Why the Bernie Sanders Wave Won’t Help Utah’s Democrats

Bernie SandersLet’s start with the painfully obvious. Bernie Sanders supporters got absolutely creamed at the Salt Lake County Democratic Convention on Saturday.

 
Only one of the candidates on the progressive slate made it out of the convention. The others lost…badly.
 
We can spend all day trying to figure out why these progressive candidates lost. Some will blame the Byzantine caucus/convention system. Others will way that the establishment worked to protect their own. 
 
But, the bigger issue for Utah Democrats is what this means going forward. Can the party find a way to keep these new activists involved going forward?
 
That’s going to be very hard.
 
First of all, Sanders supporters learned that just posting “Feel the Bern” on social media is not enough to win elections in Utah. The existing party apparatus is not welcoming to those who don’t know how to operate within the rules. 
 
Secondly, given the current trajectory of the race, it’s likely Sanders will not win the Democratic nomination for president. If that happens, will his supporters remain engaged in the process? 
 
That’s not for certain.
 
Many of the Sanders supporters are interested in one thing and one thing only – Bernie Sanders. They have no appetite for the down-ballot races or other candidates or even the internal workings of the Democratic party.
 
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the “Bernie or bust” push on social media. A big chunk of his supporters vow they will not participate in the 2016 election is Bernie is not on the ballot. I’m not sure if this constitutes a majority of the Bernie group, but there are many who are taking an absolutist stance when it comes to the Democratic nomination.
 
Further proof about how they engage with those who differ from them politically is how they are handling those Democratic superdelegates who are backing Hillary Clinton. Look at this posting that’s making the rounds on Facebook about Rep. Patrice Arent. It purposely uses an unflattering picture of Arent to make a point. 
 
20160411 Arent Superdelegate
 
If this were the public school system, this sort of personal attack could be classified as bullying. Does that sound to you like a group of people who want to help build a party?
 
Beyond the 2016 election, what is there to keep them engaged? 2017 could be massively important for Utah Democrats because they will be picking a new party boss. Current chair Peter Corroon has said he will not be seeking another term. That means Democrats will have to find someone willing to do the nuts and bolts of running a party – raising money and recruiting candidates. That’s hard and boring work. Certainly not something to engage those Sanders supporters.
 
Will they stick around for the 2018 midterms? There won’t be anyone even remotely like Bernie Sanders on the national scene to electrify this group of voters. 
 
Then comes 2019, which will see a mayoral election in Salt Lake City. Maybe they’ll try to find someone to run against current Mayor Jackie Biskupski because she endorsed Hillary Clinton, but that seems very unlikely.
 
2020 will be a hugely consequential election for Utah Democrats because of redistricting. With the recent news that the population center of the state is moving southward toward Utah County. That means if current trends hold, Salt Lake County will likely lose another legislative seat, and that seat will probably be a Democratic one. If they can’t start making gains now, the 2020 reapportionment could be bleak indeed.
 
There’s another problem for Democrats. They can’t spend too much energy trying to court these Bernie Sanders supporters because Utah is not friendly territory to progressives. The reality is Ted Cruz got twice as many votes as Sanders on caucus night. 
 
Progressives don’t like to admit this, but the only way Democrats can win big offices in Utah is to make Republicans comfortable casting a ballot for them. That’s why Jim Matheson kept winning year after year. That’s why Ben McAdams can win in Republican-heavy Salt Lake County. That’s why Doug Owens has a legitimate shot at beating Rep. Mia Love this year.
 
To have a winning equation at the ballot box, a Democratic candidate needs to win a majority of independent voters and a sizeable chunk of Republicans. I think it’s pretty safe to say a progressive candidate cannot pull that off.
 
Utah’s Democrats cannot embrace the progressive agenda too enthusiastically, lest it is used against them as a pejorative. If Utah’s Democrats move too far to the left, it will be easy to paint them as out of touch with the rest of the state, further marginalizing them.