Bernie Sanders' supporters are convinced he could win a general election. They're wrong.
Bernie Sanders' rather unconventional personal style and characteristics are part of his appeal. Not some blow-dried politician who could fill in doing the weather on your local newscast, Sanders looks different from other candidates. A 74-year-old socialist with wild hair, frumpy suits, and an old-timey Brooklyn accent thicker than a pastrami sandwich, Sanders seems like the last guy who'd be able to assemble a national majority. But if that's what you think, his supporters will tell you, you've got it all wrong. In fact, they say, Bernie is the only Democrat who can win in the fall. It's only if the party screws up and nominates Hillary Clinton that Democrats are doomed.
It may be getting late in the process for arguments about electability, particularly when Clinton will almost have the nomination in hand if she wins in New York. But since Sanders supporters are so insistent on this point, it's worth exploring.
Before we begin, we should acknowledge that all judgments about electability are imperfect, to say the least. That's partly because politics is inherently unpredictable, and you never know what issues will emerge, what events will occur, what the other side will do, and how your candidate might screw up. It's also because all of us have a hard time putting ourselves in the mindset of people who think differently than we do. In particular, people who care a great deal about politics and have clearly thought-out and ideologically coherent beliefs often find undecided voters positively baffling. How on earth can a person look at two candidates representing parties with profoundly different agendas and values, and say, "Gee, I just don't know who to pick"?
But they do, and as we've seen before, the voting public's judgments about candidates they don't know much about beforehand can be radically altered by what happens in the fall campaign.
Sanders supporters, however, say not to worry. Their primary evidence for the superior electability of their candidate comes from "trial heats," polls that ask voters whom they would choose in the general election between each Republican and each Democrat. And it's true that in those polls, Sanders usually does better than Clinton. Trial heats show her beating Donald Trump, roughly tied with Ted Cruz, and behind John Kasich, while Sanders beats all three.
But is that much of an indication of what would happen in the general election? Clinton and Sanders come to this race with very different profiles. He was a completely novel character to most Americans, while she has been one of the country's central political figures for over two decades. So in the eyes of most Americans — who are paying only intermittent attention to the primary campaign — Bernie Sanders seems like a kindly if eccentric uncle. He doesn't sound like a typical politician (always a bonus), he speaks some uncomfortable truths, and he has an air of purity about him.
But what hasn't happened yet is anyone really attacking Sanders. Clinton's criticisms have been mild, and have largely come from the left, on those few issues like guns where she could position herself there. But you can barely get a Republican to utter an unkind word about Sanders, and that's precisely because they know how they'd be able to go to town on him if he became the nominee.
So let's consider the kinds of attacks Sanders would face from Republicans. They wouldn't just call him a socialist — in fact, that'd be about the nicest thing they'd say about him. They'd say he's coming to raise your taxes to fund big-government schemes. They'd say he wants to cripple the military. They'd say he's advocated eliminating our intelligence capabilities. They'd say he was part of a Trotskyite party that expressed "solidarity" with the theocratic government of Iran while it was holding Americans hostage. They'd say he wants government to seize the means of production. They'd say he hates America. They'd say he's the author of smutty rape fantasies.
These attacks would be unfair, exaggerated, distorted, dishonest — and when Sanders protests, the Republicans would laugh and keep making them. By the time they're done with him, most Americans would think Sanders is so radical and dangerous that they wouldn't want him running their local food co-op, let alone the United States government.
Sanders supporters tend to wave away the possibility that these attacks would hurt him in much the same way the candidate himself dispenses with questions of practicality, by saying that his revolution will be so extraordinary that it will sweep all opposition away. Millions of heretofore absent voters will turn up at the polls, Americans will see the wisdom of his ideas, this election will be different than any that came before! But there's little reason to believe that will happen, particularly when even within the Democratic Party, Sanders hasn't been persuasive enough to overcome Hillary Clinton, who is supposed to be so weak.
And there's no doubt that Clinton does indeed have plenty of weaknesses as a candidate. Twenty-five years of attacks from the right have taken their toll on her public image, and she's made plenty of her own mistakes along the way. But there's nothing new that the GOP is going to throw at her — we know what Republicans will say, and we have a good idea of how the public will react.
On the other hand, the Democrats haven't nominated a candidate as far to the left as Bernie Sanders since George McGovern in 1972 (and maybe not even then). I'd love to think that a candidate with his ideological profile could get through a brutal general election and still assemble a national majority. But it's an awfully hard thing to believe.