The massive media miscalculation on Bernie Sanders, and why he needs more scrutiny

Bernie Sanders is cruising toward the nomination in what is being widely described as a moment of reckoning for the Democratic Party.

It’s a moment of reckoning for the press as well.

Now that the airwaves are filled with chatter about whether other candidates need to drop out to stop Bernie, it’s time for virtually everyone in the news business—myself included—to admit that we badly underestimated the Vermont senator.


In fact, it may turn out that the miscalculation of the Sanders movement mirrors the magnitude of the failure to realize that Donald Trump could win the presidency. Both men—Bernie openly says he’s taking on the Democratic establishment as well as the Republican one—have exploited weaknesses that most journalists were unable to see.

Sanders decimated the opposition in the Nevada caucuses, winning 47 percent of the vote, which left Joe Biden 25 points behind, more than tripled the totals of Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, and left Amy Klobuchar in the dust. More important, he won half the Latino vote, more than a quarter of the black vote, and swept every age group except those over 65, according to entrance polls.

So much for the media’s conventional wisdom that Sanders had a lock on about 25 to 30 percent of Democratic voters, most of them ardent liberals, and was winning because the so-called moderates were splitting the opposition. Or that Mike Bloomberg will swoop in and overwhelm Sanders.

I had leaned toward the theory that because Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist, party voters who fervently desire to send Trump packing would rally behind a more electable candidate.

I also leaned toward the theory that Sanders’ stunningly expensive proposals—especially Medicare for All, which would end private insurance for 160 million Americans—would make Democrats see that he could not be a consensus candidate.


What I believe I missed is that many Bernie backers may not literally believe he’s going to pass all these programs, they just like that he’s fighting for them. In the same vein, some Trump supporters may not have believed he would build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, but they loved his crusade against illegal immigration.

Most pundits and politicos utterly underestimated the frustration with the Democratic power structure and aren’t moved by rivals’ plans to tinker with the machinery. They also failed to see how vulnerable the Republican Party of Jeb, Cruz and Rubio was to an outsider’s appeal to disrupt everything.

How else to explain the surging popularity of a 78-year-old man who suffered a heart attack and reneged on a promise to release his medical records, which would doom just about anyone else?

For these and other reasons, the press has gone easy on Sanders. Long viewed as a gadfly lawmaker by those in Washington, he’s been treated largely as a colorful character who at best would finish a strong second.

That’s why there’s been only episodic coverage of Sanders’ inability to say exactly how he’d pay for his Medicare plan—he wrote the damn bill—even though similar questions contributed to Warren’s decline. That’s why there has been only glancing coverage of the controversial things Bernie has said over the years—he just gave Fidel Castro a mixed review on “60 Minutes”—and past positions that now sound unpalatable.

The New York Times suggests that Sanders is a Teflon candidate:

“In the early years, there was his commentary on gender relations featuring a rape fantasy, his support for the Sandinistas and his honeymoon in the Soviet Union.

“Once he entered Congress, there were votes to shield gun manufacturers, a commitment to remaining uncommitted to the Democratic Party, and secret plans to mount a 2012 primary challenge against President Obama. And more recently: the F.B.I. investigation into his family…”

And yet, “nothing sticks.”

Does this remind you of all the times the press concluded that Trump was toast, both as candidate and president? Maybe voters will care no more about what he was saying as Burlington mayor in the 1980s than many did about Trump’s days as a Democrat.

I confess I don’t fully grasp the depth of the Democratic anger a little more than three years after Barack Obama left the White House. He passed a sweeping health care bill and left the country with a strong economy (which Trump has clearly built on). How can there be such fury, even as Bernie’s detested billionaires get richer, when unemployment is 3.6 percent?

Times columnist Bret Stephens says Democrats may have “overlearned the lessons of the 2016 election: that nominating the centrist and responsible candidate served them poorly. Or maybe it’s because they’ve reasoned that ‘electability,’ being an insufficient requirement for the nomination, is an unnecessary one as well…

“Alternatively — a darker thought — maybe Democrats aren’t being entirely honest with themselves when they claim their first priority is to end Trump’s presidency as soon as possible. There’s a certain self-righteous pleasure in hating Trump, as well as an entire cottage industry devoted to indulging that hatred, which would mostly vanish the moment he left office. If Sanders were to win the nomination and lose the election, many of his supporters might call the result a wash, even a modest victory.”

Winning by losing doesn’t change reality, but it does fuel a movement.

The next question bearing reexamination is whether the certainty that Trump would eviscerate Sanders—especially after a well-financed assault—might also be off the mark. Right now Trump and Sanders are the only two candidates capable of drawing massive crowds. That may be a clue hidden in plain sight.

Bernie remains a long shot for the Oval Office, but it’s time to take a second look at that iron-clad assumption. The media need to start covering him with the scrutiny a potential nominee deserves, and show a little more modesty about our ability to predict elections.