The belief that Bernie Sanders is too left-wing to win a presidential election is an article of faith among journalists, pundits, and political operatives. Most of Sanders’s Democratic rivals also echo that claim either directly or through their surrogates. It is probably the most commonly held and thus damaging argument against a Sanders nomination. And it is this concern that keeps some, perhaps many, Democratic Party voters from fully embracing his campaign.
But the “too far left” thesis has no empirical evidence to support it. In fact, all the evidence suggests the opposite — that Sanders is almost certainly the very best shot at beating Trump.
In 2016, Sanders routinely fared as well or better than Hillary Clinton in head-to-head match-ups with Trump. And even Michael Bloomberg has recently said that Bernie would have won in 2016 had he been the nominee. The 2020 polling backs that up — Sanders does as well or better (often far better) in match-ups with Trump than all the other Democratic contenders.
But the “too far left” conventional wisdom lives on like a zombie among the punditocracy. And it is not going away anytime soon — if anything, it’ll only amp up as Sanders continues to rise. So it demands a thorough debunking. Because not only does all the evidence point to Sanders being the safest choice to beat Trump, it likewise suggests that the nomination of one of his “moderate” rivals could be disastrous.
Bernie the Centrist
The conventional wisdom goes like this: American voters can generally be placed on a political spectrum from left to right. The left half is the Democrats, the right half is the Republicans. In the middle are independents. The closer to the center one is, the closer one is to the great majority of American people, and logically, therefore, this is where electoral majorities are found. Hence terms like “centrist” or “moderate” are held in high regard. The further one is from the center, the harder it is to win a majority of the voters, at least at the national level.
So a moderate Democrat is closer to the center and will be more appealing to moderate Republicans and independents than, say, a Bernie Sanders who is way out there on the Left. They will also automatically get the votes of progressives to their left, because they are of course superior to any right-wing Republican. The smart thing therefore is to nominate a moderate, appeal to the center, and your chances for success go way up. Nominate a Sanders however and it is George McGovern in 1972 or Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom all over again. The good people in the center will simply not pull the level for those types of extremists.
This conventional wisdom may have been true in the final few decades of the twentieth century, when it seemed like the only Democrats who had success in presidential elections were moderate Southerners like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. But it has certainly lost its efficacy as a predictive tool over the past twenty years. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton were right out of the conventional wisdom moderate playbook: pro-business, pro-Pentagon, self-described moderates who all went down in flames against weak opponents. The only victorious democrat, Barack Obama, ran a decidedly more progressive campaign in his triumphant victory in 2008, defeating a popular centrist Republican with a message of fundamental change.
But the conventional wisdom has failed to acknowledge that the “center” has changed dramatically over the past two or three decades. For starters, there are two distinct meanings or uses for the terms “centrist” or “moderate,” and these are far from synonymous. On the one hand, “centrist” is meant to imply that a majority feels some way about a particular issue, or set of issues, that exists firmly between the dual polarities of staunch Democrats and staunch Republicans. On the other hand, “moderate” is meant to imply that these same people also favor a “go slow” approach when it comes to dominant economic institutions like capitalism, corporations, and billionaires. Even if they are flawed, the thinking goes, they are basically effective, legitimate, and necessary.
Obviously, these are two very different ways to define a moderate or centrist. Perhaps in the 1980s and 1990s the comingling of these terms was defensible, but over the past twenty years the cracks in that facade are now gaping. Indeed, the openness to questioning corporate power and our economy is greater today than it has been for generations. One look at the polling data showing the preference for socialism over capitalism among Americans under thirty makes that clear.
When one looks at specific issues today and where the majority public opinion is located, Sanders hardly seems like a fringe candidate. Most Democratic voters, indeed Americans writ large, want Medicare For All, an end to endless wars, an expanded Social Security, a $15 an hour minimum wage, a Green New Deal, progressive taxation, well-funded public education, and on and on. Sanders simply did the unthinkable — he used his national platform to call for these popular programs that were only unpopular among the rich, the media, and the two parties. This in turn forced his rivals to embrace positions that were considered too radical in 2016. He simply made it political suicide not to.
If a centrist is someone whose positions represent a majority of all Americans on issue after issue — and a supermajority of Democratic voters — then Bernie is in fact a centrist. But that notion is verboten to the punditry, because it violates the other conventional criteria for being a “moderate”: total subservience to the economic-powers-that-be.
This is why bypassing the media has been key to Sanders’s success. When he has a chance to present his ideas directly to people, most voters — including so-called “moderates” — think they make a lot of sense. It’s why Bernie is more popular with voters the more they get to know him. And it explains why he did so well on the Joe Rogan show and the Fox News town hall and why he’s remained so deeply beloved in his home state of Vermont for four decades now.
Independent Voters Are Politically All Over the Map — But They Still Love Sanders
The notion that “independent” voters are mostly political moderates and centrists wedged between Joe Manchin and Mitt Romney is another key to the conventional wisdom. Hence the successful politician is the one who can appeal to these swing voters, and, again, that means the best candidate is a moderate establishment Democrat, not someone like Bernie way out there in left field.
In fact, while some independents might be wedged between Manchin and Romney, not many of them are. Independents, a larger voting bloc than either Republicans or Democrats, are all over the political spectrum. Many of them simultaneously hold conservative and progressive views. This left-right model does not do justice to their complexity. While independents do share a general antipathy to both parties, they still care deeply about politics.
And for decades now, no one has done better with them than Bernie Sanders. It is the basis for his continual landslide victories in Vermont. Independent support explains why he can trail (until very recently) in polls among Democratic primary candidates while trouncing Trump in one-on-one match-ups by bigger margins than his rivals. And the most recent polling data shows Sanders to be the most popular presidential contender with independent voters, including Trump.
Why is that? Some of it may be rooted in the fact that he only very recently became a Democrat. Much of it however is likely based in his total authenticity —nothing about Sanders seems staged or phony. But whatever it is, his dominance with independents is a powerful phenomenon, and one that mainstream pundits effectively ignore and cannot explain.
Bernie Is the Clear Choice of Nonvoters — And With Them, He Could Fundamentally Change American Politics
So far we have discussed the 50 percent of Americans over age eighteen who vote in presidential elections. The analysis assumes that the other 50 percent not only don’t vote but never will vote and thus the conventional wisdom pays no attention to them. But who are these nonvoters?
They tend to be disproportionately young, poor and working class, and ethnic minorities. They don’t vote because they think it is a waste of time, that the system is rigged against them. They are also, ironically, arguably what Bernie Sanders regards as his base. His whole political career has been about drawing the marginalized and dispossessed into voting and activism. He does so by taking their needs and concerns seriously, and working with them. It’s how he’s dominated Vermont politics as a self-identified socialist for nearly half a century.
Mainstream Democrats want these voters, too, but they are unwilling to alter what they actually do when in power in order to attract them. Why? Because that would antagonize their funders and the party establishment. So they focus solely on the 50 percent who do vote.
This too is a powerful weapon for Bernie in 2020. He is the most popular politician with voters under thirty by a wide margin today, and he is arguably the most popular politician with voters under thirty in American history. And he does well with voters in their thirties and now forties as well. If this bloc of the young voted at the same rate as their parents and grandparents, Bernie Sanders would win in a landslide.
And it is not just the young who haven’t been voting. Poor people across the board are generally missing in action. Latinos, despite being an enormous demographic, have tended to have a low voter participation rate; Bernie is also extremely popular with them. In the Iowa caucuses, where I canvassed, it seems like he had over 90 percent support among Latinos. It was unbelievable. If Bernie comes remotely close to this when he gets to Nevada, California, Arizona, and — above all else — Texas, that could produce revolutionary outcomes. The same is true for Muslims and Asian-Americans and Native Americans.
None of the other Democratic candidates comes anywhere near Sanders in appealing to these massive constituencies, and they will not get anywhere near as many of them to the polls. If Sanders simply gets voter participation to increase from 50 percent to 60 percent, he will win in a landslide, and the Democrats take control of the Senate and a commanding hold on the House.
If he gets the turnout north of 65 percent, where most European nations reside, we are looking at the possibility of a once-in-a-century realignment of power. It would not be the first time. When Franklin Roosevelt won landslide victories in 1932 and 1936, he did not do so by convincing Republicans to vote Democratic — he did it by bringing millions of new voters to the polls. That is the essence of Sanders’s call for a political revolution.
Together, these points suggest Sanders is clearly the most electable of all the possible Democratic candidates in 2020.