I’m not going to bother quoting a litany of post-election think pieces trying to figure out why Clinton lost or, more pertinent to this blog post, whether Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders would have won. Short answer is obvious: we don’t know, so distrust anyone saying definitively one way or the other. And seemingly one of the big mistakes of this election among pundits and politicos alike was the belief that traditional methods with regards to anything campaign-related were still relevant enough to take on any kind of alternative strategy. So while the below isn’t exactly constructive, it invariably raises some points we can probably agree are worth considering if only for thirty seconds. Because I have no patience to try and make this a fluid, lucid, one-piece long-read, it’s presented numerically:
1. The Democrats didn’t have a real primary. I don’t mean that in the ‘it was rigged in Clinton’s favor!’ sense. (If that’s what you believe, you probably have little interest in examining whether a candidate like Sanders could have actually won, because I assume you already are convinced he would have. Goody.) I mean that there were five candidates who ever appeared on television, two of which dropped out immediately (Democrat-In-Name-Only Jim Webb and Lincoln Chaffee, who gave perhaps the worst answer in a debate ever), and a third who dropped out after the first primary and whom the Wall Street Journal once identified in a picture as “unidentified man” (Martin O’Malley). Plenty of others could have entered and tipped the scales in one direction or another. It’s not like the Bernie coalition was so loyal that they completely refused to show up on November 8, so we can only guess how an imaginary panel of contestants would have split the vote.
2. At the same time, I seriously wonder whether any other candidate with the exception of Joe Biden or perhaps Elizabeth Warren could have been a real contender against Clinton the way Sanders was. It’s nothing short of amazing that a not-terribly-well-known senator who wasn’t even a party member was able to disrupt what was essentially a coronation for Clinton so severely. Clinton had the backing of the party and its members, an incredible fundraising apparatus, unprecedented name recognition, experience in every field relevant to the presidency, and endorsements from coast-to-coast. Yet she was nearly tripped up by a non-party member socialist Jew with frazzled hair, who had a smattering of endorsements and fundraising that consisted almost entirely of small donations. Had the Democratic party establishment been even a bit less in lockstep with Clinton, who knows what could have happened. Regardless, what Sanders achieved given all its modesty and what would have been traditional hindrances in any other primary season is nothing short of astounding.
3. On the other hand, I really don’t give credence to conspiracy theories about the nomination being stolen from Bernie. It seems every issue that his supporters brought up during and after the primaries wasn’t a revelation about something new (you’re really stretching if you think you discovered a covert plan to upend Sanders in those emails), but rather a standing practice that seemed outdated, and in some cases are. One, for example, was the New York primary, which really wasn’t any more grievous than that their voter registration process is arcane and stupid—a real grievance, but not a deliberate attempt to subvert the election. Another is superdelegates, a practice Bernie supporters were suddenly vehemently against once it was clear that advantage was going to Clinton. But two quick points on that: A) Had Bernie gotten more votes and won more states than Clinton by a margin more than a hair, I don’t doubt they would have switched allegiances, and B) superdelegates are designed to keep party outsiders from swooping in and nabbing the nomination. Kind of like, say, Trump. Point is, one reason he didn’t have intra-party support is because he was not part of the party, and had said some not-too-friendly things about Obama. It’s not even necessarily that I think his criticisms were wrong, but politics is sometimes a game (an awful one, sure, but a game), and if you want to be the nominee for a party you don’t belong to, you can’t complain when its loyal members line up behind the traditional establishment choice and are suspicious of you for criticizing a still-serving popular president.
4. But he didn’t get the nomination, so we never had the chance to see how he’d handle Trump in a debate, or what the Republican smear machine would have thrown at him. There are a few predictable jabs. One is the article he wrote about women and rape decades ago. Another is that he’s a socialist and so would be labeled a dangerous commie monster who wanted to tax you at 90% (Trump made a similar if not identical allegation at some point). Another would be that he was a bit of a bum for a good number of his younger years. Regardless, I feel confident enough to say that he probably, probably would have fared better than Clinton did, because no matter what the Republicans could have slung, they didn’t have the advantage of nearly thirty years’ worth of target practice. Among Republicans, a selling point could have been that Sanders hasn’t been a lifelong Democrat. (Clinton hasn’t been either, but it was too late to try and point that out to anyone.) But just because you or I can’t think of issues Republicans could have concocted to lob at Sanders, remember that they successfully smeared the Vietnam service record of John Kerry when he was running against two draft dodgers. Do not underestimate them.
5. Regardless, Sanders had his own problems during the primaries. He faced considerable racial friction during his campaign. His arguments were largely couched in terms of economic class and wealth inequality, and while it was a message inclusive of blacks and Latinos, the message did not resonate with blacks especially. And it wasn’t like they were merely ambivalent about going all-in: Sanders got pounded in the south, and on top of that his campaign’s statements about this, while in my own opinion not completely gaffe-ful, were more than enough to be perceived that way, and that’s all that matters. You want to talk about a voter bloc not showing up in November? Perhaps the tides would have shifted and blacks would have wound up voting for Sanders in near-equal numbers as they did for Clinton. But such little support in the primaries should be disconcerting.
6. But if you want a thought experiment, run this scenario through your head: The Bernie-or-Busters who didn’t vote for Hillary refuse to take any blame for Clinton losing the election. They have their reasons, and that’s fine. Assuming there are enough of them that their non-vote for Clinton was enough to turn the tide against her in a handful of key states, imagine what their reaction would be were the roles reversed. That is, imagine Sanders did get the nomination, and a significant chunk of Clinton diehards—upset about any number of things that Sanders supporters were upset about—decided to not show up in November the same way Bernie-or-Busters didn’t show up for Clinton, thereby making the election results the same in this imaginary scenario. Now, what would those Sanders supporters have to say to those people?
7. One of the biggest reasons I’m not convinced Sanders would have won is that my gut feeling (not worth much, but it’s what I got) is that most Trump supporters would have voted for Trump regardless. With nearly 4.5 million votes, and with the decreased turnout from 2012, I think the Republicans who were ambivalent enough about Trump either went for Johnson or stayed home. Some probably voted for Clinton, but I doubt it’s that many. And I can’t imagine those disaffected Republicans (who are probably ‘movement conservatives’ or whatever they call themselves) would have voted for a socialist. Libertarian-leaning voters especially wouldn’t vote for Sanders. So I don’t doubt that Sanders being the nominee would have shaken up demographics a bit from how they played out in reality, but I don’t see much that convinces me they were largely in his favor. I remember the polls, yes, but we see how that turned out. And those were before Sanders faced any real Republican pushback.
8. But this much I think is true: Democrats need to knock it off with talk about appealing to centrist voters or the white working class. If anything, the Sanders campaign proved there is a sizeable part of this country—much more a true ‘silent majority’ than Trump’s non-majority silent majority—is willing to actively sign on with and endorse leftist policies, and many more are content to go along with them or at least give them a try. I’m not saying ditch identity politics—that’d be a huge ‘fuck you’ to voters who have helped the Democratic party a lot more than those ‘white working class’ voters who are fickle at best. (Imagine being a black woman who voted Democrat, only to learn that in 2020 the Democrats decided to tone down their message to you in order to appeal hard to the white voters who elected Trump—how do you think you’d feel?) What I’m saying is that the big-government economic policies at the federal level advanced by Sanders (and occasionally spouted by Trump in a severe break from Republican orthodoxy, specifically Medicare/Medicaid and social security) are a lot more popular than we’re led to believe. When people understand them, they support them. And it’s not a mystery why: it’s good to look out for other people, but it’s hard when you can’t look out for yourself.