The time for picking a side is running out. A lot of erstwhile fence-sitters announced their endorsements in the last week before the Iowa Caucus, and most are lining up behind one of the two frontrunners: former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
The two candidates—an establishment centrist and a left insurgent—represent divergent visions. A closer look at the make-up of respective coalitions can reveal a lot about them, their ideologies, their chances of winning, and who stands to gain or lose by putting them in office.
Politicians and officials
Biden’s endorsements show he has the imprimatur of the Democratic Party establishment, with a breathtaking number of elected officials at every level as well as various members of the Obama administration. Thus far, Biden has racked up nods from 20 Senators (five current, 15 former) as well as more than 40 House representatives and 400 state legislators.
A wide range of current and former higher-ups in the executive branch have voiced their support for Biden, such as former Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano. He also has particularly strong backing from the liberal foreign policy establishment, including a number of ambassadors and several former officials in the departments of state and defense.
Biden easily has Sanders’ beat in terms of sheer quantity. However, Biden’s backers represent the party’s old guard, but Sanders has the support of some rising stars.
While Biden is endorsed by some big names who were a major force in liberal politics five to 10 years ago, Sanders has Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who comprise a group of popular women of color in Congress nicknamed “The Squad.”
Biden having the blessing of someone like former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle might signify something to political junkies and party loyalists, but he hasn’t been in the limelight for almost a decade. The Squad are political celebrities who represent the progressive future of the American left.
At the same time, Biden’s depth at the state level is formidable. The various state legislators, governors and mayors supporting him don’t have near the national clout that someone like AOC has, but they’re well known to their constituents and plugged into the party machine in several important states.
Organizations and activists
Sanders compensates for his deficit in politicians and officials by having a broad portfolio of endorsements from grassroots organizations that collectively represent more than a million members. His last bid laid the groundwork for his current one with the creation of groups like Our Revolution and The People for Bernie Sanders.
Large activist organizations like the Center for Popular Democracy, the successor to ACORN, and People’s Action have thrown their weight behind Bernie. The Democratic Socialists of America and the Progressive Democrats of America, representing around members 140,000 combined, operate in most states, with heavy concentrations in dense population centers in the coasts as well as American core.
In addition, Sanders is endorsed by national and regional groups organizing around a single issue, such as immigration (Make the Road, CASA), criminal justice reform (Dream Defenders), the environment (Sunrise Movement) and LGBTQ rights (Stonewall Democrats).
The expertise and organizational infrastructure that these established groups offer have been instrumental in driving the massive turnout to Sanders’ events and carrying out the day-to-day work of canvassing, phone banking and social media signal-boosting.
By contrast, Biden only has one organization’s endorsement: The Asian American Pacific Islander Victory Fund. The AAPI Victory Fund is a small Super PAC. No membership numbers are available, but its Facebook page has 3,600 followers. By comparison, the “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash” page has nearly 390,000.
When it comes to union support, the two candidates are about even. Sanders has more mid-sized and regional unions, but Biden has some bigger national unions with memberships over 100,000. Currently, the unions backing Biden represent more than 700,000 members combined, whereas the membership of Sanders-endorsing unions totals around 600,000.
The balance was in Bernie’s favor by the same margin until the last-minute switch of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents 200,000 bus drivers and transit workers. ATU announced it was going with Biden as a result of a poll they commissioned that ostensibly showed he had a better chance at beating Trump.
There are echoes of the Working Families Party’s less-than-transparent endorsement of Elizabeth Warren here. The union leaders declined to reveal the results of the poll or the internal survey of their membership. This reticence could signify a split among union members or a divide between the rank-and-file and the leadership.
Biden’s union endorsements are primarily public sector employees—government workers, firefighters, transit workers—whereas Sanders’ support is more varied. In addition to public sector unions like postal workers and teachers, Sanders has the backing of several locals and regional unions representing:
- Service workers (UNITE HERE Local 11, 13; SEIU Local 1984)
- Drivers (Teamsters PA Federation BMWE, Boston Independent Drivers Guild)
- Food and retail workers (UFCW Locals 230, 21)
- Electrical workers (United Electrical, IBEW Local 1634)
- Roofers (UURWAW Local 36)
- Communications workers (CWA Local 9119)
Sanders’ union support represents two key aspects of his constituency: education and health care workers. By far, his largest national endorsement has been National Nurses United, which has more than 150,000 members.
Also, when gauging the relative union support of Biden and Sanders, one has to factor in the potential for a divide between the leadership and members, which will determine what that endorsement means in practice, i.e. is it merely on paper or will the unions turn out their members en masse?
You could have a situation where a union announces for Biden, but its rank-and-file members still put their energy behind Sanders. The data from ActBlue on small donors bears this out.
Teachers unions are endorsing Sanders and teachers are contributing to his campaign, so their endorsement is quite a bit more meaningful. Sanders also leads by a wide margin among every single blue collar trade traditionally represented by organized labor. So even if a union pledges its support for Biden based on whatever opaque process they come up with, their members almost certainly favor Sanders.
Given Sanders’ anti-Wall Street populism and Biden’s close ties to the financial industry built throughout his career as a Delaware politician, it should come as no surprise that Biden has the most tycoons in his camp. Many of his backers come from the entertainment industry, including executives from Paramount, Dreamworks, Disney and Sony Pictures. This group has been a boon to his lackluster fundraising efforts. At a single event last spring they raised more than $700,000.
He also has the support of CEOs of large enterprises with a vested interest in policy areas that are central to the current election, such as health care (Independence Blue Cross), finance (Centerbridge Partners, Blackstone Group) and telecommunications (Comcast).
Aside from the endorsement of both Ben and Jerry as well as a handful of others, Sanders has few captains of industry in his corner, but that’s true to his brand. In the long run, he’s probably better off, since support of the super-wealthy has become a liability in recent elections—thanks in no small part to Sanders’ own messaging on the issue.
On top of the CEOs endorsing Biden, 44 billionaires to date have endorsed checks to him, which could feed into a long-standing narrative that he is for sale. Once dubbed the “Senator for MBNA,” Biden is known for his cozy ties to the credit card industry, which he’ll have to answer for from now until November if he’s the nominee.
Celebrities, artists and other notables
Where Biden has the upper hand when it comes to D.C. insiders and middling state officials, Sanders has the support of more A-list celebrities, and on the balance, the latter is arguably more important in an era of politics as entertainment.
Biden’s endorsements read as tokens of his status as the party establishment’s chosen, whereas Sanders’ signify broad mass appeal and cultural relevance. Biden has fewer than 10 celebrity endorsements. The biggest names are Tom Hanks, Vivica Fox, George R.R. Martin, and Rob Reiner.
Sanders’ incomplete list features:
- Actors: Mark Ruffalo, John Cusack, Danny DeVito, David Bautista, Milla Jovovich, Tim Robbins, Jack Nicholson, Chloe Sevigny, Danny Glover
- Comedians: David Cross, Eric Andre, Tim Heidecker, Sarah Silverman
- Filmmakers: Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Moore
- Musicians: Cardi B, Jack White, Bon Iver, Ariana Grande, Killer Mike, Norah Jones, Jason Mraz, T.I., Miley Cyrus
- Athletes: Michael Bennett, Justin Jackson, Kevin Lee
Entertainers make up only a fraction of the notable figures supporting Sanders. A huge portion of Sanders’ coalition comprises academics, journalists and activists, including such luminaries as Noam Chomsky, Cornel West and Naomi Klein.
The central thesis of Sanders’ political revolution is expanding the electorate by mobilizing traditionally non-participating sectors of eligible voters, the most important of which is youth. With the help of celebrities, Sanders can not only better utilize alternative means to get his message out, such as social media, but also give his campaign events an exciting, festival-like quality—a sort of Berniepalooza or Berning Man if you will.
A new kind of politics
To state the obvious: endorsements are useful only insofar as they contribute to success at the polls. The respective coalitions behind Biden and Sanders represent two distinctly different styles of politics: the institutional versus the insurgent. Only time will tell which will win out in the end, but Sanders’ lead in the latest Iowa polling suggests his people-driven strategy is showing results.
In spite of Biden’s significant advantage in endorsements from Iowa mayors, party and state legislators, the Sanders campaign has been making gains at his expense.
Biden’s local political support within the state hasn’t translated into turnout at any of his events.
His speeches in high school gyms have been lackluster, with attendance ranging from 300 to 500.
Sanders filled a stadium with 3,000 people for a star-studded concert, rally and party. Sanders’ ground game is also particularly strong, with large groups of activists being bused in from out of state to knock on doors and phone-bank.
The kind of endorsements Biden has gotten—the big money donors and bundlers— have failed to deliver on another important front: Fundraising. In this regard, Sanders’ mass-based grassroots strategy has also proven successful. In the last quarter of 2019, Sanders out-fundraised Biden by close to $12 million and spent half of his $100 million war chest.
So while Sanders’ celebrity surrogates give him free publicity through their massive followings on social media, he’s also able to hit Biden’s older TV-watching base with massive ad buys attacking Biden on Social Security.
Biden currently has an edge in southern states where he has a plethora of endorsements among local politicians and sits on top of most polls. However, an early route in Iowa and New Hampshire—which is looking increasingly likely—could give the momentum to Sanders and kick off a domino effect. His lead in South Carolina has already shrunk to five points, and there are growing signs of ambivalence among black voters.
Lastly, Biden and Sanders’ endorsements say a lot about their viability in the general. Biden’s current support represents the Democratic establishment. If he’s nominated, then very little changes. He’ll have the same basic forces backing him up.
Sanders has dedicated himself to building a movement outside of the mainstream. The truth is that if he’s not nominated, that massive grassroots movement will go to waste. Its energy will dissipate. Some will “vote blue no matter who” but many more will be disillusioned with the whole process.
If he wins, he’ll bring a huge, well-functioning political organization, complete with its own donor lists, activists and other infrastructure. In effect, Bernie in the general will have two whole political machines behind him instead of one.