Sanders and the debate over “electability”

The contest for the Democrat presidential nomination holds its biggest vote so far this weekend, with the South Carolina primary. The latest polling points to a convincing win for Joe Biden, who badly needs it after his very poor start in Iowa and New Hampshire.

If Biden wins, it will probably set up a two-horse race for the rest of the primary season between him and Bernie Sanders, who for now is the clear favorite. A choice between two elderly white males – or three, if Mike Bloomberg gets a look in – is not what most Democrats would have expected when the process began, but they seem to be stuck with it.

What Democrat voters particularly want, as they keep telling pollsters, is someone who can beat Donald Trump. So a great deal of the debate between Sanders and Biden has focused not directly on their political positions, but on electability.

The anti-Sanders view on this is pretty clear: Sanders, his opponents say, is way out of the ideological mainstream and would alienate large numbers of swinging voters with little compensating advantage. He would lead the Democrats to the same fate that befell Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain.

Jon Chait in New York magazine is a forthright exponent of this position:

All the candidates have exposed themselves by taking at least a few unpopular positions, but none have gone quite as far as Sanders. What makes Bernie’s profile uniquely toxic is the way his liabilities all reinforce each other. He combines discrete, deeply unpopular policy positions with an unpopular socialist label, which in turn reinforce the fact that his campaign is premised on radically changing the economy, the one thing most voters believe Trump has done well.

David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, writing this week at Vox, take a more nuanced look at the evidence. Their data suggests that while polling gives Sanders roughly as good a chance against Trump as his rivals, that depends on his ability to increase turnout among young people to an extent that seems somewhat improbable:

Democrats should not be very reassured by early polls that find Sanders faring as well against Trump as the more moderate candidates: These numbers may only look decent for Sanders because they assume he will inspire a youth turnout miracle. 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.

The case for Sanders, on the other hand, can go one of two ways. One way, which the candidate himself seems to encourage, is the claim that he is radically different from the other Democrats. His politics is “revolutionary”, and will inspire enthusiasm from the disaffected who are otherwise drawn to Trump. Hence comparisons with other races, notably with George McGovern’s landslide defeat in 1972, are invalid.

Stephen Zunes, who actually worked on the McGovern campaign, makes this case at Truthout:

The antidote to right-wing populism based on a nativist and racist ideology is a multiracial left-wing populism based on inclusion. By contrast, a neoliberal centrism that has left so many Americans struggling economically provides fodder for those who seek to scapegoat immigrants and people of color.

Indeed, a Democratic victory comes within reach if Democrats mobilize higher turnout among youth, people of color, and other left-leaning Democrats and independents who stayed home or voted third party in 2016.

But the alternative, which seems to offer a better explanation of how Democrat voters are behaving so far, is to say that Sanders is not really so different from the others at all, and that his campaign against Trump would look much like any other Democrat candidacy, with much the same strengths and weaknesses.

Here’s Osita Nwanevu making this case in the New Republic:

If Sanders does secure the nomination, we could well see a similarly boring but still ultimately successful general election campaign that accomplishes exactly what any other Democratic candidate would work to accomplish—trying to win over some Obama-Trump voters in key swing states and bumping up minority turnout a bit. Not an epochal shift in American electoral politics but the very same simple victory the rest of the Democratic contenders are seeking.

It’s certainly true that some of Sanders’s positions are radical and unlikely to be electorally popular. But in the heat of a primary campaign it’s easy to overstate the extent of the differences. And the lesson of 2016 (which surprised many of us at the time) is that even a thoroughly unconventional candidate tends to attract much the same voters as anyone else from their party.

Things have changed since 1972; voter behavior is enormously more partisan. When McGovern lost the presidency by 18 million votes, the Democrats still held control of both houses of Congress by comfortable margins. Something like that is unimaginable today: most voters are rusted on to one party or the other, and they cling to their tribal allegiances with increasing fervor.

That’s not an argument against choosing the most electable candidate, and for what it’s worth I think that’s more likely to be Biden than Sanders. But it does suggest that no candidate is genuinely unelectable, and that their identity might make a lot less difference than either their friends or enemies would have you believe.


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