Bernie Sanders is very electable. People who argue he isn’t are ignoring the facts. To start with, there’s all the polling showing that he outperforms every other candidate in head to head matchups vs Donald Trump. If you go look at the head to head polling of every swing state except Florida, he wins, and generally wins by significantly more than any other Democratic candidate.* But many people respond to this by arguing that polls this far out aren’t accurate (which is somewhat true), and then proceed to make a theoretical argument against his electability. It generally goes something like this: Bernie can’t appeal to moderates and independents, and that’s who you need to win over to win elections. People who make these arguments are living with an outdated model of U.S. politics. Frankly, moderates and independents don’t matter anymore. At least, not in presidential elections.
Not All Independents Are Moderate, In Fact Very Few Are
First of all, there are very few of them: 2.4% of the electorate is undecided, moderate, independents. In fact, both “Moderates” and “Independents” are essentially as likely as people who identify as “Republican” and “Democrat” to consistently vote for a single party in every election. Many independents actually are too far left of the Democrats or too far right of the Republicans to want the party label. Of those who actually are independent, most are politically disengaged and often don’t vote at all.
So, the idea that there is some contingent of rational, independent, moderate swing voters is a myth. How, then, are elections won? It would seem that most elections in this era are won by turning out your base better than the other side. Trump didn’t win because he won over a bunch of moderates. He won because Clinton was uninspiring so a bunch of people stayed home, especially minority voters. Trump, meanwhile, got a bunch of conservative-leaning people who had given up on the system excited and got them to show up – turnout was actually up in certain red states, especially among white voters. To be fair, it’s slightly speculative to say they liked Trump, since it’s impossible to tell from statistics who was excited about Trump and who was motivated to vote by hatred of Clinton, but we can safely lump those voters together for now. Dislike of Clinton was not limited to Republicans, however.
In Michigan, 87,810 people didn’t vote for president at all – not even third party. Clinton only lost the state by 13,107, so if just 1/6th of those voters had been willing to vote for her, she would have won. We can safely presume that at least 1/6th of them were Democrats. And of course, that’s not considering the 1/3 of all registered voters in Michigan who didn’t show up to vote. Michigan is just one example. In 14 states, down-ballot candidates received more votes than presidential candidates. And nearly 100 million people – 43% of eligible voters – didn’t vote in 2016. Turnout was depressed overall, in spite of Trump bringing in new right-wing voters. And registered voters who stayed home were more likely to be democrat-leaning than those who showed up.
Bernie Sanders Motivates First Time and Obama-Trump Voters
That being said, Trump did win some voters who had voted for Obama last time. Who were these voters? They were generally economic liberals who felt that the neoliberal consensus had left them behind, who were worried about good paying jobs and affordable healthcare. They were populists and they liked the idea of Trump’s promised infrastructure spending. They are persuadable voters, but they aren’t actually moderates – they are populists who don’t fit well in our current two party system. Trump won them because he was saying that the economic system was broken and wasn’t working for them anymore, it was only working for the wealthy and insiders. He promised to get rid of corruption and make the government work for them again. To a large extent he has not kept the promises that made him appealing to them, but this is more obvious to Democrats than to these voters. Running someone who is similar to Hillary Clinton will not win back these voters, no matter how obvious it may be to you that Trump betrayed them. In their minds, Obama did too.
To be fair, there is a contingent of Romney-Hillary voters, and it is legitimate to be concerned that such voters might not vote for Bernie. But they’ve already proven they won’t vote for Trump. More importantly, there are less than half as many of them as Obama-Trump voters, and they live in states that are already very blue. Even Thirdway says that they won’t be what gets Democrats a winning coalition. Meanwhile, there are twice as many Obama-Trump voters, and Obama-Trump voters are very likely to live in swing states, especially the all-important rust belt. And of course, there is an immense number of voters who feel that the system is designed to screw them and don’t bother voting because they see most candidates as an empty suit who won’t advocate for meaningful change.
Another criticism I hear is that minorities don’t like Bernie. That’s completely false. Bernie can motivate minorities, especially those who have not voted before. Let’s look at the results prior to Super Tuesday. At the four spanish language caucus sites in Iowa, Bernie won 97% of the vote, and he did exceptionally well at all precincts that had a plurality of Latinos. Bernie won 51% of Latinos in Nevada, in a 7 person race – and 63% of the Latinos who came out said it was their first time caucusing. What about African Americans? Yes, South Carolina went to Joe Biden. But 47% of the people who voted in South Carolina said that James Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden was an important factor in their vote – that’s almost everyone who voted for Joe Biden. So the loss there has more to do with local political roots, not with Bernie being weak with black voters. Sanders has a 37 point net-favorability with black voters. In a poll asking if voters thought a candidate would be a “great, good, average, poor or terrible president,” 62% of black voters said Bernie would be good or great, and 27% said he would be average. This was comparable to their opinion of Hillary Clinton! When polled, non-white voters said that Bernie was the candidate who understood their problems best – he beat Biden by nine points in this category! In the same poll, 82% of non-white voters said that they’d be happy with Bernie as nominee, compared to only 74% for Biden.
So, how can we inspire voters and increase turnout? How can we motivate all the people who feel that the system doesn’t work for them? How can we speak to the Obama-Trump voters? How can we convince minorities who didn’t vote in 2016 – and those who have never voted – that there is a candidate worth voting for? How can we convince people that our nominee understands their problems and will fight for them? The answer is obvious: nominate Bernie Sanders.