Up until this week, I thought the 2008 Obama campaign was the best-run Democratic campaign of all time. I’m taking that off the board. Bernie Sanders has the best-run Democratic campaign of all time. It likely won’t lead to him being president, but it’s worth watching a master at work.
Part of the reason is the sheer number of supporters Sanders has developed over two elections. If you simply want the most votes or contributors or dollars, Bernie’s your dude. Now, you might want the most votes in specific areas or the most contributors of a certain demographic or the most contributions of a certain size, and then maybe someone else is who you want. But in raw numbers, Sanders leads every general metric. Better than anyone, Bernie can mobilize an army.
You might not like certain members of that army. Maybe you don’t like fans of Joe Rogan or residents of Twitter. Maybe you think Sanders supporters talk down to (or even sabotage) other candidates, such as the recent #MayorCheat pile-on. Maybe you just don’t like the Russian bots that pretend to be Sanders supporters. I feel all those things, and its why Sanders isn’t my candidate. Bernie I like fine; his friends not as much.
Still, it’s hard to argue with volume. The Democratic Party likes to think of itself as the big tent, but the Sanders campaign is the bigger tent. They have many non-Democrats backing their campaign, and it’s hard to point to anyone else who has that. Sanders also leads all other candidates in supporter enthusiasm, meaning they are more likely to help him win than other candidates’ supporters. (I swear to Heaven, I was writing this and a Vermont number lit up my Caller ID. Sure enough, a Bernie call.)
But sheer numbers don’t make a campaign. You also need to be smart. While the Sanders campaign has leaders and supporters who blurt out the dumbest things, its internal operations are brilliant. Let me show you how.
In game design, we adjust for a special kind of player called a rules lawyer. A rules lawyer is a player who knows the rules of the game cold, and is willing to share that knowledge at any time, regardless of whether it benefits anyone. This can be quite useful, especially when others don’t know the rules. But when they do, it can cause unlikable outcomes. It can mean they observe the letter of the rules but not the spirit. For example, in the game Dungeons & Dragons, the Dungeon Master is the person tasked with setting the game in motion and describing the events that occur. If the rules lawyer keeps interrupting the DM, they may get frustrated and impose penalties.
This week showed just how rules lawyery the Sanders campaign is. They know the Iowa caucuses are an assortment of insane and arcane features. For example, sometimes delegates just get added out of nowhere. Coin flips to decide ties are done by partisans; in 2016, Sanders won exactly one of seven coin flips against Hillary Clinton, a sequence called the “Miracle Six.” Results are often not known until weeks after the election; in 2012, Mitt Romney was dubbed the winner for two weeks before Iowa changed its mind and sent all its delegates to Rick Santorum, who missed out on the Iowa bounce and became irrelevant. (Or at least solidified his irrelevance.) And of course this week we saw that Iowa gave untrained volunteers an untested app developed by a mysterious company called Shadow, Inc. When it failed spectacularly, careless precinct workers let the Iowa Democratic Party’s hotline number be shown to the internet, and the Trump fans on 4chan flooded the hotline so no results could be reported.
But the silliest aspect of the Iowa election has to do with satellite caucuses. To understand this, you must know that Iowa doesn’t award delegates by the number of votes cast for a candidate across the state. Instead, each of 1,681 precincts does a baffling dance to test the viability of candidates. Those who get 15% support keep all their voters, while those who don’t see their voters wander off to other candidates. That’s what happened to ex-frontrunner Joe Biden, when many precincts declared his campaign “not viable.” His fourth-place finish was barely above the 15% threshold, and he’ll head into New Hampshire with a hobbled campaign.
Sanders, however, will go into his next-door-neighbor state riding high. He and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg basically tied at the top of the polls. Buttigieg swept many of the rural counties, while Sanders dominated in the cities. He also dominated the satellite caucuses, and this is where the true power of the Sanders campaign can be seen. Non-satellite precincts all work like this: No matter how many people show up, each precinct awards the same number of state delegate equivalents, or S.D.E.’s (basically, fractions of delegates).
So Mayor Pete might win a precinct with 200 farmers and Bernie might win a precinct of 700 cityfolk, and both would send the same number of S.D.E.’s to the state delegation. That’s pretty far from one-voter-one-vote, but whatever. That’s how it’s done in the Hawkeye State. So be it.
But no one really paid much attention to how the satellite caucuses were run. These caucuses were held in 87 sites inside and outside Iowa, such as Florida, Arizona, and Rhode Island (but not Ohio, Texas, or Colorado). There were three overseas: Paris got one, as did Glasgow. They were even Iowans voting in Georgia—not the state, the country. Here’s who could participate:
Any registered Iowa Democrat can participate in the satellite caucuses. Most of the satellite caucus sites are open to the public and closed caucuses are at private residences or workplaces. This means that Iowans can attend a public satellite caucus if it’s more convenient to their home or workplace than their regular precinct. Or Iowans who want to caucus in a different language or in a more comfortable setting can do so at one of the 11 language and culture sites across the state.
Hey, that’s keen. It’s Iowa nice. And it’s incredibly bad game design. There are so many loopholes in this system, which was adopted this year and not tested. First, Iowans were no longer bound by their precincts; it was now possible for a supporter to go wherever their candidate would benefit most. Second, Iowans were no longer bound by the time of the caucus; they could show up at a more convenient time than the rest of the caucus-goers. Third, Spanish speakers could now go away from their precincts to places where they would caucus in their own language.
The Sanders campaign, alone among all of them, took full advantage of all these bugs. Sanders supporters flocked to competitive satellites and away from surefire wins at home. They created entire satellites at times where they were highly organized. They targeted Spanish speakers and funneled them to the language sites in large numbers.
But all of this wouldn’t have created any outsize results if not for the worst aspect of the Iowan design: the satellites did not award S.D.E.’s equally. Instead, they got representation proportional to their attendance. So the Sanders campaign sent out an army. They spiked the vote totals in all the satellites, virtually sweeping them. They essentially created super-precincts. It was a masterstroke of rules lawyering. Sanders won Iowa by 6,000 votes, and pulled even with a Midwesterner centrist due to mastery of the system.
This is, of course, pure foolishness in system design. But the Sanders campaign didn’t make the rules. They just understood them better than anyone else. This is hardly a surprise; Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren have never run for president, and Joe Biden didn’t make it past Iowa the last two times. Sanders ran a magnificent campaign in 2016, and he only learned how to do it better in 2020.
So with all that, why might it not matter? Because despite Bernie being the best campaigner, he is not the best Democrat. Establishment Democrats don’t love that even amid two runs, Sanders is still an Independent. He runs against the establishment, in part because it seems to keep screwing him over. To get to the general election, where he can pit his campaign’s offensive firepower against Trump’s even more offensive (in two ways) firepower, he must first get through a primary studded with people who don’t want him to carry the Democratic flag. They seem hell-bent on stopping him. They’re playing defense and hoping that can slow him down.
How much of this is real is open to debate. Does Hillary Clinton not like Sanders? That seems likely. Does she really want to give Trump an extra term if Sanders wins the nomination? That seems unlikely. Same with Obama and John Kerry. The billionaire class might have a stronger opinion, though, and they have the money to put up a formidable barrier. Mike Bloomberg has dropped $200 million of his own cash, and he’s just getting started. If Sanders gets momentum, Bloomberg will aim to quash Biden and Buttigieg and go straight at Sanders. This is likely to be quite the defensive stand.
And the commonly accepted wisdom in American team sports is that, as Alabama coach Bear Bryant once said: “Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.” (Or maybe he didn’t. Bryant was an alcoholic, and did not recall saying it. So, shrug emoji? Anyway, let’s say he did.)
Playoffs in the five main American men’s pro team sports have a solid parallel to how we do elections in America. (I say “men’s” because the WNBA and NWSL do playoffs radically differently these days, so I’m leaving them out of this discussion.) In these leagues, the best teams in each of two conferences play rounds of internal games, then the champions of each conference play in a finals. That directly matches up with our system of primaries and caucuses winnowing to a nominee for each of two main parties, then those two going at each other in the general election.
But it is true that a really good defense can stop a really good offense cold. The offense might find a way to win, but it’s not going to be its usual high-flying self while it gets there. Here’s a tale you almost certainly know, but it’s always good to put this one on instant replay.
In 2007, the New England Patriots won every game in the regular season by stunning margins. They won their first eight games by 17 or more, and only had four decided by a touchdown or less. The last of those was a 38–35 squeaker against the New York Giants in which Tom Brady racked up a record 50 passing touchdowns, cementing the first-ever 16–0 season. In the playoffs, the Pats thumped the Jaguars by 11 and the Chargers by 9. Meanwhile, the Giants only snuck into the playoffs as the lowest seed, then improbably beat the #4 Buccaneers, #1 Cowboys, and #2 Packers. They were seemingly no threat to the high-flying Patriots juggernaut.
I’ll bet you know how that game turned out. The Giants began the game with a ten-minute drive that ended in a field goal, and the first half ended 7–3 Pats. The Patriots had not been in a defensive struggle all year, and, despite coach Bill Belichick’s Hall of Fame-worthy credentials as a defensive genius, they seemingly were not prepared for one. After a scoreless third quarter, the teams traded touchdowns in the fourth. The final one came after Pats all-pro cornerback Asante Samuel dropped an easy interception of Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Then, on 3rd and 32, while in the grasp of a surefire sack that could easily end the game, Manning did this.
The greatest play in Super Bowl history would be irrelevant if the Giants defense doesn’t hold the record-setting Patriots offense to 14 points. What a defense it was. Michael Strahan’s “Stomp You Out” defense led the NFL with 52 sacks during the regular season, and stomped out five sacks of Brady during the Super Bowl. Even the G.O.A.T. can’t win when a 300-pound defensive lineman is resting on top of him.
In 2007, a smothering defense smothered what was at that point the greatest offense of all time. And then in 2014, the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning piloted the even-more-greatest offense of all-time up against the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom, and suffered a 43–8 shellacking. The two greatest offenses of all time scored a total of 22 points across two Super Bowls. Defense doesn’t always win championships, but it often makes great offenses mortal.
Bernie Sanders has a stunningly good offense. But it’s about to run into a blender. For some well-heeled backers, it’s about whether Sanders (or Warren) would take billions from the billionaires. But I suspect that for most, it’s just a belief that America won’t vote for a Democratic socialist. It’s a myth called “electability,” and it depends on you believing that the person who can raise the most votes, the most contributors, the most dollars, and the most enthusiasm is somehow not electable. I think that’s nonsense. But my opinion doesn’t matter. The Democratic establishment is coming for Sanders, and it is not easily turned away.
If you’re a Sanders fan, it’s hard to know what to do about that. Here’s one good idea: Be the better person. Instead of dragging down all the other nominees, actually support your own. Organize the way Elizabeth Warren’s campaign organizes. Yeah, I know, you hate her because you think Bernie would never say a woman couldn’t win. Please get over yourself. It’s the future of the free world and your guy might just win. Make us want to join you. I’m in if you are.
Defense doesn’t actually win championships. Great defense wins championships, but so does great offense. When a great defense meets a great offense, sometimes the defense wins, but often the offense wins (like this year’s Chiefs over Niners). The only real truth in team sports is that great players playing on great teams win championships. Sanders supporters, you’ve got a great team of great players who know how to game the system. And you’ve got a shining knight as a candidate. We’re with you, as long as you don’t destroy our chances of taking back the White House.
This is the 52nd installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, political timing, religion, and engagement. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.