Is Sanders really unelectable?

SANDERS' FLAW: Supporters of Mrs Clinton (right) say that Mr Sanders (left) cannot win and become US president. They point out that voters see him as a socialist or a communist.


    Feb 11, 2016

    Is Sanders really unelectable?

    IS DEMOCRATIC Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont electable? As he has surged in the polls, supporters of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are issuing increasingly dire warnings about his general election prospects.

    On websites like Vox, many political scientists agree: He cannot win. Millions of dollars in Republican ads, they insist, will paint him a socialist or a red.

    It will be a debacle, critics predict, like Democratic Senator George McGovern's crushing 1972 loss, or Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, buried by President Lyndon Johnson's stunning landslide in 1964.

    Ironically, as Mr Sanders rises in the polls and does better than expected, the alarms grow in volume and intensity.

    Insurgent candidates face forbidding odds - but don't always lose. In 1980, establishment Republicans issued much the same warnings about former California governor Ronald Reagan.

    The latter not only won, he also led a re-alignment election. Republicans took control of the Senate and launched, in Barack Obama's words, a transformative presidency that marked the beginning of the conservative era.

    In 1984, Walter Mondale lost 49 states to incumbent President Reagan.

    President Richard Nixon and then Mr Reagan built the conservative Republican majority coalition by splitting off so-called Reagan Democrats - largely white, disproportionately Southern, working-class men - from the Democratic Party.

    The GOP attracted these voters with talk of God, guns and skilful use of race-baiting politics, while waging a war against gays and women.


    Mr Sanders similarly may have the potential to expand the Democratic majority coalition by attracting blue-collar, white male voters back.

    As Donald Trump's rise in the 2016 Republican primaries has shown, these blue-collar white male voters are restive. Mr Trump has garnered significant support with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim diatribes.

    But he has also echoed Mr Sanders by scorning the corruption of US electoral politics, failed US trade policies and endless wars without victory.

    Mr Sanders' passionate populism may gain him a hearing from these voters and forge a broader electoral majority coalition for the Democrats.

    Predicting whether Mr Sanders is a Reagan or a Goldwater is not easy.

    Polls that show him doing well in match-ups against potential Republican nominees are virtually meaningless.

    Mr Sanders has not even introduced himself to most Americans and the Republican assault on him has not begun.

    The assumption that he wins the nomination - against Mrs Clinton, who enjoys universal name recognition, the support of virtually the entire Democratic establishment, the best party operatives and all the money in the world - posits a stunning political rise.

    It would mean that Mr Sanders makes significant inroads among minority voters, sustains the enthusiasm of the young and consolidates his support among middle- and lower-income Democrats.

    As Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist from Emory University, has wisely noted, the fears of a Sanders electoral debacle may be overdone simply because the electorate is far more polarised now than when McGovern and Goldwater ran.

    The harsh negative partisanship of US politics, the growth of segmented media and the rise of social media have all helped consolidate more ideologically cohesive voting blocks.


    The question of electability is generally a comparative one: Is Mr Sanders more or less electable than Mrs Clinton?

    There is a natural tendency to assume that Mrs Clinton, the more moderate and experienced candidate, is presumptively more viable.

    But while Mr Sanders has clear vulnerabilities, so does Mrs Clinton.

    She is burdened with significant baggage - Wall Street money, the smarmy Clinton Foundation fundraising, the e-mail mess and more.

    Mr Sanders has been the most courtly of opponents but Republican attacks are and will be incessant and poisonous.

    Polls indicate Mrs Clinton already faces doubts about her honesty.

    Democrats go into the 2016 election cycle confident that they have a majority coalition: the young, people of colour, unmarried women and liberal professionals.

    If they show up in large numbers at the polls.

    Already, polls report an "enthusiasm gap" between Democratic and Republican voters.

    Mr Sanders has clearly electrified young people, whereas Mrs Clinton has not. He won voters aged 17 to 29 by an astounding 84 per cent to 14 per cent in Iowa, and enjoys a similar margin in tracking polls in New Hampshire.

    This is a troubling time, particularly for this new Democratic majority.

    The nation is still struggling to recover from what Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has begun calling the "long depression".

    Young people find themselves burdened with college debt, struggling with lousy job opportunities, inheriting a world of ceaseless war and catastrophic climate change.

    The alarming spread of drugs, suicide and declining life expectancy among white working-class men is only one measure of the scope of dismay.

    Growing movements - Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the young Latino Dreamers, the "Fight for $15" campaign for hourly minimum wage - reflect the growing demand for change.

    In this context, Mr Sanders offers a clear and passionate vision.

    He indicts an economy rigged by and for the few, and a politics corrupted by big money.

    His calls for fundamental reforms: Medicare for all, tuition-free public college, a US$15 (S$21) minimum wage, fair taxes on the rich, breaking up big banks, re-making US trade policies and meeting the challenge of climate change.

    He summons a "political revolution", of millions of people standing up to push politicians to respond.

    Mr Sanders has walked the walk - funding his campaign with literally millions of small donations, spurning the creation of Super PACs to collect large and dark contributions from the wealthy and corporations.

    Mrs Clinton dismisses Mr Sanders's agenda as unrealistic. Former President Bill Clinton scorns it as a "cartoon".

    She has made herself the candidate of continuity by defending Mr Obama's reforms, drawing distinctions mostly by being more hawkish on foreign policy.

    Mrs Clinton argues that progress can come only one step at a time - reaching out and seeking to find "slivers" of common ground with Republicans.

    She touts her experience and skill at negotiating in back rooms.

    But as New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow has argued, she has yet to show that she has a vision that can provide hope and inspiration and can mobilise voters.

    Yes, electing the first woman president would be historic - but thus far it has not been enough.


    This is also a battle over what the Democratic coalition looks like, who Democrats are and whom they fight for.

    Mrs Clinton seeks to consolidate the current arrangement - collecting upscale professionals repelled by Republican social conservatism and linking them with unmarried women, people of colour and the young.

    Mr Sanders seeks to consolidate a coalition based upon his core economic and political populism, without abandoning social liberalism.

    The authenticity of his appeal - his willingness to call out America's rigged economy and corrupted politics - give him the possibility of reaching into the white blue-collar workers, whom Mr Trump has already shown are shunning establishment Republicans.

    Mrs Clinton, of course, remains the prohibitive favourite to win the 2016 Democratic nomination.

    She has to show that she is viable electorally by laying out a vision and agenda that rouse energy among the Democratic base.

    If she does that, she could provide the best proof of Mr Sanders' lack of viability by beating him.