There's a moment in every losing campaign when their supporters go a little crazy. This well-documented phenomenon is something I call campaign psychosis. Campaign psychosis is when supporters and candidates are so emotionally wedded to the cause that no amount of factual evidence can penetrate the bubble of happy talk. We are not really losing! We are just about to turn the corner! It reminds me of the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who continues to fight even after his arms and legs have been hacked off, and he's reduced to a torso in armor still spoiling for a fight. Campaign psychosis is highly contagious, especially when spread now on social media. It can hit any party, any campaign, any time. And it is now seems to be on full display in the campaign of Bernie Sanders. I do not blame the Sanders campaign for this. It is part of the natural life cycle of campaigns. It is human nature. But it can also be dangerous.
Campaign psychosis has the following symptoms; grasping at straws, wishful thinking, and in its final stages, outright hypocrisy that everyone outside the campaign can hear clear as a bell.
One of the first features of campaign psychosis is the traditional grasping at straws. Arguments were made in a widely-covered campaign phone briefing to journalists on the morning of March 28th with Sanders campaign manager Tad Devine, that, hey, don't look at those states we lost on Super Tuesday. Those defeats are meaningless! Because Bernie didn't compete there! No, we just conceded all those states to Clinton, because they were in the South. But now that we're not in the South, we are actually going to compete, and that changes everything! This argument was demolished that same evening, by one of the most Bernie-friendly of cable journalists, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. She had evidence on her side, and quotes, and... evidence. She gently encouraged the Sanders team to walk back their statements because their arguments didn't hold water.
How about a non-Southern state where Bernie competed like hell and lost big, Arizona? There have been social media firestorms of Sanders supporters tweeting and Facebooking to beat the band about how the nefarious Clinton campaign rigged it so there'd be fewer polling places in Maricopa County, just so she would win the primary by suppressing the... Hispanic vote? Well, the Sander's supporters don't go there, because it would wreck their argument, but evidence does get in the way here again. The polling places with the longest lines were in Hispanic areas in Maricopa County. She is still winning the Hispanic vote, by a mile. If Hillary's folks wanted to suppress the vote in her favor, they would have tried to rig things in Tucson, where the University of Arizona has forty thousand students, and where Bernie's rallies were filled to bursting with enthusiastic Sandernistas. Tucson is the blue dot in the red state, a city run by Democrats, with a very liberal vibe. And we had no trouble voting. I know. I live here!
And, of course, the Clinton campaign had nothing to do with any of these decisions. As many have tried to point out, the plans to drastically cut the number of polling places were carried out by Republican officials. And the vote they were likely suppressing was at least partially going to go to Clinton. But to campaign people and supporters in the midst of full throated campaign psychosis, facts don't seem to matter.
More grasping at straws: any victory, no matter how inconsequential, is pointed to as if it is the turning point, the new momentum. Don't look at the race as a whole. Instead, look at what just happened this last weekend! Don't look at the many large and diverse states where Bernie lost, and lost big; look at these shiny new states where Bernie won with 80% of the vote! I know, here's what we can say: those crazy Red States shouldn't count! Or they shouldn't count as much! Because Democrats don't win in Alabama, let's pay no attention to the results there. Or even the entire South! Unless Bernie wins in a Red State, like Alaska. Then hurrah for those votes! Because he just won Alaska with 80% of the vote! That has to mean much more than Hillary winning a state with ten times the population in a primary where millions of votes were cast! Because! Because it happened!
And a bird landed right in front of Bernie! In Washington State! And it was the state bird of Washington! And that's a mystical sign of something! Really? Is that all you've got? The bird?
If you're not convinced by the bird, look at those head-to-head polls in March that show Bernie beating Trump. Look! They show Bernie beating Trump even more than Hillary! By at least a few points! Bernie is smart, and his advisors are smart, too. The parts of their brains that are still functioning normally understand that these polls are nonsense. Political scientists of all stripes agree that these polls are virtually meaningless. It is too far away from the general election. Polls taken this far out are never predictive. Sanders supporters might wish that these polls were real evidence, but they are not.
Here are some further examples of grasping at straws. For many months the Sanders campaign predicted that Bernie was going to win a majority of voters in minority communities. They got a former head of the NAACP to endorse Bernie! And look over there, it's Killer Mike, the Rapper! And Spike Lee! Surely this is going to bring African-American voters to their senses! And still, millions of black and brown folks have turned out for Hillary, time after time. But that was just in the South, right? As soon as the contests turn North... but the moment of enlightenment never came. Even in Michigan, where Sanders had a surprise win, he lost the African American vote, which went to Hillary by a 70-30 split.
The end stage of campaign psychosis is acceptance. But before that happens, comes hypocrisy. For a textbook example of hypocrisy, look at the Sanders campaign's changing stance on superdelegates. Only last month the Sanders campaign was screaming about the unfairness of it all. The superdelegates should be abolished! They taint the system with their undemocratic estalishment-ness! Off with their heads! This was supposedly based on a principled stance in favor of democracy and against oligarchy. Only now, the Sanders campaign is officially floating the laughable notion that superdelegates who have openly pledged themselves to Clinton will magically move towards Bernie, because Bernie has momentum! So hurrah for the superdelegates! They will save the party from being influenced by all those millions of votes cast for Hillary in primary states, because Bernie can win in low-turnout caucus states, which really convinces those smart superdelegates to change their minds!
Bernie's appeal to young people is supposed to be based on truth-telling. Bernie is supposed to be more trustworthy than Clinton, because Bernie's a straight shooter. But candidates are also susceptible to campaign psychosis, and so now Bernie is spouting a bunch of contradictory arguments based on nothing more solid than what used to be called wishful thinking, or grasping at straws. This is beneath his dignity. He can rise above it.
Soon the Sanders campaign will have to come out of their campaign psychosis. They will face the choice of either unifying the party and making Bernie a hero, or continuing to split the party, and risking a Republican victory, losing the Supreme Court for a generation. This is their choice to make. I hope they choose wisely.