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  • Feldman Strategies

Sanders campaign wracked by dissension

By Holly Otterbein and Trent Spiner 9/17/18

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Some of Bernie Sanders’ fiercest supporters are sounding the alarm that the campaign is bogged down by disorganization, personality clashes and poor communication between state operations and national headquarters.

After a pair of setbacks this week — the acrimonious shakeup of his staff in New Hampshire on Sunday and loss of the Working Families Party's endorsement to Elizabeth Warren a day later — Sanders’ allies and former aides are worried that recent disappointments are not one-off stumbles but rather emblematic of larger problems in his bid for the White House. The concerns are particularly acute in New Hampshire.

“Seeing the campaign not be able to outshine Warren with WFP progressives doesn’t have me questioning WFP’s process,” said Rafael Shimunov, a former national creative director for WFP and 2016 Sanders volunteer. “It has me questioning where the Bernie campaign could have done better, because I want to make sure the strongest candidate unmasks Biden and unseats Trump.”

The worries come as the campaign enters a critical, more urgent phase. After Labor Day, more voters typically tune in to an election and begin to make up their minds. Expectations for Sanders are sky-high, especially in New Hampshire, where he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 22 percentage points.

But Warren has jumped in the national polls to tie Sanders for second place, and Joe Biden has proved harder to knock off his first-place perch than his rivals expected.

“In 2016, Bernie was the David who beat Goliath in New Hampshire — the expectations this time around are incomparable,” said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist with close ties to labor groups. “It would be a mistake to try to replicate the type of campaign that Sanders ran in New Hampshire in 2016 because the dynamics of this race are completely different. For Sanders to be successful, a professional operation is critical.”

Jeff Weaver, a top Sanders adviser, told POLITICO that numerous rank-and-file members in the WFP support Sanders and that his ground game in New Hampshire and other early states is strong. The Sanders campaign says it has 14 times as many identified voters in the Granite State than it had at this time in 2016 and it is doubling his field staff there from 26 to 50 employees. He said the campaign’s national and states staff are in daily contact, and that he has a regular “states call” in which he asks his aides across the country to be honest about the problems they’re seeing.

If some of Sanders’ allies in New Hampshire have jitters, Weaver said, it is because they are wrongly comparing the 2020 campaign with his first bid for the White House, when he took the lead in the state by August and vastly out-organized Clinton.

“Last time, our field program was so far superior that I think it may color people’s views,” Weaver said. Now, “some of our competitors do have good field programs — Elizabeth Warren is one of them.” He added, “Some people are trying to position themselves in quote-un-quote Bernie’s lane. But as the campaign goes on, people who want a bold, progressive vision for the country will come back to Bernie Sanders.”

Sanders has received good news in New Hampshire recently, including a Franklin Pierce University-Boston Herald poll last week that showed him in first place with 29 percent, Biden in second with 21 percent, and Warren in third with 17 percent. But that was quickly overtaken by bad press about the staff reorganization.

Sanders’ top brass told Joe Caiazzo, his New Hampshire state director, that he was being reassigned on Thursday. Around the same time, the Sanders team also parted ways with Kurt Ehrenberg, a well-respected liberal activist in the state. Though the campaign had days to prepare a media rollout of the staff changes, the news broke on Sunday shortly after Sanders’ aides told his state steering committee that Caiazzo would be shipped off to be Massachusetts state director.

By that point, members of the committee were going public with their concerns. POLITICO spoke with nearly a dozen current and former Sanders advisers and allies, some of whom declined to discuss internal dynamics on the record because of fear of retribution. Since Sunday, campaign staffers have been calling members of their steering committee, asking them not to speak to the media because stories about the internal shakeup were published, according to three people who received the calls.

Weaver said Caiazzo was reassigned to Warren’s home state because he has years of experience there, including as Sanders’ political director in 2016, and the campaign is “not conceding Massachusetts to anyone.” He said Caiazzo had done a “great job” building the team in New Hampshire and that the shift was part of a series of changes aimed at growing the campaign’s operations in Super Tuesday states. Sanders' team said it also recently hired senior staff in Oklahoma, Colorado and Minnesota.

“It’s another example of the campaign bungling things,” said a person with knowledge of the situation. Instead of talking about “making aggressive moves here and building out Super Tuesday states … they’re answering bad press about why they’re moving their New Hampshire state director.”

Sanders’ allies have raised several concerns about New Hampshire in recent weeks. Caiazzo warned about the staff’s productivity in the state, a source said. A former Sanders adviser said the campaign is “both physically and mentally based in Washington, D.C.,” and therefore too disconnected from on-the-ground state operations. Members of Sanders’ steering committee in New Hampshire said they worry Warren and others have a better ground game.

Caiazzo and Ehrenberg had also clashed: “There was some personality rubs, frankly,” Weaver acknowledged.

At the same time, some Sanders supporters are distressed that he didn’t win WFP’s endorsement. The loss especially stung because they believe he has the most progressive labor plan of any presidential candidate in history: His proposal calls for European-style collective bargaining across industries. Sanders has also stepped up his efforts to win more institutional support than in 2016, and his national political director, Analilia Mejia, previously was executive director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance.

Many Sanders’ supporters blame WFP’s leaders for making the wrong choice and knock them for not releasing their individual vote tally of online members. But some, like Shimunov, said they didn’t question it and noted the campaign had agreed to abide by the rules ahead of time.

Sanders’ team declined to share details about what it did to try to secure the endorsement.

Some of Sanders’ allies said his challenges are deeper than any staff or communication issues. Warren, like Sanders, is a left-wing populist — and though the two candidates had fairly different bases a few months ago, there are signs that’s starting to change.

For instance, Biden and Warren are now virtually tied for the second choice of Sanders’ supporters, according to Morning Consult’s latest poll; likewise, Sanders and Biden are tied for Warren fans’ No. 2 pick.

At the same time, Biden’s candidacy has been more durable than many Sanders’ allies expected. Unlike Clinton’s in 2016, Biden’s campaign has proved more nimble in reading the primary electorate and has at times adopted more liberal proposals in response, they said.

Biden’s team also has borrowed some of Sanders’ movement-building message, with the former vice president saying recently that he would rally voters in Kentucky to bring Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to heel.

“I don’t think Bernie’s doing poorly, but not as well as some people would like,” a Sanders ally said of his campaign in New Hampshire. “Sometimes personnel changes aren’t to do with personnel having failed. ... But if the change energizes people, whether or not it was actually necessary, that’s probably a good thing.”

Even some of Sanders’ rivals said it would be unwise to discount him. Despite the concerns about his ground game in New Hampshire, his volunteer army remains formidable: A Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll released in August found that 35 percent of Democratic primary voters in the state who had heard directly from a campaign had been contacted by Sanders’ team, more than any other candidate.

"I think he will do well here, frankly, but I'm a bit of a contrarian on that. Everyone seems to be in a big rush to write him off,” said a top New Hampshire Democrat and veteran of many presidential primaries in the state. “John McCain and John Kerry were both deemed 'dead men walking' at this stage, too, and came back to win the New Hampshire primary.”


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