Sandbagging is deceptive behavior intended to lower someone’s expectations so that they can be taken by surprise later.
Typically, sandbagging involves lulling someone into a false sense of security and then taking advantage of them. It’s an act of psychological manipulation. Imagine a pool shark, for example, who lets their target win a few rounds of pool before they up the ante and suddenly start winning.
Originally, of course, “sandbagging” simply meant to furnish with sandbags. The word took on its modern meaning of pretending weakness in the 1970s. Etymologists believe that the modern meaning comes from poker, where a “sandbagger” is someone who holds back from raising because they want to keep their opponents in the game for longer. There is also an older meaning of the word “sandbagger,” to mean a bully who uses a sandbag as a weapon.
After the 2020 Iowa caucus, some people on the left claimed that the Democratic party leadership had “sandbagged” Bernie Sanders. Exit polls appeared to put Sanders neck and neck with Pete Buttigieg, and both candidates declared victory in the state. Sanders supporters, including Michael Moore, for example, argued that DNC chair Tom Perez called for a recount in the state precisely to avoid a Sanders victory.
Michael Moore told reporters, “Bernie was going to have that press conference explaining why he won Iowa, and they [Perez and the DNC leadership] did that [call for recanvassing] to sandbag him.”
Sanders supporters made similar accusations against the DNC in 2016. So did members of the media. In 2016, the New York Post reported that “Democratic party bigwigs enlisted prominent media outlets to slant coverage to boost Hillary Clinton and sandbag Bernie Sanders, according to some of the 19,000 emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee’s servers and posted to Wikileaks.”
Journalists are sometimes accused of sandbagging too. In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine charged that the New York Times had sandbagged Bernie Sanders. The Rolling Stone claimed that the New York Times had initially planned an article explaining Bernie Sanders’ legislative approach but had revamped the article to criticize Sanders’ campaign.
“Sandbag” can be sometimes thrown around without a lot of precision. In some cases, the word is used interchangeably with the term “ambush.” Reporters are sometimes accused of sandbagging politicians when they confront them with unwelcome questions, for example. In other cases, “sandbag” is used simply to mean “harm.” Prospect magazine, for example, accused President Trump of trying to “sandbag” the American economy by launching a trade war with Europe.
However, sandbagging is different than obstructionism.
And sometimes, a sandbag is just a sandbag. In 2016, a group of activists wanted to protest against the planned wall between the US and Mexico. The group, mostly designers, launched a campaign called “Wall in Trump.” The idea was to collect sandbags and build a 200-foot wall in front of one of Donald Trump’s skyscrapers. (Trump, a presidential candidate at the time, had angered the group with his plans to build a border wall.) The designers said they wanted their sandbag wall to be “just big enough to retain this guy’s ego.”