To hear many Bernie Sanders supporters tell it, if you’re for Bernie, you’re a bold reformer who’s not afraid to see truth spoken to power. And if you’re for Hillary Clinton, you’re a corporatist hack who opposes and can’t face up to the need for fundamental change.
It’s a seductive narrative for those of us who enjoy having the leisure time to debate political ideas, which many Americans do not; and it’s a framing that quite obviously benefits Sanders and casts Clinton and her fans as a priori sellouts.
But there’s another framing device that gets mostly overlooked in the media, because no one really articulates it. And I think of it anew considering the results from Saturday, with Sanders sweeping to these gargantuan wins in mostly white caucus states, and as looking toward the April 5 showdown in Wisconsin, where Clinton is up six in the latest poll but which favors Sanders on paper (very white, open primary).
And that frame is this: There are voters whose vote is an act of playing offense, and there are voters for whom their vote is mostly an act of very necessary defense.
What’s an offense vote? It’s a vote for an affirmative vision, for idealism, boldness, reform. Clinton has some offense voters, more than you’d know from the media—the women (and men, too) who find her inspiring and are unreservedly enthusiastic about the idea of her as president. But clearly, most of the offense voters this year are with Sanders.
To cast an offense vote, you likely are in a comparatively comfortable position personally. Some exit poll numbers support this notion, though I do want to be careful about overselling this because results vary so much from state to state. Many states, especially down South, were blowouts in which Clinton won nearly every category. But suffice it say that where Sanders has won or come close, he has outperformed Clinton among white college graduates. For example, in Michigan, he won that category by 54 to 43 percent; in Illinois, which he narrowly lost, he beat her among that group by 57 to 42 percent. On income categories, in the close races, Clinton has tended to win among the poorest voters, those under $30,000, while most of the results have been very close among those above $100,000.
But this isn’t reducible to income and can’t be quantified that easily. I’ve written this many times in my life, and I’ll rewrite it and rewrite it in every presidential election until I die, because it’s one of my core convictions: You can play offense with your vote if it doesn’t really make much difference to you, in your personal life, who the president is at the end of the day.
I’m not saying that applies to all Sanders voters. It obviously doesn’t. I’m sure for example that millions of young voters are drawn to him because, in addition to whatever idealism they feel, they see that Sanders is proposing things that will benefit them directly, like free college. I’m just saying that young and mostly white people with college degrees are, generally speaking, going to be all right in their personal lives whether the president is Sanders, Clinton, Trump or Cruz.
Now let’s look at the defensive voters. For these voters, something personal is on the line. And yes, I mean mostly African-American and Latino voters. If you’re black or Latino, your personal day-to-day life might be very different indeed under a Republican president than under a Democratic one. A Republican president, working with a GOP Congress, is going to take a meat cleaver to the kinds of safety net programs on which you or some member of your extended family is perhaps more likely to depend. If you’re black, you know that a Republican president and Congress could very well pass a law that imposes vast restrictions on the voting franchise, as Republicans are doing in many states where they have the run of the place. You know that affirmative action programs are at constant risk of being shut down. You know that they’re coming after public employee unions, which almost surely helped some member or members of your extended family get into the middle class.
And if you’re Latino… well, all I really need to say here is “President Trump.” But it’s not just Trump. As we’ve learned this year for certain, immigration is the No. 1 issue for the white nativist right; Trump just exploited it more nakedly than anyone else had dared to. And in any case, Cruz, too, wants to deport 12 million people and late last month started trying to out-Trump Trump on the question. (John Kasich, no, but his odds of becoming the nominee seem pretty slim.)
So if you’re African-American or Latino, you’re less likely to be voting to crush Wall Street or bring Big Pharma to heel, and more likely to be voting to protect basic rights that are under threat.
Anyone want to tell me that’s not a good reason to vote? Let’s face it, that’s a lot of what we do in politics—stop the crazy guys from doing their crazy stuff. And in state after state, these voters have sided with Clinton, usually in very large numbers (though Sanders did pull a tie among Illinois Latinos). It’s partly the history and partly their sense that she’s more electable. But the key point, as my colleague Keli Goff explained very well recently, is that electability is much more important to black and Latino voters than it is to whites, especially college-educated whites. Which makes sense—no one’s threatening our right to vote or talking about breaking up our families.
So, yes, Clinton has the support of the bulk of Democrats representing the moneyed interests. But she also has the strong backing of those who are the most dispossessed and threatened.
Why is it we hear so much about the former and so little about the latter? I’ll leave you to ponder that one on your own.