Why Trump wants Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic nomination
President Trump has stepped up his efforts to boost Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and to sow doubts among Sanders’ supporters about the fairness of the nomination process, an update of the disruptive strategy he believes helped him win the White House four years ago.
People close to Trump and his campaign say the tactic is as deliberate as it is simple, with a goal of creating chaos in the Democratic Party in hopes of weakening its turnout in November while aiding a potential opponent who Trump considers fatally flawed.
With Sanders hoping to lock down a clear delegate lead after the all-important Super Tuesday contests on March 3, Trump also is playing a card that fires up his own base, taunting the iconoclastic senator from Vermont as a “crazy” socialist who would lead the country into economic ruin if elected.
Sometimes he combines the two messages. After Sanders won the Feb. 22 Nevada caucuses, for example, Trump congratulated “Crazy Bernie” in a tweet, warning “Don’t let them take it away from you!”
On Tuesday in New Delhi, Trump claimed without evidence that Democrats had leaked intelligence to undermine Sanders’ campaign. Democrats “don’t want him, so they put out a thing that Russia is backing him,” Trump said.
And in South Carolina, where registered voters can vote in either party primary, Republican activists urged Trump supporters to vote for Sanders in Saturday’s Democratic primary — echoing Trump’s instructions to New Hampshire independents to “vote for the weakest candidate” before that state’s primary.
“The only thing better for Trump than Bernie Sanders getting screwed out of the nomination is if Bernie Sanders wins the nomination,” said Michael Caputo, who worked on the 2016 campaign and remains in touch with Trump’s advisors. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Many of Trump’s allies see Sanders as the most beatable Democrat in November, although there is growing debate over whether they are underestimating Sanders’ ability to galvanize a hidden bloc of disgruntled voters, as Trump did in 2016.
Sanders’ thumping win in the Nevada caucuses, where he swept every voting group except people over 65, stunned operatives in both parties. The results suggested for the first time that he could build a broad-based coalition, as he long has claimed.
Unlike in 2016, Sanders had a hand in crafting the Democrats’ nominating rules this year, giving him less room to argue that the process was designed to make him fail.
But if he loses the nomination, Trump wants Sanders’ impassioned supporters to believe he was cheated so they will either stay home on Election Day or vote for Trump. The two share some of the same raw populist rhetoric on trade and elites, despite fundamentally different ideologies, grievances and solutions.
“The last time we had a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters,” Trump told a TV station in Arizona, which holds its primary on March 17. “If they take it away from him like they did the last time, I really believe you’re going to have — you’re gonna have a very riotous time in the Democrat Party, because they really, they did a lot of numbers on him.”
Stirring dissent in the opposition party “makes sense,” said a Republican operative with close ties to the White House, who requested anonymity to reveal internal strategy discussions. “When the big man is already talking about it, I can guarantee you it will be front and center” in the campaign.
If Sanders wins the most delegates but loses the nomination at a brokered Democratic convention, “it will be seen as outrageous by his folks, and I know our campaign and our party will gaslight that,” the operative said.
It’s a reboot of what Trump believes worked well for him in 2016, when he capitalized on bitter disillusionment from Sanders’ supporters during the senator’s first presidential run. Trump was aided by hacked Democratic Party emails showing party leaders favored the ultimate nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Russian intelligence operatives stole and released thousands of internal emails and other documents in an effort to boost Trump’s chances, according to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Political operatives long have mounted backroom efforts to disrupt opposing campaigns, sometimes illegally. But Trump’s overt calls to interfere in the Democratic primaries, and sow doubt about the results, shows him bulldozing another democratic norm from the Oval Office.
“It’s terrible and it’s very harmful as we try to have a nation where there’s true democracy,” said Tad Devine, Sanders’ chief strategist in 2016 and a veteran of previous Democratic campaigns. “He’s undermining it at every turn.”
Trump likely will get help from a Republican party that is firmly in his control.
Nate Leupp, who chairs the Republican Party in Greenville, S.C., is one of several county leaders who publicly urged Republicans to vote for Sanders in Saturday’s primary. The Republicans canceled their primary in the state this year.
Leupp cited several goals, including frustrating the Democratic establishment and weakening Joe Biden, who is counting on the state to revive his flagging campaign. Leupp has since pulled back from his official calls for cross-party voting, saying party activists should lead such efforts.
Trump believes he can woo Sanders voters. In a secret recording of a 2018 dinner that was released last month, Trump claimed without evidence that he won 20% of Sanders’ disaffected voters in 2016 after Clinton won the nomination in a bitter primary fight.
“All those people that hated her so much voted for me,” Trump said. Sanders “basically says we’re getting screwed on trade and he’s right. I’m worse than he is, and we can do something about [the trade imbalance]. I don’t know if he could have.”
Pollsters did not find evidence that Trump won a sizable share of Sanders’ supporters. But they both draw from a similar set of male blue-collar workers and others frustrated with globalization and eager to take down the establishment.
“Populist sentiment drives both the Trump candidacy and the Sanders candidacy, so it makes sense that there would be some overlap in their support,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who works for congressional candidates.
But Ayres argues that Sanders is Trump’s ideal opponent in a head-to-head race, noting that Democrats who helped win control of the House in 2018 mostly ran on moderate platforms. Sanders, he said, is “exactly the wrong candidate” for suburban women who are crucial to the Democratic base.
Some Trump allies worry he may be boosting a candidate who has created a movement, exciting young people and other new voters, and see his broad-based Nevada win as a possible red flag.
“Be careful what you wish for with Bernie Sanders,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign advisor. “It’s not as if the president got close to 50% nationally last time.”
Clinton won nearly 2.9 million more votes than Trump in 2016, but Trump won the electoral college thanks to narrow wins in several swing states.
The view from Sacramento
For reporting and exclusive analysis from bureau chief John Myers, get our California Politics newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.