Over the past week, I’ve had several discussions with supporters of Bernie Sanders. In their arguments, they keep coming back to the point that they believe Bernie has the right prescription to fix what ails America. I don’t disagree with much of their analysis of the problems. I disagree with their belief that enough other Americans will agree with them or that the argument in a general election will play out to their liking.
If I thought Sanders had the best chance at beating Trump, I’d be on board whole hog, but I don’t. Sanders has spent the past 30 years touting his credentials as a socialist. Believe it or not, most of the people who will determine outcome of the election, low-information voters in a handful of states, don’t know that he calls himself a socialist. They don’t know much about him or his plans at all.
A poll out yesterday shows only 19% of voters have a positive view of socialism while 53% have a negative view of the ideology. Now, I don’t believe most people agree on what socialism is or means, but I don’t think a presidential race is the venue to educate them. Bernie has had a radio show for decades arguing for a more socialist country. You can bet GOP opposition researchers have listened to every episode, cherry picked his most controversial statements and repackaged them into devastating sound bites. For many swing voters, it will be the first information they get about the Vermont Senator.
I don’t think Sanders has a broad base. The people who will get excited about a Sanders’ candidacy are already in the game. He’s not going to attract a growing chorus of people who want broad change to our economy. Those people are already supporting him. A poll yesterday shows 75% of the people feel good about the economy. A poll from December shows 70% of the people are happy with their health insurance. However, Trump’s job approval rating is still upside down by 9 points.
Sanders wants to make the race about big structural changes to our economy. I don’t believe most Americans want that. They want stability and while they are happy with the economy, they’re dissatisfied with the direction of the country. Much of that probably reflects their opinion of Donald Trump.
If Sanders is nominated, the election will be as much about him and his agenda as it is about Trump. Democrats need to give voters something to vote for, like lowering health care costs and protecting Medicare, reducing college debt and making it more affordable, and raising the minimum wage, but the election needs to largely focus on Trump. People are tired of the non-stop reality show and the wild swings it brings. Their personal opinion of him is low and they don’t like the job he’s doing. In the wake of the impeachment, I suspect there is Trump fatigue just like Clinton fatigue played a role in the 2000 election. Given the fundamentals of that race, the election shouldn’t have come down to Florida.
Polls that measure general election viability at this point in the cycle are meaningless. They don’t take into account how campaigns will portray themselves or how their opponents will portray them. They might be fun to read, but they don’t reflect what voters will think in October.
In the case of Sanders, Republicans will hammer those low-information voters that break late and decide close elections with Bernie’s own words and actions. They’ll hear Bernie calling himself a socialist over and over against a backdrop of the failure of socialism in the 1980s. They’ll learn that while Democrats have been screaming about Russians, Bernie actually honeymooned in the former Soviet Union and praised eastern European socialism even as the people who lived there celebrated its end. They’ll hear that Bernie wants to take away their healthcare and replace it with a government program and Republicans will back up their argument with Sanders’ own words. And of course they’ll hear about how much Sanders’ plans will cost and how much their taxes will go up. When voters have that information, that’s when polls will matter.
As I’ve said before, if Bernie Sanders is the nominee, I’ll support him whole heartedly. However, Trump and Republicans are salivating over the prospect of his candidacy because they know Sanders is ill-defined among the voters they need to win. They believe they can use his own words to scare people away from Bernie and either make them stay home or vote for Trump. I think they’re probably right.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >