So Bernie’s still at it, telling George Stephanopoulos on Sunday that he thinks it’s not impossible for him to get 70 percent of the vote in every remaining state. Impossible. If anyone’s likely to hit 70 anywhere, it’s Hillary Clinton in Puerto Rico. Maybe Sanders can do it in the Dakotas, but even that seems ludicrous, because those states have primaries, not caucuses, and he’s never won a primary by that kind of margin except in his home state.
But he does make one argument that is numerically, for the nonce, irrefutable: that he polls better against Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton does. That’s the only argument he has at this point that deserves to be taken seriously. So let’s take it seriously.
Earlier this year, I used to think Sanders was totally unelectable and it was obvious that Clinton was the more electable of the two. I no longer think it’s quite the slam dunk I used to. All of these bullet points will be worth their own column in the coming months, or more than one, but quickly:
• She does have absurdly high negatives. There exists some number of middle-of-the-road voters who just don’t want her to be the president under any circumstances. We don’t yet know how large this group is or whether any of their minds are changeable as the campaign unfolds, but sure this is a problem that no sentient Clinton supporter denies.
• The media, especially cable news, will help Trump. They’ll help spread Trump’s attacks, and the Clinton team will have to think of ways to make the campaign not just “Trump says crazy stuff-cable news repeats-Clinton responds” over and over again, which could kill her.
• The Republicans, however they feel about Trump, are going to go all-in to stop her. Witness the weekend’s news about this scandalous Benghazi committee’s latest timetable to finally release their report, which has been delayed so often that nothing Trey Gowdy says anymore is remotely believable.
Then there’s the FBI, the Foundation, Terry McAuliffe… in sum, among Clinton people I talk to there is no shortage of awareness of her liabilities. And everyone is aware of the current general election polls.
But I don’t know a single person whose opinions I really value, and I include here Sanders supporters I know, who takes these polls seriously. There’s one simple reason Sanders polls better against Trump than Clinton does, which is that no one (yet) knows anything negative about him. He’s gotten the freest ride a top-tier presidential candidate has ever gotten. The freest, bar none.
While he’s all but called Clinton a harlot, she’s barely said a word about him, at least since the very early days of the contest. And while Republicans have occasionally jibed at him, like Lindsey Graham’s actually quite funny remark that Sanders “went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon and I don’t think he ever came back,” in far more serious ways, Republican groups have worked to help Sanders weaken Clinton.
That would change on a dime if he became the nominee. I don’t think they’d even have to go into his radical past, although they surely would. Michelle Goldberg of Slate has written good pieces on this. He took some very hard-left and plainly anti-American positions. True, they might not matter to anyone under 45, but more than half of all voters are over 45. And then, big-P politics aside, there’s all that farkakte nonsense he wrote in The Vermont Freeman in the early ’70s about how we should let children touch each others’ genitals and such. Fine, it was 40-plus years ago but it’s out there, and it’s out there.
But if I were a conservative making anti-Sanders ads, I’d stick to taxes. An analysis earlier this year from the Tax Policy Center found that his proposals would raise taxes in the so-called middle quintile (40-60 percent) by $4,700 a year. A median household is around $53,000. Most such households pay an effective tax rate of around 11 percent, or $5,800. From $5,800 to $10,500 constitutes a 45 percent increase.
Sanders will respond that your average family will save that much in deductibles and co-payments, since there would be no more private health insurance. And in a way, he’d have a point—the average out-of-pocket expenses for a family health insurance plan in 2015 were around $4,900. But that is an average that combines families with one really sick person needing lots of care with families where they all just go see the doctor once a year, who spend far less. They’d lose out under socialized health, which Republicans would be sure to make clear.
But all the above suggests a rational discourse, and we know there’ll be no such thing during a campaign. It’ll just be: largest tax increase in American history (which will be true), and take away your doctor (which also might be true in a lot of cases). There’s a first time for everything I guess, but I don’t think anyone has ever won a presidential election proposing a 45 percent tax increase on people of modest incomes. And the increases would be a lot higher on the upper-middle-class households that tend to decide U.S. elections.
Bah, you say. Bernie can handle all these things. Plus, he’s going to get all those white working-class votes that Clinton will never get. It’s true, he will get some of those. But every yin has a yang. How is Sanders going to do with black and Latino voters? They won’t vote for Trump, obviously, but surely some percentage will just stay home. This will matter in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, maybe Michigan—all states were a depressed turnout from unenthused voters of color might make the difference. The media find discussing this a lot less interesting than they do nattering on about the white working class, but it’s real, and Trump is smart enough to get out there and say, “Remember, black people, Bernie said your votes weren’t legitimate.”
General election polls don’t reflect anything meaningful until nominees are chosen and running mates selected—that is, July. They especially don’t reflect anything meaningful when respondents know very little about one of the candidates they’re being asked about. Superdelegates know this, and it’s one reason why they’re not going to change. I don’t blame Sanders for touting these polls; any politician would. But everyone subjected to hearing him do so is entitled to be in on the joke.