After the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders used the Hillary Clinton campaign’s fear of a divisive spectacle in Philadelphia to extract concessions on the party’s official platform and committee assignments. The senator’s tough dealmaking suggests an important negotiation lesson: Always know your BATNA and ZOPA in any negotiation.
Carrot and stick
Weeks after Clinton locked up the delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination, Sanders delayed officially dropping out of the race and endorsing Clinton.
By withholding his endorsement, he could dangle it as a carrot in front of negotiators for Clinton and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). But the longer he kept that carrot out of reach, the more impatient the Democratic establishment would become, and the more he risked losing leverage in convention negotiations.
Sanders accompanied the carrot with at least one stick. In a letter, Sanders threatened DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz with a disrupted convention unless she appointed more of his loyalists to three convention committees. In particular, Sanders wanted the 15-person platform committee to include an equal number of allies of his and Clinton’s. Urged on by the Clinton campaign, the DNC reportedly gave Sanders more committee members than he’d initially been allocated, but not as many as he’d wanted.
Concessions for Sanders
In public, Clinton told CNN that she had “every confidence” that Sanders and his supporters would unite with her. But in private negotiations, the Sanders and Clinton campaigns reportedly came close to impasse on some of Sanders’s policy demands.
In the end, the two sides were able to convince the DNC to incorporate numerous aspects of Sanders’s positions into the party platform, as reported by Time:
- Free public college. Based on Sanders’s call for universal free public college, the two campaigns agreed to support a policy that would make college free for all families earning less than $125,000 per year.
- Expanded health-care coverage. In an homage to Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan, Clinton announced her support for a public-option insurance plan.
- The minimum wage. Sanders managed to persuade the party to bump up Clinton’s support of a $12-per-hour minimum wage to $15 in its platform.
- Banking regulation. Sanders pushed for, and won, tough new banking regulations in the party platform, including a call to break up banks that are “too big to fail.”
- The death penalty. Although Clinton has supported the death penalty in rare cases, the party platform now calls for the practice to be outlawed.
- A carbon tax. Sanders delegates to the platform committee successfully pushed for an aggressive tax on carbon and methane emissions, an issue Clinton hadn’t taken sides on.
- Marijuana. In line with Sanders’s position during his campaign, the party agreed to call for removing marijuana from the U.S. list of Schedule-1 drugs such as heroin.
Where the DNC wouldn’t budge
Sanders failed to convince the party to accept three positions on which he expressed strong opinions during the campaign:
The party rejected Sanders’s call to rebuke Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.
- The Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Sanders wanted the platform to stipulate that the controversial trade deal should never be put up for a vote in Congress. The party refused.
The party refused to support Sanders’s call for a ban on fracking.
BATNA and ZOPA analysis
Professional negotiators understand that their greatest source of power in a given negotiation is their BATNA (for more information, see also Find Your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement and Create Value in Integrative Negotiations), or best alternative to a negotiated agreement. When negotiators have a strong alternative to the current negotiation, they gain the security they need to push for a deal that’s no less than what they can achieve elsewhere.
In Sanders’s case, the candidate already understood that he had lost the campaign and had little left to lose during the election. His BATNA (see also, BATNA and Other Sources of Power at the Bargaining Table), if he failed to achieve his platform goals, might be to try to disrupt the Democratic convention or simply to walk away and fail to support Clinton.
At the same time, the Sanders campaign likely calculated that the Clinton campaign and the DNC had a very weak BATNA in negotiations over the convention and party platform. Clinton could ill afford the spectacle of a divided convention playing out on national television. Sanders was negotiating from a position of power: the Democratic establishment had a very strong motivation to do a deal with him.
This type of BATNA analysis leads negotiators to an understanding of the ZOPA, or zone of possible agreement. If there appears to be overlap between the least you’ll accept and the least your counterpart will accept—that is, between your reservation point and theirs—then the two sides should ideally walk away with an agreement. Sanders correctly calculated that, this time, the Clinton campaign and the DNC would see things his way.
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Yes, he was able to bargain hard because he had nothing to lose. But at what cost did he get these concessions? He did a tremendous amount of damage to her and to the party (a party of which he was not and still is not a member) by refusing to concede and get behind her earlier. He must own that some of the loss is on his head. Because he’s not a Democrat, he might not really care – but he definitely helped elect Trump.