Late last year, as I was making my way by Capital Bikeshare across the Washington National Mall on an unseasonably warm December night, the phone in my jacket pocket dinged. It was a text from a longtime pal of mine, Jack Democrat. Jack reads The Washington Post every day. He follows the 2016 presidential campaign closely. He is well-informed, erudite and like me, a lifetime Democrat.
Jack was replying to my invitation to meet up at a December 19th Saturday night debate watch soiree, sponsored by “DC for Bernie Sanders.” He declined my invitation—was not subtle in telling me why:
Hey Tad. I still think that if the Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders, they will lose in an historic landslide—45 to 49 states. He is way, way too far left for most of the American electorate. It causes me no joy to say this, but I even think Trump would beat Sanders by a decisive margin. Rubio might win all 50 states. Enjoy the holidays and the debate! Cheers, Jack
Today, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, there are millions of Democratic voters who are thinking just like Jack Democrat. Democratic voters who may like Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton to varying degrees, but who are most interested in nominating a candidate who will retain the White House for the Democrats. Democratic voters whose greatest concern is preventing any Republican president from choosing two or three Supreme Court justices during the next four years. And Democratic voters who—like Jack Democrat not advancing any elaborate explanation or analysis—simply take for granted that if our party nominates a candidate “too far left,” we will lose in “an historic landslide.”
There’s hard polling data to support this assessment as well. While 83% of Democratic-leaning voters see Hillary Clinton as electable, only 54% say the same about Bernie Sanders.
Indeed, the Hillary campaign overtly makes the point—even to the point of admitting that some voters may prefer her opponent. A January tweet sent followers to the tale of 19-year-old Alex Mendola of New Hampshire, who said: “If Bernie won the primary and lost the general election, I think that would be a disaster. So even if (I) don’t like Hillary as much as Bernie, I feel more confident that she would win the general election.”
If Bernie Sanders is going to win the Democratic presidential nomination, we need to change the minds of Jack Democrat and Alex Mendola. If we don’t, Hillary Clinton will win that nomination. Jack and Alex’s thesis will never be tested. And we will lose perhaps our once-in-a-lifetime chance to elect the most progressive major party candidate in American history as President of the United States.
If you are a Bernie supporter today, what you need is ammunition. Not to persuade your Democratic friends that Bernie is desirable—that’s another argument—but to persuade them that he is electable.
And you can. Because Jack and Alex are wrong. If the Democratic Party nominates Bernie Sanders as its candidate for president, he will win the White House in November 2016.
Here are ten reasons why:
REASON #10: THE POLLS SAY OTHERWISE.
The most obvious response to Jack and Alex’s contention is that poll after poll shows something very different. In hypothetical November matchups between Bernie and various Republican nominees, it is not the case that he loses in a landslide. Nor is it the case that he loses in a squeaker. Bernie Sanders wins.
Moreover—and this is the most salient point for Democrats deciding whom to support in caucuses and primaries—Bernie often performs far better than Hillary against these hypothetical opponents.
A single example. Here is the NBC/WSJ/Marist poll on January 10th: In Iowa, Bernie Sanders defeats Donald Trump by 13 points and Ted Cruz by 5 points, and ties with Marco Rubio. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, defeats Trump by only 8 points, loses to Cruz by 4 points, and loses to Rubio by 5 points. The Sanders/Clinton disparity in New Hampshire was even more pronounced. There, Bernie defeats Trump by 19 points, Cruz by 18 points, and Rubio by 9 points. Hillary, however, defeats Trump in New Hampshire by just 1 point, loses to Cruz by 4 points, and loses to Rubio by 12 points.
So if the primary criterion determining Jack and Alex’s primary vote is the electability of the Democratic candidate in November, these polls—and there are many like them nationwide—unambiguously suggest that Bernie Sanders is significantly more likely to win the general election than Hillary Clinton.
But these polls are not likely to seal the deal with Jack and Alex. And frankly, they shouldn’t. The general election is still nine months away. Too much will happen during the next nine months —in both the dynamics of the presidential campaign and the world beyond. John McCain led Barack Obama by 3 points in exactly this same kind of hypothetical matchup in January 2008—long before either had secured their party nominations. But in the actual November 2008 election, Obama beat McCain by 7 points.
Fortunately there are many other reasons to believe that if Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic Party nomination, he will also win the presidency in November.
REASON #9: LANDSLIDES ARE FOR INCUMBENTS.
The scenario that Jack Democrat suggests—not just a Bernie Sanders loss but a landslide loss—is particularly unlikely if history is our guide. Why?
Because since the White House was occupied more than 80 years ago by FDR, the only time we have seen such blowout elections is when the sitting president was running for president. Go ahead and google it for yourself. The only landslides—let’s call that roughly 60%-40%—in modern times? Incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt over Alf Landon in 1936. Incumbent President Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964. Incumbent President Richard Nixon over George McGovern in 1972. And incumbent President Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale in 1984.
We can’t say many things for sure about the November 2016 election, but we do know for sure that the incumbent president won’t be a candidate.
REASON #8: LANDSLIDES MAY BE A THING OF THE PAST.
That last real landslide, in 1984, was nearly a third of a century ago now. Since then, our presidential contests have become dominated by the "red state/blue state" reality. George F. Will recently pointed out that in the 1976 presidential election, 20 of our 50 states were won by five points or less. This means that during the campaign they were essentially up for grabs. That number in 2012? Only four. At least 40 of America's 50 states—driven for the most part by sheer demographics—seem virtually guaranteed now to go reliably red or blue. To choose just one example, here are the last six presidential election vote totals for the largest state in the union, California, with no less than 12% of the country's population and fully 55 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House.
1992: 46%D – 33%R. 1996: 51%D – 38%R. 2000: 53%D - 42%R. 2004: 54%D – 44%R. 2008: 61%D – 37%R. 2012: 60%D – 37%R.
Traditional battleground states like New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan (combined electoral votes: 80) have shown similar patterns of increasing Democratic dominance during the past quarter century. Other states like Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York (combined electoral votes: 50) have been for the most part solidly blue for considerably longer than that.
Sure, Marco Rubio might find some way to reverse this trajectory, and to win California. It's perhaps even possible that he or some other Republican could "win all 50 states." But it seems far, far more likely that whether the Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or Kim Kardashian for president, they will start the general election race well north of 200 electoral votes. Virtually guaranteed.
REASON #7: RECENT DEMOCRATIC DOMINANCE IN PRESIDENTIAL CONTESTS.
It is tempting to conclude that the modern American presidency now runs in pretty regular cycles from party to party. Eight years of Obama (D). Eight years before that of Bush (R). Eight years before that of Clinton (D). Twelve years before that of Reagan and Bush (R).
That’s one way of looking at it.
But let’s try another. Since 1992, the GOP has won only one single non-incumbent presidential race. And when was that? In the year 2000, when—even with many Democrat-leaning voters casting their ballots for Ralph Nader—Al Gore still defeated George Bush by more than half a million ballots in the nationwide popular vote! (And, still in the minds of many, in the Electoral College as well.) The Nader experience, of course, is why the “Run Bernie Run” initiative launched by Progressive Democrats of America in 2014 called explicitly for Sanders to run for president as a Democrat.
It is rarely wise to extend alternative history speculations beyond the boundaries of one’s neighborhood bar. Still, it seems not wholly unreasonable to hypothesize that but for the twin 2000 peculiarities of the Nader candidacy and the butterfly ballots in Florida, the Democrats might have won the last six presidential elections in a row. Rather handily.
That’s another way of looking at it.
Other than 2004—when their candidate was the incumbent president—the Republican Party hasn’t unambiguously won the White House since 1988. And even in 2004, with all the traditional advantages of incumbency, George W. Bush was only able to defeat John Kerry by 3 points. The track record of recent history suggests that the Democratic Party may now have forged a solid and enduring structural advantage in presidential contests. Demographics are destiny, they say, and—in national presidential elections at least—the demographics of the American electorate appear to be running more and more favorably toward the Democrats.
REASON #6: WE MAY BE AT THE DAWN OF A NEW WORLDWIDE PROGRESSIVE ERA.
Or perhaps in the Western world. Or at least in the English and French speaking world!
Last summer a longtime far left backbench MP, Jeremy Corbyn, stunned the UK's political establishment by triumphing in the Labour Party leadership election. The consensus explanation the morning after? He moved people who had never before engaged in political action to show up and participate. (Sound familiar?)
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This was, however, was only a party election. And many British pundits make the case today (much like Jack and Alex!) that Mr. Corbyn remains wholly unelectable in a nationwide election for prime minister. Since Tory Prime Minister David Cameron was just re-elected last spring, it will be awhile before we know whether those voices are right or wrong.
Yet in 2012 French voters ousted their center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy, and replaced him with Francois Hollande—the leader of the French Socialist Party. And then just last fall our great neighbor to the north ousted their Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and replaced him with Justin Trudeau—the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
Perhaps we can't call this all a broad new transnational progressive wave quite yet. But it doesn’t seem wholly irrelevant to the prospects for a candidacy of the left in this country. Doesn’t it suggest that the winds of world history just may be blowing in our direction? Perhaps we can dare to dream that—after Bernie Sanders takes the oath of office in January 2017—most everyone will be talking about an emerging new worldwide progressive era after that!
REASON #5: THE LIABILITIES AND LIMITATIONS OF HILLARY CLINTON.
A narrative emerged this past fall, in whispers among the Democratic establishment, that Hillary Clinton may simply not be very skilled and gifted—as a politician. Policy expertise and public affairs acumen, which Hillary possesses in abundance, are not the same abilities one needs to perform successfully as a retail politician. If she’s having this much trouble during the primary season, how do you think she’s going to do against the Republican attack machine next fall?
There is, too, the giant unknown about the course of the ongoing FBI investigation into Hillary's practices as Secretary of State. Shortly after the New Year the FBI expanded its investigation beyond email—to examine whether the connections between Clinton Foundation donations and State Department actions might amount to “public corruption.” Then, on the Friday before Iowa, the State Department revealed for the first time that Hillary Clinton’s private server contained at least 22 emails classified as “top secret.” And The Hill newspaper reported that former FBI officials had begun speculating that an indictment of the former Secretary of State might come “during the heat of the general election campaign.” What if we choose her as our presidential nominee—and then this all blows up?
Although it should bring us no joy to say this, a case can be made that so many years after Hillary Clinton first emerged onto the American scene, she is now both so damaged and so flawed that she is the one who might "lose in an historic landslide" in the November election. The verdict is arguably in. The jury appears to have spoken. Her husband is one of the most gifted politicians in American history. She is not.
Fortunately, the Democratic Party has someone else running who is.
REASON #4: BERNIE IS UNELECTABLE AGAINST ANY REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE?
Jack Democrat may be right that Marco Rubio, or another "establishment" Republican, may well have a better chance to win the November election. But for the past several months, in poll after poll, the two frontrunners for the Republican nomination have stubbornly remained the ultraconservative ideologue Ted Cruz and the chauvinistic demagogue Donald Trump. Every day it appears more and more likely that one of these two extreme figures will emerge as the Republican nominee. Brent Budowsky of The Hill has suggested that the “intensity of opinion” of their supporters—motivating them to actually show up—means that they both may do even better than their polling numbers in the early states. But, Budowsky continues, if one of them is actually nominated, the chasm between their views and those of most Americans—and the millions who would passionately turn out to vote not just for the Democrat but against the Republican—may well lead to a landslide, for our side. Indeed, in almost an exact parallel to the Democratic fear that a Bernie candidacy would end up “like George McGovern in 1972,” longtime Republican fundraiser Austin Barbour says: “If we’re not careful and we nominate Trump, we’re looking at a race like Barry Goldwater in 1964.”
Indeed, Bernie himself has said: “I would love, love, love to run against Donald Trump … It would be a dream come true.”
But it won’t come true unless we make him our nominee.
REASON #3: BERNIE HAS DECISIVELY DEFEATED MANY REPUBLICAN OPPONENTS.
Hillary Clinton has run only two general election races against Republicans in her life. For U.S. Senate, in the state of New York, in the fall of 2000 and again in the fall of 2006. She won them both. Yet it is fair to say in both that she faced only token Republican opposition—non-heavyweights, candidates with perhaps 10% of her own virtually universal name recognition.
Bernie Sanders, by contrast—with hardly the same name recognition (even still) as the former FLOTUS—has fought and won a full 14 general election campaigns against Republicans in the state of Vermont. That's 4 races for Burlington mayor, 8 races for the U.S. House, and 2 races for the U.S. Senate.
Moreover, he has successfully won over Republican and centrist voters in many of these races. And that track record seems to be carrying over to his presidential campaign as well. Want to know the main reason Bernie performed better than Hillary against those various hypothetical Republican opponents ("Reason #10" above)? According to Marist polling director Lee Miringoff, because in each separate matchup he consistently did better with independents! Now there are several Facebook groups that exist exclusively for lifetime Republicans who intend this year to vote for Bernie Sanders. And others for independents. And others for longtime nonvoters.
Because today, it's hardly only hardcore Democrats who feel ever more tightly squeezed by the economic realities of 21st century American capitalism. It's likely not only liberals who laughed darkly at the recent Onion headline: “Man Dying From Cancer Spends Last Good Day On Phone With Insurance Company.” And it can’t be only citizens “on the far left” who feel alienated and marginalized and completely disengaged from a broken American political system.
So if the Democrats are looking for their most seasoned and proven candidate for the November election? The candidate who has run and won a great many November elections against Republican opponents? And the candidate who, right now, is showing by far the greater crossover appeal?
That candidate is Bernie Sanders.
REASON #2: THE TRIUMPH OF TURNOUT.
There's a strong argument to be made that more and more elections today are won not by "tacking to the center," but instead by appealing to the base. That is arguably why the Republicans have built such significant majorities in statehouses, state legislatures, and the United States Congress—because they do a far better job at motivating their base in these lower turnout elections.
I know an awful lot of Republicans and I know an awful lot of Democrats. But how many authentic "independents" do you actually know who regularly find themselves genuinely undecided between Republicans and Democrats? It’s hard to believe that there are all that many of these mythical unicorns.
But there surely are, on the other hand, millions and millions of lifetime Democrats and lifetime Republicans—who don't bother to show up when their candidates don't give them a clear, compelling, exciting reason to do so. It’s worth recalling that the last time we chose a candidate based on electability we got John Kerry—whose failure to generate any excitement cost us the 2004 election. When the Democrats have achieved electoral successes in recent years, the data indicate that these victories were driven by fired up women, powerfully motivated people of color, and unapologetic liberals—not by winning over swing voters.
I know an awful lot of people who are filled with enthusiasm and zeal about the Bernie candidacy. These are the people who will give him not only their votes in November, but their money and shoe leather in September and October as well. But how many people do you know who feel the same kind of passion and intensity about Hillary Clinton?
The fiery progressive Bernie Sanders could fire up the Democratic base in a way that few Democratic candidates have done in our lifetimes. The young people who have flocked in such waves to Bernie’s rallies may actually vote in meaningful numbers this time. Why? Because Bernie is the first candidate who has ever spoken to them in a meaningful way about the multiple failings of what Harold Meyerson calls “the gig economy.” “Young Americans,” says Meyerson, “may have heard their nation once had a middle-class majority, but (they) have never experienced it themselves.” The vastly higher voter turnout rates in so many other countries around the world shows just how many potential American voters are out there—waiting to be mobilized. Bernie is the kind of authentic and inspirational candidate who could move millions and millions of Americans—both hard core Democratic base voters and new voters—to show up in November 2016.
But that will only happen if we nominate him as our candidate for president.
REASON #1: THIS IS ONE WEIRD YEAR.
If anyone tells you they have with complete certainty “figured out what’s going on” in this election cycle, don’t let them sell you a skyscraper at 57th and 5th. “Apparently this is an F you election,” said the Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman on the radio, with some exasperation, on the Friday before Iowa. No one really knows what to make of the twin ascendancies of a narcissistic business mogul in one party and an avowed socialist in the other. But surely, for all their differences—one appealing to tribal insularity and the other to the better angels of our nature—both candidates are tapping into a deep societal disaffection and alienation, profound uncertainty about rapid global change, bottomless socioeconomic worries and struggles, a dismissal of the tired old left/right spectrum, fear about the future, and a belief that Washington as it presently operates seems incapable of doing anything meaningful about any of it.
This suggests strongly that the 45th American president will not be a conventional, centrist, incremental, insider politician. That president will likely be instead someone with a profound authenticity, someone who really gets those profound anxieties, and someone who is offering a vision equal in magnitude to the enormous challenges of our unfolding 21st century.
Isn’t the Democratic candidate with the best chance to win the November election the one who best fits that bill?
So there you go, Jack and Alex. If it turns out you actually prefer Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders, based on such things as ethics, character, temperament, honesty, policy positions, leadership capacity, and ultimate potential to improve not just American lives but the universal human condition—then in the primaries and caucuses you should vote for Hillary Clinton. But if, based on those same kinds of criteria, you find Bernie Sanders to be the superior choice—then you should vote for Bernie Sanders.
Because if the framers of our constitution had anything in mind, it was that when you pull that curtain closed behind you, you ought to vote for who you want (today), not for who you think other people will want (nine months from today).
Because as six-time presidential candidate Norman Thomas said, "I am not the champion of lost causes, but of causes not yet won."
And most importantly?
Because in the November election, Bernie Sanders can win.