The blunt truth: I just can’t see Bernie Sanders winning a general election. Three months ago, I thought it might be possible, maybe. But watching the campaign unfold as it has, and given some time to ponder how circumstances might play themselves out, I’ve become less convinced that he could beat any of the Republicans. He’d probably have the best shot against Ted Cruz. But in that case, as we now know, Mike Bloomberg would get in, and I think he’d be formidable, but I don’t want to get into why here. That’s another column, if indeed it ever needs to be written.
This column is about Sanders’s chances, which I think are virtually nil for two reasons.
Reason one: He’s not an enrolled Democrat. Understand that I say this not as a judgment on him, but as a description of what would surely become, were he the nominee, a deep, practical liability. Let me explain.
That he’s not an enrolled Democrat doesn’t matter, obviously, to his fans. I’m sure it doesn’t matter to most rank-and-file Democrats. It doesn’t matter to me. But you’d better believe it matters to Democratic office holders and party officials—members of Congress, state legislators, governors, mayors, national committee members, and state committee members across the country. These people are Democrats, and they’re Democrats for a reason. It’s important to them.
A party’s nominee, to these people, needs to lead the party—he or she needs to be the country’s No. 1 Democrat. Sanders has never been a Democrat, which is fine, it’s served him well. But even as he made the decision to seek the presidency as a Democrat, he doesn’t seem to have made any effort to act like he cares about the party he wants to lead.
Politico in early January published an interesting news story comparing Clinton’s and Sanders’s fundraising operations. Clinton raised more than $100 million in 2015, and Sanders $73 million. But here was the key thing: In addition to that $100 million Clinton bagged for herself, she raised an additional $18 million for Democrats around the country.
The Sanders figure? Zero.
There’s a lot I don’t know about life. But I know this: Democratic office holders keep tabs on that sort of thing. Now maybe some of them didn’t want Bernie Sanders at their fundraisers, but that wouldn’t have prevented the Sanders operation from writing checks to progressive Democrats all over the country as a kind of down payment, which apparently did not happen. Also, Sanders could just say at any time, “You know what? I’m a Democrat now.” He cannot, technically, enroll as one, because Vermont has open, non-party registration. He could however simply say it, but he hasn’t. He caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, but that’s just because any senator has to choose one side or the other.
Partly as a result of this, and for other reasons, Sanders has very little Democratic support. He has one Democratic member of Congress, Keith Ellison of Minnesota (out of 232); and, according to the relevant Wikipedia page, just 115 Democratic state legislators across the country. Actually, that’s not across 50 states; it’s across only 14 states. Of the 115, 94 are from New England: Maine 37, Vermont 29, New Hampshire 19, Connecticut five, Massachusetts four. The Vermont number of 29 is particularly interesting, because the Vermont General Assembly (which includes both houses) has 103 Democrats, meaning that Sanders doesn’t have even one-third of the Democrats in his own state.
Maybe 115 sounds like a quasi-respectable figure to you. But there are 3,175 Democratic state legislators in America (.pdf). So 115 is nothing. And again, the vast majority come from states right in his neighborhood. Where are the others from? According to this list, to take stock of some large states and key swing states, there’s one from Ohio; zero from Florida; zero from Virginia; zero from Colorado; zero from New Mexico; one from Nevada; two from New York; one from Illinois; and from California, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, zero, zero, and zero.
Now, my argument is not that endorsements matter that much. Rather, the important part is the likely consequence of this lack of support. Say it’s late spring, and somehow or another, Sanders is charging toward the nomination. He’ll pick up some more Democratic endorsers, in safe liberal districts in states that he won. But here’s what’s going to happen. Every one of those roughly 3,200 elected officials is going to conduct a poll of his or her district to ascertain whether association with Sanders helps or hurts. It’s my guess that for a lot of them—and I would say the substantial majority of them—the answer is going to be “hurts.”
And even if that’s not the case, these legislators will sound out, as they inevitably do, their top donors, and their districts’ major employers. How many Sanders enthusiasts are going to be found among those two groups? These legislators will keep their distance from Sanders. They won’t do the things that party people normally do for their nominee—go out and make speeches, share voter information, give tips about the district that only they know, and so on.
This will vary from district to district and state to state, but the sum and substance will likely be, if I’m right, that in a number of important jurisdictions, the message of the state and local Democratic candidates and party infrastructures to Sanders will be: You’re on your own, pal. Politicians think of their own necks first, and they’re fearful of the unknown and are overly cautious on matters like this anyway.
So that’s the first reason: Having never been a Democrat, and having even not given them any of his money in this past year, Sanders just isn’t going to get much help from Democrats. The Democratic Party hasn’t nominated someone who wasn’t an enrolled member of the party since, I believe, 1872, when it chose newspaperman Horace Greeley (I’m still checking on Gen. Winfield Scott, 1880, but even if it was he, that’s a long time ago).
Now, the second reason. I think Sanders is uniquely vulnerable to scorching foreign-policy attacks. Scorching. He’d be subject to stinging attacks on domestic policy, too, but on domestic policy, I’d imagine he can hold his own. On economics and health policy and monetary policy, whatever you think of his proposals, he clearly knows the nuts and bolts.
On foreign policy, that’s not so clear at all. It’s not his lefty past here that I’m mainly talking about, although you’d better believe that Republicans would make sure every voter in America knew about that, and they’d lie about its extent to boot. But even putting that to the side, the issue is his apparent lack of interest over all these years in foreign policy. The world is in a pretty parlous state right now, so I’d bet foreign policy will matter more in this election than it usually does, even without a Big Event in October. One factor that greatly benefited Bill Clinton in 1992 is that the Cold War had ended and foreign policy was low on voters’ radar screens. Sanders won’t be so lucky. I could write the ad myself, and it would be crushing, but I don’t want to give them ideas. Rest assured, they’ll think of them on their own.
And now, here’s where my first and second reasons relate to each other. If a nominee has strong backing from his party, when those attacks come, the other folks will have his back. If he doesn’t, they won’t. Mind you it is not my intent here to scold Sanders, even though many readers will take it that way. My intent is just to describe what I think would be the reality. When the right started savaging Sanders over foreign policy (and over socialism too, of course), the bulk of the support systems that are usually there for a candidate under attack won’t be.
Now, since I know this column is going to face plenty of rebuttal, let me spend two paragraphs pre-butting myself. It’s possible that if Sanders won the nomination, local Democrats would by and large just say “OK, he’s our guy,” and they’d get behind him. I don’t think so, for reasons stated above, but I concede that it’s possible, with so much at stake. And he still would have the support of the unions, who these days do most of the get-out-the-vote legwork. So it’s possible that a lack of support from Democratic candidates in swing (and other) states won’t be that severe and won’t mean as much as I suspect it will mean.
On foreign policy, we see from his debates with Clinton what Sanders’s reply will be: I opposed the Iraq War, and I was right. And second, I support Barack Obama’s foreign policy, so I’ll just do more of that. Who knows, that might be enough. My suspicion is that it will not be. It certainly won’t be against Donald Trump, who also opposed the war in Iraq, making that issue a wash between the two of them. But I suspect that as a general election campaign progresses, Sanders will have a harder and harder time leaning on a decision he made 14 years ago, even though it was the right one.
So that leads to my first stipulation. I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before, and I’ll be wrong again. Despite what some of you are going to say on Twitter and elsewhere, I don’t presume to know everything.
Stipulation No. 2: Though I admire Hillary Clinton, my argument doesn’t have anything to do with her. It’s not a brief for Clinton. She has a number of flaws. She lacks the natural pol’s exuberant charisma, she has made errors of strategic judgment in her career that make me wonder how effective she’d be at negotiating with Republicans (or Israelis and Palestinians), and though I don’t think she’s corrupt, this stonewalling reflex of hers is just terrible, and it’s kind of shocking after all these years that she can’t see how poorly it has served her.
And she comes with risk. As I wrote Monday, I doubt she’ll be indicted over the email business. But something short of that could still prove politically problematic: an FBI report that gives Republicans enough grist to grind through the attack-ad mill this fall, say.
So what I’ve written here doesn’t have to do with her. Joe Biden could be the mainstream candidate, or John Kerry, or Joe Manchin, or Claire McCaskill, or a Democratic governor, or anybody, and I’m certain I’d still think the same thing.
My feeling that Sanders could win a general election was never strong, based on the usual stuff, i.e., 74-year-old socialist from Vermont. But recently I’ve been reflecting on these two matters, his lack of affiliation with the party whose standard he wants to bear, and his unique vulnerability to attack on foreign policy at a time when those issues are much more in the forefront of voters’ minds than usual. As I’ve written before, current general election head-to-head polling is meaningless, since conservatives haven’t yet spent a dollar attacking him. If he’s the nominee, they’re going to spend at least five hundred million of them doing that. And some Democrats, more likely a lot of Democrats, are going to run away from him. I can’t see how that ends well.
UPDATE: A first reader reminds me that Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona has also endorsed Sanders. A second reader corrects that the Democratic nominee of 1880 was Gen. Winfield Hancock. Winfield Scott was the Whig Party nominee of 1852.