My Inside Look at Bernie Sanders’ Failed Campaign Strategy

Matt Orfalea
5 min readApr 23, 2020

I received a special invite into the Bernie Sanders campaign headquarters in DC after my youtube video, “Rising Up”, went viral. The video’s success got me a job and an inside look at Bernie Sanders’ failed campaign strategy.

“Rising Up” exposed how far from reality the corporate media’s commentary about Bernie Sanders was.

I received a phone call from Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir (pronounced Fazz like jazz) congratulating me on the video. He offered me a job and invited me to interview with the campaign’s Creative Director & Digital Communications Director, Joshua Miller-Lewis and Sara Pearl Kenigsberg, his Supervising Producer.

The invitation was not the result of one video, I’d made many viral videos about Sanders. In 2017, the popular progressive youtuber Jimmy Dore shared one at a live show with Congressman Ro Khanna, saying “This tells you exactly what the Democrats need to hear” and “If this would have been Bernie’s national campaign commercial, there would have been no chance for Hillary Clinton in the primaries.”

Meeting Bernie’s Creative Director

Miller-Lewis began our meeting by explaining his strategy for Bernie 2020. He described a Bernie “hard base,” those who would support him no matter what, and a “soft base,” those who were on his side, but needed bolstering. Their plan was to focus solely on making content for Sander’s “soft base”.

I thought differently. Rather than divide people up into categories and preach to the choir, I wanted to reach new people by addressing the Sanders smears head on. What better way to excite the base than to show them you’re taking on the naysayers and reaching new people?

It was also an obvious mistake to take “hard base” support for granted. All the donations and support were never unconditional. In fact, many of Bernie’s most ardent supporters became critics when Bernie stopped talking about Medicare for All to campaign for Hillary Clinton in 2016. (It appears history is repeating itself with Biden 2020.)

My 1st Assignment

Josh said his first assignment for me would be to dramatically re-edit “Rising Up”. This seemed odd to me, not only because “Rising Up” had already been published, but because it has already outperformed every single official campaign ad up to that point. Why waste time screwing with something that was already proven to be an effective success?

Nevertheless, I was ordered to make the following cuts:

Excerpt of an email to me from Miller-Lewis’ digital communications department

“Cut ‘Democrats like somebody new and this is not going to be Bernie Sanders this time”

Starting with anti-Sanders lines is what allowed my video to draw in new supporters that would have been turned off by another cliche political ad. But Bernie’s campaign was not concerned with expanding his base and not willing to take risks.

“Cut Anand & Trevor Noah”

Bernie 2020 saw Anand Giridharadas (Time Magazine) and Trevor Noah (The Daily Show) as potential allies so they didn’t want to risk offending them. While Anand & Trevor were somewhat favorable of Sanders in their coverage, they often mixed their compliments with critical jabs. So it was troubling to learn that the campaign considered it off limits to ever jab back.

I felt that if merely commenting on one’s own words is enough to make them an enemy of Sanders, they were never a Sanders ally to begin with.

Anand had lashed out over his inclusion in my video and complained about it in a dozen tweet thread (later deleted), referring to me as “a layperson”.

“Cut Socialism part starting at 2:10 ending at 2:42”

Miller-Lewis wanted to cut the most emotional moment of the entire video to avoid the word “socialism”. This baffled me because, for better or worse, Bernie had already branded himself a democratic socialist. The media was going to talk about it no matter what.

Besides, all I did was make the same compelling case Bernie Sanders regularly made himself: Universal healthcare does not equal Soviet style authoritarianism. It saves lives and taxpayer money in capitalist countries including our close neighbor, Canada.

I understand not wanting to use the word socialism to avoid controversy. But it’s utterly insane to not respond when the media compares universal healthcare with the murderous regimes of Mao and Stalin.

“Cut Gloria Steinem”

At 5:03 Steinem says women support Bernie because they want to meet boys.

Miller-Lewis also wanted to cut the part about how Gloria Steinem accused female Sanders supporters of going to rallies just to meet boys.

Why cut Steinem’s sexist comment? Presumably for the same reason that he wanted to cut Anand and Trevor: The campaign didn’t want to offend her because Steinem used to be a friend, once endorsing Sanders as “an honorary woman” decades ago.

Disappointing Experience

Clearly, had I been working under Miller-Lewis, none of my viral videos would have been allowed to be made. I spoke with many Bernie 2020 staff members who confirmed my worries, saying they were unhappy with the “arrogant” and “careerist” management. So even though this was a job I’d dreamed of, I was hesitant about accepting the offer.

Still hopeful, I did ultimately decide to sign the dotted line but the same day I announced joining the campaign, anonymous anti-Sanders Twitter accounts cited decade old videos out of context to misrepresent me.

Sadly, instead of helping me expose the lies being made about me at the time, as I’d helped expose the media’s lies about Sanders, the Sanders campaign pressured me out mere hours after I’d announced my hire.

I understood there was nothing personal about it. They were trying to play it safe, trying to avoid controversy, instead of addressing it head on.

My disappointing experience with the campaign was minor in the grand scheme of things but it reflected the failed strategy of Bernie 2020. Sanders wanted to achieve a revolution by playing it safe.

You can’t achieve revolution by playing it safe

Sanders had the guts to speak out against all the powerful industries with a stranglehold on our government (the military industrial complex, big pharma, wall street). But he shied away from aggressively taking on the media and the politicians that those industries finance.

Bernie was more worried about offending his critics than making powerful campaign material. He was more worried about offending friends in the media than fighting their narratives. And most fatally, he was more worried about offending his friend Joe Biden than he was about winning the primary.

Hi, I’m Matt Orfalea. Thanks for reading! You can follow me here on Medium, Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook. If you enjoyed my work, please help me create more content by supporting me on Patreon.