When trying to guess which candidate will be strongest against Donald Trump in 2020, you would be equally well-served by a dowsing rod, Ouija board, tea leaves, or deck of tarot cards as you would by the informed judgment of cable news pundits or political reporters. Yet polls show the Democratic primary electorate, apparently still scarred by Trump's surprise win in 2016, are attempting cast their own political yarrow stalks by lining up whoever has the best chance to win next year.
Only God knows which Democratic candidate will be the strongest in 14 months' time. However, we can say one thing with as much confidence as can be mustered in this fallen world: Bernie Sanders could beat Donald Trump.
Polls are obviously rather fluid at this early stage in the election cycle, but they're also the only data we have on how candidates would stack up against Trump in a head-to-head race. They have consistently shown Sanders ahead of Trump by about 5 points (while former vice president Joe Biden is ahead by about 8 points). Sanders' approval rating has also been consistently in the mid-50s, with disapproval in the high 30s. That is far, far better than either Trump's or Hillary Clinton's numbers in 2016.
More importantly, given how he dominates media coverage, Donald Trump is quite unpopular. His disapproval rating is rock-solidly in the low 50s, and his approval rating hasn't exceeded the low 40s since the very first days of his term (only Charlottesville and the government shutdown briefly worsened his position). Given all the incredible chaos of his administration, it seems fair to conclude that attitudes are pretty well baked in — and broadly speaking, the American people are not fans of Trump.
It's also important to remember that the eventual Democratic nominee does not need any Trump voters to win. Indeed, Trump got a smaller fraction of the vote than Mitt Romney did in 2012 — Hillary Clinton just lost a ton of support from Obama voters in critical regions who either voted for third-party candidates or didn't vote at all in 2016. Just repeating Obama's 2012 performance would surely do the trick — indeed, even performing just slightly better than Clinton in the three key swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania (in none of which did Trump get a majority) would do it.
The point is that despite his shocking come-from-behind victory and awful carnage he has inflicted as president, Donald Trump is eminently beatable. Yet the Democratic base seems to be stuck in a terrified crouch, desperately playing amateur pundit to deny Trump a second term by any means necessary — as Biden supporters tell reporters. (Why anybody would trust pundit-style prognosticating, professional or otherwise, after that backfired disastrously in 2016 is beyond me, but that's a topic for another article.)
Now on the other hand, Sanders is certainly not a shoe-in. Trump is an incumbent president, and winning reelection is generally much easier than taking office in the first place — plus the economy is doing generally well, at least for the moment. Moreover, you never know what could come up in the course of the campaign, whether it's opposition research, some international development, or what.
But that is true of every candidate. The arrogant, fickle big-shot political press could decide that they will prove their even-handedness by blasting Elizabeth Warren's dumb DNA controversy every single day of the campaign, creating the impression she was somehow illegally cloned from the remains of Crazy Horse and driving down her popularity. FBI Director Christopher Wray could decide to abuse his position to help Trump defeat Biden for fear of criticism from the conservative rank-and-file at the agency.
The risk of a third-party splitter candidate also goes both ways. Sanders might draw a billionaire challenger like Howard Schultz who cynically tries to help Trump win to protect his tax cuts. But a centrist nominee like Biden might draw a left-wing challenger from the Green Party. Either might draw some loopy crank from the Libertarians. Indeed, that's precisely what happened to Clinton, with Jill Stein and Gary Johnson respectively.
In sum, there is no simple, guaranteed way for Democrats to win in 2020 — but it definitely could be done, by Sanders and by others. A recent poll found both Sanders and Biden equally ahead of Trump in Texas, for crying out loud.
Donald Trump is tearing hell out of this country — grossly harming both the people and the land, and soiling its most decent and honorable traditions. On Monday his administration announced it was sharply scaling back enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, and opening up a pristine Alaskan wilderness that is home to one of the biggest salmon runs on Earth to a filthy gold-mining operation. On Tuesday Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, twisted the meaning of the famous poem "The New Colossus" emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty on its head to justify Trump's plan to slash legal immigration — where the poem very obviously celebrates America as a land for desperate refugees, Cuccinelli suggested it should be altered to include only those "who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge." (Mysteriously, he failed to include people who claim subsidies for the rich like the carried interest loophole.)
America very badly needs a president who is not just another establishment stooge in thrall to plutocrats to undo the damage of Trump and 30 years of neoliberal corrosion. Turning back the clock to 2015 is not remotely good enough. America needs a stubborn, aggressive fighter, someone who will be as determined in protecting immigrants, minorities, and the poor as Trump is in harming them. Bernie Sanders could be that president — and all available data suggests he would be basically as strong as Biden against Trump. All Democratic voters have to do is shake off the Pundit Brain and go with the candidate whose record matches the party's stated values.