Under the topsy turvy system by which we choose our presidential nominees, primaries in just two states-–one small, one medium-sized and both demographic outliers among our United States—have significantly simplified and clarified the Democratic race.
The simplification: two long shot contenders, Michael Bennett and Andrew Yang, have finally dropped out. And two serious contenders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, realistically can be written off. Surprises can happen, of course, and Biden could make a phoenix-like comeback in Nevada and South Carolina, but this now seems extremely unlikely. Expectations matter a lot, and the once front-runner who based his case on electability has flopped twice. Prospects are even more dismal for Warren, my own favorite candidate. She has decisively lost the battle with Sanders for leadership of the left wing of the party, so it’s not clear that her candidacy retains any rationale. I can think of a fantasy scenario by which she wins the nomination, but it is so far-fetched I won’t even bother to describe it.
The clarification lies in the fact that we now have a clear front-runner: Bernie Sanders. The rest of the campaign will pit Sanders against two or three moderates—Buttigieg, Bloomberg and maybe Klobuchar. I say “maybe” Klobuchar because she has yet to show that her New Hampshire performance wasn’t just a one-off proposition. Maybe she can. Klobuchar, it’s worth noting, is the one candidate in the race with no significant liabilities. Sanders is perceived as too leftist and combative. Buttigieg is young, gay and relatively inexperienced. Bloomberg is a quintessential urban elitist determined to prove that a billionaire’s money can buy a presidential nomination. The worst thing you can say about Klobuchar is that she isn’t always nice to her staff.
The prospect of Sanders as the party’s nominee has a lot of mainstream Democrats (and not just “establishment” Democrats) anxious to the point of panic, if not despair. I understand those feelings—I have repeatedly expressed my own doubts about Sanders’s ability to win in November. But since Sanders may well be the nominee, and since panic and despair are unconstructive, it behooves us to consider that prospect as calmly and objectively as possible.
The case for Sanders’s electability has to start with the fact he is an extremely skillful politician. It would be impossible for a self-identified socialist to flourish in Vermont or any other US state if he weren’t. His record of electoral success is impressive, evidencing an ability to win significant support from independents and even Republicans: he has consistently outperformed the Democrats’ presidential nominees in his state. And let’s not forget that Sanders came close to accomplishing what no other prominent Democrat dared even attempt—taking the 2016 presidential nomination away from the odds-on presumptive winner.
Sanders alone among this year’s Democratic hopefuls has a populist appeal that is in important ways competitive with the faux populism of Donald Trump. I’ve always believed that the visceral attraction that Trump has for so many voters lies in his very crudeness and irreverence. He comes off as an authentic anti-politician to the large masses of voters for whom politics—especially Washington politics—is an unfathomable swamp. Trump is adept at tapping into those feelings of political alienation along with the racism, xenophobia and economic distress that often go with them. Sanders is also in his own way an anti-politician, a political independent and outsider who sounds more like an average guy on the street than a smooth-talking pol. This persona, along with many of his policy proposals, gives him a shot at winning back a decent share of the millions of white working class voters who switched from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. Sanders consistently beats Trump in head to head national polls. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows him trouncing the president 51-43%, which is a better margin than for any other Democrat except for Bloomberg.
But poll results, even if assumed to be perfectly accurate, give a snapshot of voter sentiment at a fixed point in time. Could Sanders’s evident popularity withstand the predictably vicious smear campaign that Trump and the right-wing media will hurl at him? A radical who wants to take away your health insurance and turn the US economy into a socialist hellhole like Cuba or Venezuela? (Do most American voters even know that Sanders describes himself as a socialist? Don’t count on it, but they will surely know before November if he is the candidate.) That Sanders, back in the day, had a few good things to say about Cuba and even the Soviet Union will also provide additional fodder for attack. (As far as I can tell, Sanders never engaged in uncritical apologetics for totalitarian regimes, never said anything that was objectively indefensible; but that may not matter.)
Sanders bases his campaign on the expectation that the “political revolution” he wants to lead will bring large numbers of new voters—young, working class and minorities—into the political system. The case for Sanders’s electability has to rest on this expectation, since such an influx of new voters would be needed to compensate for certain losses among moderate voters who dislike Trump but fear Sanders. But there’s no evidence that this expectation amounts to anything more than wishful thinking. Voter turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire was mediocre—no revolutionary influx there. The elections of AOC and her squadmates in 2018 got lots of publicity as evidence of leftward movement, but these were all cases of lefty Democrats beating out more moderate incumbents in districts that were in any case solidly blue. The Democrats’ big gains in House seats were entirely in swing districts in which Democrats eschewed relatively radical positions like Medicare for all. As Jonathan Chait points out, Democratic candidates supported by the several insurgent left groups failed to turn a single red district blue: “Our Revolution went 0–22, Justice Democrats went 0–16, and Brand New Congress went 0–6.” These results are consistent with the considerable body of political science research that shows that moderate candidates fare better in general elections than more “extreme” candidates.
So, I have to admit that for all my sympathy with his values, the prospect of a Sanders candidacy makes me nervous. To get my support, Sanders will need to demonstrate during the course of the primary campaign that his progressive clarion call is actually generating the surge of enthusiastic new voters that he needs. In a fine op.ed. before the New Hampshire primary, the estimable Michele Goldberg expressed my sentiments perfectly:
I try to talk myself into believing that [Bernie’s] passionate base, combined with a polarized electorate, will be enough. Still, with the survival of American democracy at stake, it seems like a wild gamble for Democrats to turn the fight against Trump into a referendum on Democratic socialism….The way things are going, the fate of American democracy could soon be Bernie or bust. I envy those who find that exhilarating rather than terrifying.”
Right now, I’m just hoping for the best.