Ever since election night—when Hillary Clinton tanked and Donald Trump became the next leader of the free world—the most prominent allies and alumni of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign have maintained a succinct message for Team Hillary: We. Told. You. So.
In the final months of the brutal and chaotic 2016 campaign, there were plenty of Democratic activists freaking out about Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania (the three states that ultimately cost the Democrats the White House) and Clinton’s fatal shortcomings there. Many of them were envoys of the Sanders camp who wanted to help fix those problems, including Clinton’s difficulties with the block of the mythical “white-working-class,” economically anxious voters who Sanders had championed during the primaries.
“They fucking ignored us on all these [three] battleground states [while] we were sounding the alarm for months,” Nomiki Konst, a progressive activist and former Sanders surrogate who served on the 2016 Democratic National Committee platform committee, told The Daily Beast. “We kept saying to each other like, ‘What the fuck, why are they just blowing us off? They need these voters more than anybody.’”
According to Konst and multiple other people involved with these discussions, the Clinton campaign agreed to a meeting with a cadre of Sanders surrogates during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in July. The purpose of the meeting, which included Clinton’s national political director Amanda Rentería and Team Hillary’s progressive outreach coordinator (and former Sanders senior aide) Nick Carter, was to address the concerns many Sanders camp alums were voicing about Clinton’s strategy going into the general election against Trump. Carter declined to comment on this story.
“Once we were at the convention, Bernie people were on the ground—we could feel it, people were pissed off, there with their pitchforks ready to fight,” Konst recalled. “But before the convention, after the platform committee meeting that I was on, Bernie surrogates were talking constantly, saying, ‘Oh my god, Hillary is going to lose if she doesn’t address TPP and [free] trade and [all these] other issues. We were looking at the polling and thought that if these people stay home, she’ll lose.”
When their meeting finally happened during the Democratic convention, the progressive activists’ fears were only inflamed.
“We were saying we are offering our help—nobody wanted [President] Donald Trump,” Konst continued, noting that the “Bernie world” side was offering Clinton’s team their plans—strategy memos, lists of hardened state organizers, timelines, data, the works—to win over certain voters in areas she ultimately lost but where Sanders had won during the primary.
“We were painting them a dire picture, and I couldn’t help but think they literally looked like they had no idea what was going on here,” she continued. “I remember their faces, it was like they had never fucking heard this stuff before. It’s what we had been screaming for the past 9 months… It’s like [they] forgot the basics of Politics 101.”
As the days and weeks flew by, the Bernie delegation kept underscoring TPP, jobs, union allies, the youth vote, and the environment, and pitched multiple rallies with Sanders in states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan (a state where Sanders unexpectedly beat Clinton in the Democratic primary, and a state that Clinton actively neglected during the general).
“The math that they lost on, is the math we won on,” Konst said. “So we wrote out a plan, and sent it to them, telling them to stop thinking you’re going to get this ‘Obama coalition,’ it’s not going to happen.”
Assurances were then made with various Clinton senior staffers that they would follow through with subsequent meetings and phone calls to address these gaps and warnings. Instead, meetings were canceled and “rescheduled” into oblivion.
“We not only screamed about this, we wrote memos, we begged,” Jane Kleeb, Nebraska Democratic Party chair and another Sanders booster who was at the DNC meeting, said. “I spent a good chunk of time writing memos about how [Bernie’s surrogates] could be utilized on the campaign trail, about ‘issue voters,’ about the environment, Black Lives Matter, Dakota Access Pipeline, rogue cops, you name it… I was [also] talking specifically about rural communities, and how [Hillary] completely ignored and abandoned anything that we cared about.”
Kleeb noted that instead of subsequent discussion about battleground strategy and resources, what she got was a handful of conference calls, where Sanders alumni would get to hear about the “three top talking points for Hillary Clinton’s email server, or something.” She said that the only member of Team Hillary who would take them seriously was, unsurprisingly, Carter, who didn’t have much luck convincing the crew leading the Clinton ship to listen more attentively.
“The Clinton campaign believed they had the strongest and brightest people in the room… and they had no concept of why people would choose Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton,” Kleeb continued. “They mocked us, they made fun of us. They always had a… model that was supposed to save the day. We were street activists and they don’t get that. And that’s a fundamental divide. They ran a check-the-box, sanitized campaign. And voters don’t think like that. You don’t win elections that way.”
Rentería, however, saw their meeting, and conference calls, in a different, far less bleak light.
“I think what we took from them on a national message—her tone of ‘our cause is your cause’ at the national convention was the right tone—that really did derive from listening to them in that meeting we had,” Rentería told The Daily Beast. “And in the calls I had with them every other week, we inserted college affordability and climate change at their pushing.”
She went on to say that she had a “deep respect for” what Sanders mounted in the primaries, reserving specific praise for his team’s “really robust online support base.”
“Because we ran such a different campaign in the primary, I think fully integrating [aspects of the Sanders campaign] was a bit more difficult, especially when we were talking about organizing,” she said.
But the fact that much of the Clinton campaign top brass would rebuff the advances of Sanders alumni and allies isn’t in itself shocking. There was a deep hostility fostered in the Clinton team toward the Vermont democratic-socialist senator ever since the primary, during which Hillary’s side repeatedly blamed Sanders’s rival candidacy for weakening her in the run-up to the general.
“To them, we were a leftist nuisance, nothing else,” a former senior Sanders campaign aide said.
On the pro-Bernie wing of the Democratic Party, Clinton, and neoliberal Clintonism itself, were widely viewed as a failure and a cynical sellout of progressive values.
“A ham sandwich could beat Donald Trump,” Melissa Arab, a Michigan delegate for Sanders, told The Daily Beast during a protest outside the Democratic convention in July. “And Hillary cannot beat Donald Trump.”
The ongoing hostilities between the Hillary and Bernie camps all but helped ensure a scenario of missed opportunity, spurned collaboration, and hobbled organizing efforts in the fight against Trump.
“I offered to help and never heard back from anybody—quite frankly, I wasn’t surprised,” Robert Becker, a veteran organizer who ran Iowa and Michigan operations for the Sanders presidential campaign, told The Daily Beast.
“There was no outreach to me… but I did get a call three weeks out [from Election Day] from someone who was in the DNC sounding the alarm [about Michigan],” he said. “They didn’t feel like they were getting strong support from [unions members]… I mean, these trade deals that were going on for decades that were enabled by the Democratic Party in large part, they hurt. [The Clinton campaign] didn’t address the anger about this. We picked up on that during the primary. People were furious at these bad trade deals. We were connecting with those voters in Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin… Everyone’s trying to point a finger as to what went wrong, and I just point to the operational malpractice.”
Of course, everybody will have his or her own explanation and rationalizations for why Trump was just handed the keys to the White House. The defeated Clinton campaign routinely blames the media coverage of its candidate. It repeatedly blames the Russians, and FBI director James Comey’s letters, for the hard loss. “We weren’t measuring the white vote correctly,” Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, further explained late last month at an event at Harvard University.
“In a race where people wanted fundamental change, Donald Trump sure was a fundamental change,” Mook said. “It was a strength being an outsider.”
And according to the remnants of Team Bernie, Mook and the rest of the Clinton team need to carve out a large space for self-reflection.
“For me this is not about Hillary Clinton, this is about HIllary Clinton’s staff becoming too insular, too professional where regular working-class folks did not matter to them,” Kleeb said. “She had too many people [on her campaign] wearing Prada going into pollster meetings, not enough of us.”