‘Bernie beats Trump! Bernie beats Trump!’ That’s what Bernie Sanders’s fans keep chanting, and they have the polls to prove it. Survey after survey suggests that, of all the leading candidates for the Democratic party’s nomination, Sanders is most likely to defeat Donald Trump in the election in November. Voters like Bernie. Some 46 percent of voters say they admire him. Only 26 percent say the same of President Trump.
Still, most political experts think Sanders will be a disaster for the Democratic party. He may be popular with the base, they say, but he is far too left-wing for the general electorate: 2020 would be a repeat of 1972, when the radical leftie George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide. Sanders as nominee would all but guarantee four more years of Trump and put both houses of Congress back under Republican control.
Senior Democrats are freaking out. At the candidates’ debate in South Carolina on Tuesday night, Michael Bloomberg even rehashed the idea that Vladimir Putin is driving Sanders’s success — a sure sign of elite despair.
What Sanders’s campaign has really shown is that all the expert theories as to why Bernie can’t win are not so clever. It’s said that he can’t appeal to racial minorities, yet in Nevada last weekend he won 27 percent of African American voters and 53 percent of Hispanics. It’s said that only young voters are drawn to his socialism, yet he won every age group apart from the over-65s. He’s meant to have a ‘ceiling’ of about 30 percent of Democratic voters, yet he won about 47 percent of the vote, including about 22 percent of voters who identified as ‘moderate’. By Wednesday next week, after Super Tuesday — when 14 states vote — his lead could be insurmountable.
The best news for Bernie is that his rivals are so weak. Joe Biden’s candidacy is a sad spectacle, his mind is gone, yet his zombie campaign drags itself on. Pete Buttigieg is a clear second in the delegate count, yet his pale imitation of Barack Obama’s rhetorical style leaves people cold. Amy Klobuchar is doing enough not to be discounted, yet not well enough to count. Elizabeth Warren has faded dramatically, but she kept her candidacy on life support with a good performance in last week’s TV debate. The person who lost that debate in Nevada was indisputably Mike Bloomberg. He still has enough money to brainwash and cajole large chunks of the electorate. He had a slightly better debate this week in South Carolina, but everybody knows he has a serious personality problem.
Team Bloomberg and Team Sanders now loathe each other — possibly more than they despise Trump. After Bloomberg’s campaign offices were vandalized this week, his staff were quick to blame Sanders’s inflammatory language. Bloomberg then upped hostilities by attacking Sanders for having once had the support of the gun lobby. It is heresy to be pro-gun in some Democratic circles; then again, plenty of Democrats love guns.
That’s the point about Bernie: the usual rules don’t apply. Similar to Trump, his supposed weak spots are his strengths. His fuddy-duddy appearance makes him cool. His socialist radicalism is so old-fashioned that it speaks to conservatives. He can win over ultra-progressives in multiracial metropolises while appearing to stand up for poor whites in rural areas. He has that populist juju. If the media ignores him, that’s an elite conspiracy; if they attack him, ditto. So he once wrote a strange essay about rape. So what?
Sanders shrugs off criticism. On Monday, at a CNN town hall, he was challenged for having said that Fidel Castro’s literacy programs were a success. ‘The truth is the truth,’ he said. He’ll get away with that. British observers might be reminded of Corbyn and the IRA stuff: a minority feels outraged that a man who supported the bad guys can be so brazen; the majority can’t remember and doesn’t care.
Some commentators are also eager to claim that Sanders’s movement is, like Corbyn’s, racist against Jews, because he has the support of public figures such as Linda Sarsour and Ilhan Omar, who have flirted with anti-Semitism. But that point is neatly undercut by the fact that Bernie is a proud Jew who once lived on a kibbutz. It would be an irony of almost biblical proportions if the first Jewish president turned out to be a rabid anti-Semite.
Unless the various attack machines can find a way to stop him in the coming days, or Bloomberg somehow rigs a brokered party convention in July, Sanders will be the nominee. Yet beating Donald Trump is another matter. Can Sanders win over those six million or so swing voters who supported Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016? He might speak to their lingering disgruntlement. Yet it’s equally possible that a booming economy has locked them in for Trump.
The economy could turn bad — but even then a Trump vs Sanders contest might prove that right-wing populism out-muscles left-wing populism. Team Trump will portray Sanders as ‘the job killer’ because he wants to ban fracking and abandon the current healthcare system, both of which would put an enormous number of people out of work. That point could be far more devastating than any grainy footage of young Bernie saying the gulags weren’t so bad.
Sanders could choose a black running mate to boost Democratic turnout among African Americans, something Hillary Clinton failed to do. But he needs to mobilize huge numbers of black voters to win in November — and Trump has had some success countering that Democratic advantage with his appeals to African Americans.
Bernie may indeed be the best-placed Democratic candidate to beat Trump. That doesn’t mean he will.