Bernie Sanders: Pro and Con

It appears that Bernie Sanders will win the Democratic Nomination — the 538 website rates his chances as “1 in 2.” Bernie is not my favorite candidate; nonetheless, if he wins the Democratic nomination, I’ll work hard for him. Here’s my assessment of Bernie’s strengths and weaknesses.

The latest Real Clear Politics summary of national polls shows Sanders beating Trump by an average of 4.7 percent.  Nonetheless, we remember all too well that Clinton led Trump throughout a long and agonizing campaign and then lost the election, courtesy of the electoral college.  Bernie can beat Trump but it’s far from certain.  (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/02/24/who-would-win-trump-sanders-election/)

Sanders’ strengths:  1. Enthusiasm.  If you’ve followed the 2020 Democratic nomination process, you’ve probably noticed that Bernie Sanders’ followers are the most enthusiastic.  There are a lot of reasons for this, but Sanders’ rallies have the most energy.

It isn’t always the case that follower enthusiasm translates into get-out-the-vote energy, but it is a major consideration; in my experience, 2008 Obama election workers were more enthusiastic than 2016 Clinton workers.  Enthusiasm is an important factor because, at the moment, Democratic voters, in general, are more enthusiastic than Republican voters.  (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-enthusiasm-exclusive/exclusive-ahead-of-2020-election-a-blue-wave-is-rising-in-the-cities-polling-analysis-shows-idUSKBN20D1EG )

Imagine two campaign rallies in Ohio: one for Trump and the other for the Democratic nominee.  Only a Bernie rally would match the enthusiasm at the Trump rally.  This makes sense because both candidates rile up their audience with a populist, “blow up the establishment” message.

2. Broad Coalition: Bernie appears to be able to build the broad coalition that Democrats have been yearning for.  The Nevada Democratic caucus exit polls (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/entrance-polls-2020-nevada-caucuses/) indicate that Sanders carried most Demographic groups; for example, all age groups except those voters aged 65 and over.  (Sanders carried 29 percent of White-non Hispanic voters and 51 percent of Hispanic voters.)

A lot of concerns that we might have had about  Bernie’s ability to build a broad coalition have been assuaged in the last couple of weeks.  His core message resonates with all segments of he Democratic Party  — although he needs to do more to reach out to women who were once ardent Hillary supporters.  (Bernie’s core message is “the system is rigged:” “Bernie has fought tirelessly for working families, focusing on the shrinking middle class and growing gap between the rich and everyone else.”)

3. Swing State Strength:  Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because she faltered in critical swing states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wiscconsin.  According to Real Clear Politics, in Michigan, Sanders leads Trump by 5.3 percent; in Pennsylvania, Sanders leads Trump by 3 percent; and in Wisconsin, Trump leads Sanders by 1 percent.  (BTW: In the last Ohio poll, Sanders was ahead of Trump; they’re tied in Florida.)

Sanders’ weaknesses: 1. Socialist label: Bernie describes himself as a “Democratic Socialist.”  This has given pundits a huge opportunity to criticize him.  Many mainstream-media talking heads have declared that because of his socialist label, Sanders will never beat Trump.  I’m not convinced that the socialist label will make that much of a difference.

First, Sanders isn’t really a socialist.  New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, observed: “The thing is, Bernie Sanders isn’t actually a socialist in any normal sense of the term. He doesn’t want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning; he has expressed admiration, not for Venezuela, but for Denmark. He’s basically what Europeans would call a social democrat — and social democracies like Denmark are, in fact, quite nice places to live, with societies that are, if anything, freer than our own.”

Second, there will be two kinds of 2020 campaign ads: vitriol and substance.  The Republican vitriol ads will call Bernie a socialist and predict dire consequences.  The Democratic vitriol ads will call Trump a pathological liar and a Russian asset.  If you already like Trump you will vote for him regardless of the negative ads; if you don’t like Trump, you’re unlikely to vote for him regardless of what they say about Bernie.

Nonetheless, a recent academic study published in Vox (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/2/25/21152538/bernie-sanders-electability-president-moderates-data ) suggests that a Sanders’ candidacy would be problematic: “Our survey data reveals voters of all parties moving to Trump if Sanders is nominated, a liability papered over by young voters who claim they would be inspired to vote by Sanders alone.”

2. Weak Coattails:  The main reason Democratic pundits are worried about Bernie is because they fear that a “Democratic Socialist” will hurt “down ballot” Democratic candidates.  Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg has made this assertion: “Bernie Sanders would ‘jeopardize’ the re-election of 42 House Democrats in battleground districts and therefore the party’s majority rule of the chamber if the self-described Democratic socialist becomes the party’s nominee for president.”

In 2020, Democrats have to take back both the Presidency and the Senate.  If “Moscow Mitch” McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader, he will block most Democratic legislative initiatives.  From here, the contested Senate seats are: Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, and North Carolina.  (Democrats have to win four.)

Consider the situation in Arizona, where there’s a contested Senate seat now held by Republican Martha McSally — a Trump acolyte.  In the 2020 Arizona Senatorial election, she’ll be opposed by former astronaut Mark Kelly — husband of former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords.  In 2016, Arizona narrowly went to Trump.  Would Bernie Sanders help or hurt Mark Kelly?

I think that having Bernie as the 2020 Democratic nominee will help improve Arizona voter turnout and that will help Mark Kelly.  Republicans will run negative ads targeting Bernie and Democrats will run negative ads targeting Trump; those will cancel out.

The Nevada exit polls indicated that the most important issues were: health care, climate change, and income inequality. If these are the most important issues in (neighboring) Arizona, Sanders will help Mark Kelly  because Bernie is much stronger on these issues than is Trump.  (Actually Trump isn’t strong on any issue other than the “economy” and, at the moment, this is teetering because of the impact of the coronavirus.)

I believe that Bernie will help down-ballot Democratic senatorial candidates in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine.  I’m not sure about Georgia, Kansas, and North Carolina.

3. Temperament: Like Trump, Bernie offers his own brand of charisma.  That attracts loyal followers but masks his irascibility.  He really is crochety Uncle Bernie.

Writing in the New York Times ( https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/26/opinion/bernie-sanders.html?referringSource=articleShare), Frank Bruni observes: “[Bernie Sanders] isn’t and has never been popular with his Democratic colleagues in the Senate… I know that because I’ve heard some of those colleagues talk about him, describing him as arrogant, uncooperative, unyielding, even mean.”

Summary: Maybe the 2020 election will come down to “our S.O.B. versus their S.O.B.”  Personally, I’d hoped that the Democratic candidate would be someone who could make progress on healing the nation.  Perhaps that’s too much to hope for.