A Response to Robert Reich

A Response to Robert Reich (And Others)


Movement, Momentum, and Mathematics.


Professor Reich,

You posted today about momentum. I’ll include the whole post, because it is not that long and because I do like you overall and you deserve those coveted Dishonor On Your Cow readers (all 11 of them).

Regardless of how well Bernie does today, the media will say Hillary is now the Democratic candidate. Baloney. The “momentum” theory of politics is based on momentum stories the media itself generates. Don’t succumb to the “momentum” game. Regardless of what happens today, this race is still very much alive, for at least 3 reasons:

1, In the next few months the primary map starts tilting in Bernie’s favor: In later March: Maine, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Arizona, Washington state, and Hawaii. In April: Wisconsin, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island. In May: Indiana and Oregon. In June, California, New Jersey, and New Mexico.

2, Small-donor contributions continue to flow in to Bernie’s campaign. In February, the campaign raised a whopping $42 million. South Carolina’s loss didn’t stop the flow: The campaign received $6 million on Monday alone.

3, Bernie’s campaign is a movement. Americans know we must get big money out of politics and take back our economy from an incipient oligarchy. That’s why Bernie will take this movement all the way to the Democratic convention in, July 25-28 in Philadelphia (you might make plans to be there, too).

I would like to take a moment to respond. First, people should probably not make plans to be in Philadelphia in late July. Both because I hear it is hot, and because tickets to the actual convention will be ghastly difficult to get. I lucked in to tickets to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, which consisted of about four hours of waiting in line followed by six hours of speeches that ranged from kind of cool to mind numbingly dull. Lots of people who wanted tickets didn’t get them, because they are something of a resource. So unless you were already planning on sojourning to the City of Brotherly Love, you might not make plans on the chance you’ll get in to the convention.

But let’s move on to the substantive side. You claim that the momentum theory of politics is baloney, fueled only by the media. I’d like to disagree in part. It is true that the idea of momentum likely did not become quite so important in our culture until we were able to track elections more up-to-the-minute, I will grant you. But in most elections there is certainly a traceable upswing in activity and donations as a result of a particularly strong electoral victory. This uptick, including media coverage, is what we call momentum. See, for example, the fundraising efforts that kicked in to gear in 2008 for then candidate Obama: He outraised Hilary Clinton in the 36 hours following Super Tuesday 2008, raising the same $7.5 million Clinton had raised in the whole month. Is that not attributable, perhaps, to momentum? http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/08/us/politics/08clinton.html?_r=0).

Now Sanders can certainly point to his fundraising coup after his loss in South Carolina, and there is no denying the amazing grassroots efforts Senator Sanders has created. But let me ask you this: If people were donating to Sanders because of his loss in South Carolina, is that not a reflection of the fact that his supporters felt there was something to make up for? That feeling, like they needed to dig in and give more, is because there is a sense after a drubbing defeat that something has been lost—an opportunity, a moment to shine, a piece of a lead or a sign of gaining.

Momentum, in other words.

And here is the biggest part of that momentum: Some holes you just can’t climb out of. The Democratic primary system is all proportional, unlike the GOP side where there are some winner take all states. That means that for every walloping you take, you have to be able to give one in return or you are in a deficit. The more big losses, states where things are more than 5 or 10 percent different, and the more ground you have to make up in return.

Clinton has been absolutely destroying Sanders in some key states tonight, and there is nothing that Sanders can expect to put on the board to really match. Sanders landslides to date have been in New Hampshire (21 delegates, 15 Sanders and 6 Clinton) and Vermont (10 delegates, all to Sanders). Meanwhile Clinton won South Carolina by 47.5%, and earned more delegates than either of those two states have (39 for Clinton, 14 for Sanders). And as of the time of this writing she is winning Texas by 37.3% and looking to take about 140 delegates (to Sanders’ roughly 70), has won Virginia by 29.9% and took probably 62 delegates (to Sanders predicted 33), Georgia by 44% and earning 73 delegates (to Sanders’ 29), Tennessee by 29% for 42 delegates (to 25), and with close to 60% of the votes in is winning Massachusetts (a Sanders almost must win, 47 delegates for her to 44 for him) by 4%. On the other side Sanders is going to win Oklahoma by 10% and 22 delegates (to Clinton’s 16) and possibly Colorado by under 10% and 34 delegates (to Clinton’s 32).

In those big ticket states, then, Sanders is down big. Even including Vermont and New Hampshire, he is down 454 to 296 delegates. 158 delegates, not including the fact that Clinton also earned substantially more delegates in Alabama and Arkansas (Minnesota is, at the time of this writing, still very much up in the air, but if Sanders does crush it that would help—but even if he won 50 delegates to 27, that would only wipe out her win in Alabama). For comparison, Florida has 214 non-Super Delegates.

Is it insurmountable? No, of course not—but it is a growing hole that he will have to dig himself out of. In order to do so he cannot simply win states 52-48, or else he won’t get there—both because the gains will be too small, and because there is no reason to believe this will be the last evening Clinton wins any primaries on.

That widening hole, the one that makes it harder and harder to get out of it the longer Sanders goes without big wins? That slow gap opening between him and Clinton if he gets nothing but small wins or ties?

That’s momentum.

So in order to begin making up the difference Sanders needs not just wins but big wins. That brings us to the last part of your exhortation to Sanders supporters: To keep their chins up and their hearts in it, because the field is tilting their way soon. That would require two things, of course: First that it actually is going to tilt Sanders’ way, and second that it will be in meaningful enough numbers to make the difference. Are they true?

To look at that, let’s turn to witchcraft. It is well known fact on the internet that Nate Silver is a witch. It is also well known that the founder of www.fivethirtyeight.com has a remarkable track record on predicting elections, including 49/50 states predicted correctly in 2008. Let us therefore turn to Mr. Silver’s website to look at those states which you have said will turn for Sanders (note, they make no predictions for caucuses):

Michigan: 98% chance of Clinton victory. 130 delegates available.

Florida: Greater than 99% chance of Clinton victory. 214 delegates available.

Ohio: 94% chance of Clinton victory. 143 delegates available.

Illinois: Greater than 99% chance of Clinton victory. 156 delegates available.

Further out than that they don’t make predictions, because they are based on statistics rather than feelings. But those represent 643 delegates within the next two weeks. In two weeks, even if Clinton only wins those states by 1%, the world looks much dimmer for a Sanders candidacy. If he cannot pull out a fairly convincing win in one of those major states, which even supporters and endorsers are calling “more favorable to him”, it will look very close to impossible for him to make it to being the nominee. Even when he does win convincingly in, say, Washington and Wisconsin, the board may look good for him but it doesn’t look quite that good. Especially if Florida votes as the rest of the South has, and Clinton wins convincingly.

A last opportunity to gain ground, with prospects ahead difficult and roads to the nomination diminishing. That is a long and circuitous way of saying:


And that brings us to the last section, about Bernie being a movement. As if a movement has never lost in American history, or as if being a movement automatically makes it a morally superior enterprise. And as if there is only one side that can claim to be a movement.

Whenever Senator Sanders has picked up a big endorsement from a union, it has been touted as working class people choosing to back the movement. Why then is it not a movement when the Operating Engineers Union, the Plumbers/Pipefitters Union, the Carpenters and Joiners Union, and the American Federation of Teachers choose to back Hillary Clinton—and are among her top donors? Why is voting for the Senator an act of principled protest, whereas people who genuinely want thato support Secretary Clinton are accused of doing so only because they are blind, militaristic, or simply haven’t really seen what Senator Sanders stands for?

Why is it that there can be a movement, which will swell and break in to the convention in Philladelphia, but not such a thing as momentum? Why is it that whatever setbacks Sanders suffers are only temporary, while any victories he has are signs of impending doom for the establishment? And on the other side, why is it that any defeats Clinton suffer are the crippling blows to the establishment, and any victories she had must be baffling, must have been bought, or must be belittled?

In the end tonight, millions of people voted. In Georgia, 300,000 more voted for Secretary Clinton. In Virginia, 225,000. Texas, 270,000. In Alabama the difference was 175,000. 113,000 in Tennessee. Why are those votes meaningless? Why is 1.08 million more votes for Clinton than Sanders not a movement, not momentum?

I don’t have a better place to end it than that, Professor Reich. You are a man I do greatly respect, and those are the words I wanted to say, to you and the Sanders supporters looking to the future. It isn’t over, and anyone who said so would be crazy. The Sanders campaign is powerful, and even if it does not put a man in the White House it has brought the party to the left of where it was and put certain important issues at the forefront. But it is not a failure of democracy or an indication of corruption if your candidate loses a well-run campaign for an evening or even overall; it is not a breakdown when over one million of your fellow citizens vote differently than you would like.

I don’t think the future looks so good for the Sanders campaign, and I don’t think the math is on his side. But I want the people like you, who believe passionately in him, to prove me wrong. Because despite the length of this response and my other comments (which you can find on this very website), I am genuinely undecided. I like a lot of what Senator Sanders says—just not what I see as a desire to put feeling above fact, and a desperate need to explain away anything that looks negative to the movement. I want the party to do well, and I want the best candidate to win. But I can’t do so in denial of what the world seems to me to be, and what the numbers seem to say. I can’t do it in a way that emphasizes movement while denying momentum, and I don’t believe it is in the interest of any kind of progressive to do so.


Matthew Parker

One thought on “A Response to Robert Reich”

  1. I’d be interested if any of your thoughts above have evolved in light of the upset in Michigan earlier this week.

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