What Bernie Sanders' Caucus Wins Are Telling Us About His Political Revolution

So a funny thing happened to Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, amid another couple of state contests. Namely, she managed to win a primary by 19 points — a stout margin of victory by any measure — and claimed a whopping zero delegates in the process. Wait, what? Yes, it's true. Hillary Clinton won the non-binding Nebraska Democratic primary, and in doing so suggested a lot about Bernie Sanders' strong showings in caucus states.

In case you're not so aware of the schedule in the Democratic primary, Nebraska Democrats already awarded their pledged delegates all the way back in March, and they didn't do it through a primary. Rather, they held caucuses, and under that system Sanders cleaned up, winning the state by 15 points and taking 14 out of the 24 delegates up for grabs. But on Tuesday, in what was effectively a just-for-fun primary in the state, Clinton won handily, by virtually the same margin that Sanders defeated her with months earlier.

Obviously, that's an enormous swing, and it perhaps provides a reminder of just how dependent Sanders' insurgent candidacy has been on caucuses. Slightly more than half of his victories so far ― 11 out of 20 ― came in states that held caucuses rather than primaries, and that has big implications for voter engagement and turnout. That's part of why some Sanders supporters bristle at mention of him trailing Clinton by millions of popular votes. The caucuses he's won invariably boast far fewer total voters than primaries do.

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The question now raised by the Nebraska's non-binding primary, however, is this: If every state in the union held primaries instead of caucuses, would Sanders be doing far worse than he is now? And if that's true, isn't that a problem for someone who's always touting the need for higher voter turnout?

It's not a rosy picture for Sanders as it stands now, as he's still trailing Clinton by 286 pledged delegates and has perilously few opportunities to make up any ground. But beyond that, there's been a noticeable contradiction between the rhetoric of the Sanders camp and its reality. Basically, Sanders loves to talk up the need for a mass progressive movement, and has suggested that he'd enact his agenda thanks to millions of Americans rising up in support of his ideas.

But this startling example in Nebraska suggests that it may really only have ever been through the caucuses ― which have much lower turnout, by virtue of how time-consuming and inconvenient they are, and are less democratic, in that they force people to lobby for their candidates publicly rather than vote by secret ballot ― that he's been as competitive as he has.

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Sanders, for his part, was challenged by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow last week about his reliance on caucuses "that exclude, in effect, a lot of people." Here's how he replied, per MSNBC's transcript:

The answer is yes and no. Everything you've said is true, but there's another side to that. I happen to believe that we have to really reinvigorate American democracy, not only getting a much larger voter turnouts than we have in the past. The last general election, as you remember, midterm election, 63 percent of the people didn't vote. This is unacceptable. So we need to figure out ways to bring people into the process. We also have to figure out a way to engage people in a very deep sense in American democracy.

And what caucuses do do – you`re right, it does take time to come to a caucus and to argue with your neighbor about which candidate is the better candidate. But you know what? I kind of like that. You know, I understand there are negatives to it. But I do like the idea of the American people becoming more engaged in the political process. Yes, you`re spending a – a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. But this is – you are helping to determine the future of America.

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It's perfectly fair for Sanders to stick up for the caucus system if that's how he feels, of course. But his answer has a huge contradiction sitting right on the surface. Namely, he goes straight from proclaiming the importance of increased voter turnout and bringing more people into the political process to claiming that caucuses serve those goals. In reality, caucuses do the exact opposite. Whether because the time commitment is too steep or the inherent conflict of having to spar with another candidate's supporters is too intimidating, caucuses privilege candidates with the most impassioned and vocal supporters, at the direct cost of turnout.

Frankly, if the roles were reversed ― if Clinton were only lingering in the race because of her success in caucuses, and she defended them as having the exact opposite effect that they actually do ― it's pretty easy to imagine her being excoriated by Sanders supporters for it. Obviously, in the heat of a campaign (at this point, an almost assuredly losing campaign, it must be said), some internal inconsistencies are going to happen, because it simply sucks so much to be on the losing end of an election.

But after Nebraska, it's worth considering whether any other states might have gone differently under a simple statewide vote, and reckoning honestly with what that says about the Sanders "political revolution."