gaps that quickly narrowed.

Advisers said the campaign overcame polling deficits in the four Sanders strongholds Tuesday, having started 16 points down in Colorado, 23 points in Minnesota and 18 points in Oklahoma.

“His ability to move voters with his message of transformation of America is very, very powerful,” Weaver said.

Homemade posters in Bernie Sanders’ Burlington office recount past nominating contests. Photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

The campaign does have a few bright spots to highlight. A few recent national polls have Sanders beating Clinton, with a Wednesday CNN/ORC poll claiming he fares better than Clinton against Republicans. He had the most positive favorability rating of any candidate in the field.

Sanders also picked up a couple of high-profile endorsements in the last few days, including Robert Reich, who was labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, an Iraq War veteran counted as a rising star in the party.

The campaign said it raked in $42 million in February, the most by any 2016 presidential candidate in a single month. Clinton’s campaign said it raised $30 million last month, with $31 million cash on hand.

The Sanders campaign has not disclosed how much cash it has on hand.

But while fundraising remains strong, a deluge of money has not been able to overcome fundamental problems for the campaign, including relatively low turnout among young people and struggles with name recognition and policy familiarity among voters.

The campaign consistently says that when it has more time with voters, it can boost turnout and effectively communicate the Sanders message. So far, his best results have been in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states where he invested the most time and money.

In his Super Tuesday speech in Essex Junction, Sanders looked to his overwhelming win in Vermont to prove this point, saying it “does say something and means so much to me that the people who know me best, the people who knew me before I was elected, who knew me as mayor, congressman and know me as senator – have voted so strongly to put us in the White House.”

But time is fleeting, and the campaign must now focus on many states at a time. Sanders simply does not have a long period to introduce himself to voters in town hall meetings and at country diners in California and New York.

The campaign may also be limited by Sanders’ unwillingness to tweak his message or enrich it.

His stump speech is virtually unchanged from when he kicked off his campaign on the Burlington waterfront in May, and he has been slow to educate himself on foreign policy issues and defend his economic policies.

After two poor debate performances around foreign policy, and weeks of media inquiries about his foreign policy advisers, the campaign began compiling that team in late February.

After four former members of the presidential Council of Economic Advisers who served during the Clinton and Obama administrations assailed Sanders’ economic platform, it took the Sanders campaign nearly a week to assemble four respected economists to push back.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton speaks before a crowd of ardent supporters in South Carolina two days before the primary there, which was Saturday. File photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

Clinton, on the other hand, adapts her message constantly and has specific details memorized for her defense. She brushes up on regional issues in states where she campaigns, and often sticks around to take pictures with voters or hug them.

Her message is so dynamic that it’s often updated to include the most applauded and praised Sanders stump lines on income inequality and Wall Street reform.

“No bank can be too big to fail and no executive too powerful to jail,” Clinton said in her victory speech in South Carolina, where she trounced Sanders 74 percent to 26 percent.

The line, which Clinton has been using on the trail for many weeks, prompted Sanders to depict her as stealing his material on Fox News in late February.

“We’re looking into the copyright issues here,” Sanders joked. “Those are our words!”

Weaver insisted the Sanders campaign’s message was fundamentally strong and said the infusion of cash wouldn’t be used for a new strategy, although the campaign may be tweaked.

“The path we are walking is successful right now,” he said. “And the core will stay the same.”

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Jasper Craven

About Jasper

Jasper Craven is VTDigger’s political reporter. A Vermont native, he first discovered his love for journalism at the Caledonian Record. He double-majored in print journalism and political science at Boston University, and worked in the Boston Globe’s Metro and Investigative units. While at the Globe he collaborated on Shadow Campus, a three-part investigative series focused on greed and mismanagement in Boston’s off-campus student housing market. The series was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
He also spent two years at MuckRock, a news sited dedicated to investigation and analysis of government documents. 

Craven covered Vermont’s U.S. Congressional delegation for the Times Argus in the summer of 2014, and worked as a Metro reporter for the Chicago Tribune before joining the staff of VTDigger.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Jasper on Twitter @Jasper_Craven

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  • bruce wilkie

    Bernie won Vermont by a landslide. Yet the “super delegates ” with the exception of Welsh, are all supporting Clinton. They are selling out the voters of Vermont and should be ashamed of themselves.

    • Megs Keir

      Write to Leahy and Shumlin (etc) and let them know how you feel. They are allowed to change their “pledge of allegiance,” but it will take alot of grassroots messaging for that to happen. At our town meeting (Huntington), we voted to ask our town clerk to “respectfully request” the leaders of each political party to support the candidate favored by the voters if 2/3 of the votes go to one of the candidates…ie, Sanders.

  • Jean Newberry

    I’m so glad there’s still some honest reporting happening in America right now! Bernie is doing great. Loved the video of young Sanders being arrested in a civil rights protest. He is for real.

  • Ron Pulcer

    This says it all from Jasper Craven’s article:

    “Clinton, on the other hand, adapts her message constantly and has specific details memorized for her defense. She brushes up on regional issues in states where she campaigns, and often sticks around to take pictures with voters or hug them.”

    “Her message is so dynamic that it’s often updated to include the most applauded and praised Sanders stump lines on income inequality and Wall Street reform.”

    I started to listen to Hillary’s “victory” speech on Super Tuesday. Once she started to channel Bernie’s talking points I changed the channel.

    I would venture to guess that many of the people who voted for HRC (with the -> pointing to the Right) in NV, SC, AL, AR, GA, TN, TX, VA are voting for the current rendition of HRC that is repeating Bernie Talking Points, not the real HRC, whatever that may be.

    HRC is very similar to Bill Clinton, in that he used to morph his talking points when he was on the campaign trail as well.

    As for VT’s Super-Super-Delegate, isn’t he the guy that barely beat Scott Milne?

  • Ron Pulcer

    Check out Bernie vs.Hillary campaign contributions from Michigan:


    “Both Sanders and Clinton have opened multiple offices in Michigan, including campaign offices in Flint, and have paid staffers on the ground in the state. Clinton has raised more money in Michigan,according to records from the Federal Election Commission, but Sanders has more contributors. Clinton has collected $1,174,906 from more than 3,900 Michiganders, while Sanders has raised $504,517 from more than 7,500 state residents.”