Finally Feeling the Bern
After a lackluster debate from Mike Bloomberg and a convincing win in Nevada, Bernie Sanders is poised to become the 2020 Democratic nominee for the President of the United States. Fivethirtyeight has Sanders winning around half of the 1,357 delegates on Super Tuesday but falling short of securing the 1,990 needed for the nomination. However, as Biden and Bloomberg are fading, the chances are growing that he wraps up the primaries and goes into the convention with the nomination.
Bernie has a high floor and a low ceiling. Like Trump, he’s running a populist campaign. Unlike Trump, he’s yet to see his party coalesce behind him. In fact, the opposite is happening. Dems have been slow to adopt Bernie as the candidate, and Bernie has been quick to show his animosity for the Democratic brass. He tweeted this week, “I've got news for the Republican establishment. I've got news for the Democratic establishment. They can't stop us.” Not a good look for the Democratic frontrunner, but they may have no choice; it’s popular with his base. In the coming weeks, expect liberals to begin to move Sanders towards the middle. This week in the New York Times, Paul Krugman argued that Bernie is not really a socialist, but “he plays one on TV.” It’s an interesting tactic, but I doubt anyone will be able to convince voters that the self-proclaimed Democratic socialist is not, in fact, a socialist.
This is one of the biggest hurdles for Bernie. His run in 2012 gave him the high floor; he already had a huge following, cash on hand, and the name recognition to be an immediate front-runner. However, his run may be hurting him now because everybody already knows where he stands. In American politics today, it’s better to keep people guessing - just look at the unexplainable success of Pete Buttigieg. Bernie’s struggles to attract voters who weren’t supporting him six months ago - or four years ago. The data from Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada indicates that for those people who don’t already support Bernie, he is their least favorite among the major Democratic candidates. This may not matter for existing Democratic voters in the general election, but it spells trouble for Bernie in an election against Trump.
In his “Case for Bernie Sanders,” Vox’s Matt Iglesias sees Bernie as the unity candidate. Barton Swaim points to something similar in a profile, “The Bernie Sanders Experience” for the Wall Street Journal this week. Swaim attended one of Sanders’ rallies and noticed the trend of young voters who turned out in support. But how is Bernie so appealing? He's almost 80 years old, a career politician, and a socialist. Both profiles come to the same conclusion: it’s the authenticity. Bernie is nothing if not consistent, authentic, and somehow seems different than most politicians, and he has a simple message: he's building a movement. The gift of simplicity goes a long way.
While Iglesias tries to downplay Bernie’s radical policies - “he’s more banal than you think” - no one’s buying Sanders as a moderate. Swaim argues that Bernie’s unique brand of leftism may be the reason for his success. This presents an interesting choice for Christian voters, and others concerned with moral and social issues. For anybody looking for an alternative to Trump, Bernie is the worst option. Sanders is on the far left edge of American life; no limits on abortion with tax-payer funding, no limits on the LGBTQ agenda, medicare for all, restrictions on charter schools, abolishing the electoral college, a ban on fracking, assault weapons bans and buybacks, closing down nuclear power, and the $10 trillion Green New Deal.
For Trump supporters, this will be an easy vote. Of all the Democratic candidates, Bernie probably attracts the lowest percentage of Trump supporters. But even among the Never Trump crowd, Bernie is a tough candidate to stomach. His moral and political vision is so diametrically opposed to any form of conservatism, religious or not, that it’s unlikely that many in the anti-Trump camp would vote for him - but it’s hard to say anything for certain about the Never Trumpers. David French is the voice for many evangelicals who refuse to vote for Trump - and he’s resigned not to vote.
Contrary to Iglesias’ predictions, electability will be a real challenge for Sanders. In 2016, Trump carried Michigan (0.3%), Wisconsin (1%), and Pennsylvania (1.2%) by narrow margins over Hillary Clinton. That's 46 votes in the electoral college the Dems would need to win in 2020. But Bernie is far less attractive in those states than Clinton. The same is true in Florida, where Trump won 29 delegates by 1.3% in 2016. If Trump carries those states again, he'll win in 2020, and after the clips this weekend of Bernie praising former communist regimes, including the Soviet Union, Venezuela, and Cuba, those votes are looking harder to get.
Another interesting question for Bernie will be who to choose as a running mate. Despite his long tenure in the Senate, he has few Demcratic allies and a rough relationship with the DNC. This question underscores the fact that although Bernie has become one of the faces of the Democratic party in the last 5 years, he is not well-liked in the party. It’s possible he could snag one of the other presidential candidates, maybe Corey Booker or Kamala Harris, but it’s hard to know how much of Bernie’s agenda they could support. It’s unlikely he would choose one of the newly-elected members from the House; AOC, Pressley, or Tlaib, although it would be surprising not to see at least one of them in a Sanders cabinet. To gain traction, Sanders needs someone who can both appeal to the establishment Dems and get close to supporting his agenda. That may be very difficult to find.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.