Last night, Rachel Maddow was much intrigued by how Bernie Sanders has been high-balling his chances in today’s New York primary. The general rule, she said, is that politicians play the “expectations game” by low-balling their chances, so that when they do better than expected they seem to have done well. Meanwhile, the polls in New York all show Hillary Clinton with a good-sized lead over Sanders. So Rachel conjectured that maybe Bernie knows something that’s not visible in the polls. Must be, she said, because there’s no other strategic reason why he’d be talking so much about the possibility that he’d win in New York today.
I have another interpretation. I believe there IS a strategic reason that does not rest on Bernie’s having any more reason than the rest of us who read the polls to believe he’ll pull another Michigan-style upset out of the hat in this New York primary.
According to my interpretation, Bernie is figuring that if he does not do well in New York — meaning win, or come much closer than expected — his chances for prevailing over Hillary are effectively gone. Which is a reasonable way of figuring, I think.
If that’s the case, Bernie has nothing to lose by the usual calculus of the expectations game. If he talks up his chances for victory, and then loses by the expected margin, what difference does it make. Losing is losing, and this is where he must make his stand.
The second ingredient of the interpretation is this well-known political fact: the more your supporters see possibilities of good news — the more they feel like they might be making history when they vote — the more the enthusiasm and the greater the energy for pitching in for the historic success.
So Bernie’s talking up the possibilities of victory makes good strategic sense. With his enthusiasm-building rhetoric, he maximizes the mobilization of his supporters, and thus maximizes the chance that he will live to fight another day.
Postscript: Although I continue to believe that we need a political revolution of Bernie’s kind more than Hillary’s working incrementally in the system as now constituted, I have come to the unhappy point of not wishing for a Bernie victory tonight.
This contest between the two of them has become increasingly damaging to the essential tasks of this fall’s election: to keep the Republicans from gaining the White House, and to use this campaign to help the American electorate understand how foolish it is to give this Republican Party any power over our nation’s destiny. And the blame for the current damaging nature of the campaign now falls mainly on Bernie, who has been bashing the candidate the futures markets have been saying is almost a 9:1 favorite to be the Party’s nominee.
So if the contest is going to continue to be damaging — rather than being recast into a different kind of competition over who can best take on and take down today’s Republican Party — I want the contest over. And that means Bernie losing and the Party moving on to unite behind the nominee whose victory — whatever her shortcomings — is essential for the good of this nation.
(This perspective on how this contest should have been fought was lately presented in my piece, Bernie and Hillary, Give Us the Campaign We Need.”)