In the race for the Democratic nomination, one figure towers above the field: the large, misshapen form of President Donald Trump. The trauma of Trump’s shock victory in November 2016, and the reign of greed, brutality, and arrogance that has followed — seemingly impervious to organized opposition — has given Trump a special standing among Democrats.
The polls are unanimous: a healthy majority of Democratic primary voters (between 60 and 65 percent) say that it is more important to find a candidate who can beat Trump than one who they agree with on the issues. This is not a standard view for voters opposed to an incumbent president. On the eve of his 2004 re-election campaign, for instance, fewer than half of all Democrats said the same about George W. Bush.
Across the primary campaign, Bernie Sanders and many of his supporters have argued that it is not enough to defeat Trump: we need to organize to transform the abysmal economic conditions that produced Trump, too. This is all very true.
But in the meantime, there are elections to win. America simply cannot afford another Trump victory at the polls, or another four years of rapacious right-wing government. To prevent this nightmare, we must convince anxious voters that Sanders can and will throttle Trump in a general election.
The truth is that Democrats genuinely like Bernie: he has the highest favorability rating in the primary field, and among Democratic voters who prioritize “issues” — that is, what a president might actually try to do in office — Sanders leads the pack. Yet among the Democrats most concerned with beating Trump, Sanders currently trails. A hostile party establishment and an unfriendly media appear to have convinced many voters that Sanders is “too extreme” or “too far left” to win a general election.
And as Sanders gains steam in the early primary states, you can expect Beltway consultants and talking heads to double down on this warning. Much of the work here is done by analogy, with Sanders cast as George McGovern, Jeremy Corbyn, or whichever distant historical character or faraway foreign leader seems most convenient.
Of course, we don’t need to cross oceans or generations to find counter-examples: this is the same Democratic establishment that engineered the most disastrous and humiliating election defeat in US history, just three years ago, on our own soil. But you can hardly blame the centrist pundits and party insiders for taking up this line of attack. They know that their own watered-down brand of politics doesn’t speak to voters’ needs or hopes or desires. The only thing they have left is fear. And the prospect of another Donald Trump victory may be terrifying enough to convince thousands of voters to swallow whatever sour oatmeal the party leadership serves them.
But this primary season, anxious Democrats should trust their guts. It turns out that the candidate they like best, Bernie Sanders, is also the candidate with the best chance to knock Trump out of the White House.
While every other general election matchup seems likely to descend into the bleak and muddled culture clash of 2016, a contest between Sanders and Trump would present American voters with a stark choice: the populist who wants to win you health care and cancel your debt, or the rich prick who doesn’t care if you live or you die so long as your boss gets paid.
Trump’s true electoral weakness is not his loutishness, his congenital lying, or even his personal corruption. It’s his function as a tool of the rich man’s Republican Party, and his blatant disinterest in making life better for the vast majority of Americans living paycheck to paycheck.
Over the last forty years, no politician in America has focused as frankly or relentlessly on the unnecessary economic hardship faced by ordinary people as Bernie Sanders. This bread-and-butter emphasis is part of what has made Sanders the most popular presidential candidate in the field, especially among independent voters. And in a general election — on a scale far larger than any primary contest — no one is better prepared than Sanders to use that popular economic weapon to annihilate Donald Trump
From Obama to Trump to Sanders
For Democrats still scarred by the memory of November 2016, it is easy to imagine that Donald Trump is an electoral juggernaut, endowed with awesome and occult powers. But the truth is closer to the opposite: Trump is a historically unpopular leader who won a narrow electoral college victory over an equally unpopular rival.
Beyond a core of die-hard Republicans, most Americans don’t like Trump at all. Since his first few months in office, Trump’s overall approval rating has hovered between 38 and 42 percent, making him by far the most consistently disliked president in modern US history. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, the last two incumbents to lose an election, had much better numbers than Trump over their first three years in office.
Even in the key swing states where he defeated Hillary Clinton — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — Trump’s approval rating has been consistently underwater for over a year now.
Trump can be beaten, and the way to do it involves winning three key groups of voters in these Rust Belt battlegrounds: first, the Democrats and independents who backed Obama twice before turning to Trump; second, Obama voters who declined to vote in 2016; and third, the even larger group of Americans who do not typically vote at all.
There is reason to believe that on purely hard-headed electoral grounds, Sanders is the Democrat with the best chance to win back disaffected Obama supporters in the Rust Belt. Targeted polling of Obama-Trump voters shows Sanders and Joe Biden with a significant edge over Elizabeth Warren in Michigan and Wisconsin; while Biden still seems strongest in Pennsylvania, the differences are small.
But the real kicker is that in the 206 counties that went for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then Trump in 2016, Sanders has out-fundraised all of his competitors — by a long shot. By September 2019, he pulled in 81,841 individual donations from 33,185 donors in these flipped counties. That’s roughly three times as many as Biden, Warren, or Pete Buttigieg.
This high volume of individual small-dollar donations in Obama-Trump counties (and the “sticky support” it indicates) shows that Sanders has strong grassroots support in those places — which makes sense, given that his political message is targeted to people whose lives get harder as elites grow richer. That captures the experience of many working-class people in the deindustrialized Rust Belt, abandoned by corporations in search of cheaper labor and higher profits elsewhere.
The most detailed study of these decisive swing voters comes from two Johns Hopkins political scientists who recently confirmed what other analysts have understood for a while: “economic anxiety” did, in fact, play a crucial role in the 2016 election. A close look at the American National Elections Survey data shows that Obama-Trump voters in 2016 were, on average, more worried about their “current financial situation” than either Romney-Trump or Obama-Clinton voters.
Obama-Trump voters were also far more likely than party-line Republicans (and just as likely as party-line Democrats) to believe that “rich people buy elections,” and to support higher taxes on the rich. And they were more likely than both Republicans or Democrats to oppose free-trade agreements that cost American jobs.
Trump wooed and won these Obama voters, the Johns Hopkins authors conclude, with a combination of “bandwagon bigotry” and “economic populism.” In 2020, Republicans will surely attempt to fire up the bigotry machine again. If Democrats cannot answer with a credible alternative economic agenda — one that spells real change — they are doomed to lose these voters all over again, and probably the election too.
Despite his residual popularity among Democrats stemming from the Obama years (now fading fast), Joe Biden cannot deliver this message.
He opposes strong measures to tax the ultra-rich; it is no coincidence he has more billionaire donors than any candidate in the race, Trump included. Worst of all, Biden has no credibility as an economic populist: he has devoted much of his political life to supporting free trade, including NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and permanent normal trade relations with China.
In a general election, Biden’s long record as a friend to banks and outsourcing businesses — not to mention his son’s lucrative service on the board of a Ukrainian gas company — will surely suffocate any Democratic attempt to battle Trump on economic grounds. Instead, a Biden-Trump contest stands every chance of offering a glassy-eyed sequel to the 2016 charade that put Trump in the White House. Of the two candidates polling competitively in the Rust Belt swing states, only Bernie Sanders can actually make the economic case Democrats need to win.
Back to the Polls for Bernie
Just as important as Obama-Trump voters are the millions of Obama voters who did not cast a ballot in 2016. Any good autopsy of the last presidential election will emphasize that turnout in key states was dismal. In Wisconsin, for example, turnout was down 3 percent from 2016, and in Ohio it was down 4 percent. In order to win, those margins need to be recovered or exceeded by Trump’s opponent in 2020.
Some commentators are quick to attribute low turnout in 2016 to restrictive voting laws, implying that nothing can be done to bring voters back to the polls. But then how to explain the fact that 1.7 million people cast incomplete ballots in these states and others, declining to vote for any presidential candidate — far more than had been the case in 2012?
In Michigan, Donald Trump won by about ten thousand votes, while seventy-five thousand people cast ballots but declined to register a presidential preference. Meanwhile, nearly 3 million eligible voters didn’t even bother to go to the polls.
The Pew Research Center found that, nationwide, non-voters’ top reason for abstaining in 2016 was that they “did not like candidates or campaign issues.” Twenty-five percent of nonvoters cited distaste for both candidates as their rationale for staying home, compared to only 13 percent in 2012 and 8 percent in 2000.
The truth is that many people in swing states — including many otherwise loyal Democratic voters — were not sufficiently excited by Hillary Clinton, who they rightly associated with business-as-usual politics. And the very real “economic anxiety” that helped turn some white Obama voters toward Trump, as Malaika Jabali’s reporting has shown, helped dissuade many black Obama voters from casting a ballot in 2016, especially in battleground cities like Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia.
The Obama voters who stayed home in 2016, one targeted survey has found, are focused overwhelmingly on bread-and-butter issues, with a larger share (64 percent) emphasizing the economy, health care, Medicare, and Social Security than registered voters as a whole (55 percent), or even the famously precarious Obama-Trump voters (58 percent).
If you think this suggests that these critical voters might be receptive to Bernie Sanders’s message of healthcare, education, and good jobs for all, you are right: Bernie’s favorability among this group (+38 percent) far surpasses Elizabeth Warren’s (+16 percent) and exceeds Joe Biden’s (+35 percent).
Rousing the Slumbering Giant
But perhaps the strongest argument for Bernie Sanders concerns a much larger group than any slice of disaffected Obama voters: the tens of millions of people, over 40 percent of the country, who typically do not vote in presidential elections.
American nonvoters, including nonvoters in the battleground states, are disproportionately young, non-white, and working-class. Bernie is distinctly popular with all of these groups, suggesting that he is by far our best shot to mobilize this vast slumbering army in a general election against Trump.
In the 2016 primaries, more people under thirty voted for Sanders than Trump and Clinton combined. Today, Sanders is the overwhelming favorite in the Democratic Party primary among young people. Trump’s approval rating among people under thirty is pathetic, but as we learned four years ago, that’s no guarantee that every young person who scorns Trump will show up to vote against him.
Democrats have a choice: either nominate a challenger who excites young people and can turn them out en masse, or hand the nomination to someone who doesn’t motivate them, greasing the wheels for a Trump victory.
Young black and Latino voters are especially enthusiastic about Bernie. Although he currently trails Joe Biden among older black primary voters, these voters are reliable Democrats and will likely come to the polls no matter the nominee. In Rust Belt and Sun Belt swing states alike, the crucial margin of victory may come down to the Democratic candidate’s ability to bring young people of color who are typically less inclined to vote to the polls. No politician in America is better suited to do that than Sanders.
And finally, an umbrella category: Sanders is the candidate of the working class, which encompasses most young and non-white people but also plenty of older white people too.
His supporters are the least likely of all the Democratic primary candidates to have a college degree. In the primary field, Sanders receives the lion’s share of individual donations from nurses, teachers, retail workers, servers, tech workers, truck drivers, and construction workers.
By contrast, Biden gets the most donations from company presidents, attorneys, real-estate developers, and investors.
People who work for a wage make up the majority of the US population, and low-wage workers make up the majority of people who don’t vote. Nearly three quarters of nonvoters in 2016 had a family income of less than $75,000.
If we want the sometimes- or never-voters in swing states to turn out on election day, that candidate needs to have broad working-class appeal. That candidate needs to be Bernie Sanders.
Sanders has been crushing Trump in head-to-head polls for years now, and his lead is especially strong among lower-propensity voters. A recent SurveyUSA poll showed that in a matchup with Trump, Bernie actually runs a few points better than Biden (and much better than Warren) among voters making less than $80,000, and with voters who describe themselves as “poor” or “working class.” And those are just people who are already registered. Of the major Democratic candidates, Sanders clearly has the best chance to awaken the sleeping giant of young and working-class nonvoters and bring them into the electorate.
The United States has some of the lowest voter turnout in the world. Given the pervasive political alienation of the working class here, no single election is going to put us on par with nations like Belgium or Sweden, where over 80 percent of the voting age population casts ballots, compared to our paltry 55 percent in the 2016 presidential election. But precisely because the proportion of nonvoters is so large in the US, an uptick in turnout among people who don’t usually vote could be a decisive factor in 2020.
Bernie Sanders can draw people who don’t normally vote out of the woodwork. Nobody else can.
Class Politics at Scale
Our enthusiasm about a possible Sanders versus Trump contest isn’t confined to the prospect that Sanders will win. How Sanders can beat Trump has enormous implications for the future of American politics.
First, we should remember a simple fact of scale, easy to forget if you follow politics as a vocation or an obsession: general elections are much, much larger than primaries.
About 31 million people voted in the 2016 Democratic primary, one of the most hotly contested nominating contests in U.S. history. Over 136 million voted in the general election. The same ratio applies to campaign spending: together, Clinton and Sanders spent about $445 million in their primary race. In the general election, Clinton and Trump spent about $1.8 billion.
Using the 2016 primary race as his platform, Sanders was able to demonstrate that “radical” left-wing ideas like Medicare For All, tuition-free public college, and a $15 minimum wage actually had an enormous base of support, far beyond any niche of self-defined progressives. This revelation has already left a deep imprint on the Democratic Party — which has absorbed much of Sanders’s program, either in fact or in rhetoric — and will probably shape American politics for years to come.
A Sanders general election campaign would present an opportunity of the same kind, but on a scale roughly four times as large.
Huge swaths of the American public, who barely pay attention to primary politics, would suddenly find themselves considering the basic elements of Bernie’s politics for the first time: his unvarnished portrait of the war between the 1 percent and the 99 percent; his vow to deliver guaranteed health care, education and jobs to all Americans at the expense of corporate profits, CEO bonuses, and shareholder returns.
This kind of basic class politics — and this kind of simple social-democratic platform — have been absent from the Democratic Party for over half a century, and silenced in major TV and print media for at least as long. But if Sanders is the party’s nominee, these arguments will be presented to the public on a scale that we can barely comprehend.
What happens when a major party candidate speaks not simply to political junkies but to 136 million voters — or 200 million possible voters — and the message is a new kind of “Yes We Can”: not yes we can elect an inspiring fresh-faced candidate to office, but yes we can ensure the fundamental dignity of every American, and yes we can do it by breaking the tyrannical stranglehold of the billionaire class?
Bernie vs. the Billionaire(s)
Perhaps the most promising feature of this scenario, though, is the vivid contrast made possible by a binary choice between Sanders and Trump. (Yes, other candidates may run, but the structure of our two-party state, and the current depth of American party polarization, will drive them rapidly into insignificance.)
Because Bernie’s politics emphasize class conflict, a Trump-Sanders contest promises to be not a mere clash of values and norms, of milieus and manners, but a referendum on the role of the rich and the rest in our society, with each contender representing different sides of the divide.
Sanders has already given us a preview of what this will look like. When he launched his campaign in March, he contrasted his upbringing to Trump’s, saying, “I did not have a father who gave me millions of dollars to build luxury skyscrapers, casinos, and country clubs. I did not come from a family that gave me a $200,000 allowance every year beginning at the age of three.”
He continued, “Unlike Donald Trump, who shut down the government and left 800,000 federal employees without income to pay their bills, I know what it’s like to be in a family that lives paycheck-to-paycheck.”
In a rhetorical flourish that underscored the social implications of Trump’s profiteering and juxtaposed them to his own lifelong commitment to equality, Sanders added, “I did not come from a family that taught me to build a corporate empire through housing discrimination. I protested housing discrimination, was arrested for protesting school segregation.”
With Trump, Democrats have been handed a golden opportunity to agitate against the ultra-rich, personified by the billionaire who managed to bulldoze his way to the White House. But they have repeatedly dropped the ball, electing instead to focus on Trump’s buffoonery and rule-breaking at the expense of almost everything else.
The current impeachment hearings — narrowly focused on Trump’s skullduggery in Ukraine rather than his obscene efforts to enrich himself and protect his class from the White House — exemplify the limits of this approach. The Democrats’ political emphasis fails to target Trump’s weakest point: the way his administration has functioned, like almost every Republican administration, as a machine to transfer wealth from working people to their bosses.
In the 2016 campaign, Clinton left out the bread and butter and chose to wage a war of table manners against Trump. Since then, the Democratic establishment and its media allies have continued to put temperament, character, and stability at the center of their opposition strategy. If you restrict your viewing to MSNBC, you would get the impression that the main problem with the orange menace is that he’s a uniquely obnoxious dinner guest, rather than a plutocrat in a country ruled by plutocrats.
Establishment leaders and pundits have even made a habit of needling Trump for being less wealthy than he claims, the implication being that he’s an embarrassingly bad businessman. They delight in calling him a loser, when indeed Trump’s career arc is the very picture of victory in a system designed to concentrate wealth at the top and alchemically transform it into political power.
Trump is the perfect symbol of the perversity of our failed capitalist economy, his presidency the ultimate grotesquerie produced by a grotesque political order. And nobody can be trusted to make this case as vividly as Bernie Sanders.
While Biden waxes nostalgic for abandoned norms, and Warren celebrates the sanctity of rules, Sanders talks meat and potatoes. His independence from the donor class make it possible for him to do what Clinton didn’t and Biden won’t: leverage Trump’s presidency into an indictment of the bipartisan pro-corporate establishment. Only Sanders can say: this stops now.
This strategy holds potential not only for short-term victory, but for the return of a healthy dose of class antagonism to the American political discourse. And that’s precisely what we need to build a real fight against the economic and political system that produced Trump in the first place.
You wouldn’t know it from mainstream media commentary, but Sanders has been relatively tender with his primary opponents so far. That’s because the rules of primary elections are different from those of general elections: primary candidates run the risk of alienating would-be supporters with harsh criticism of their opponents in a way that general election candidates typically don’t.
In a general election, we might expect Sanders to behave a bit more like he did during his first Senate race against Republican megamillionaire Rich Tarrant.
By 2006, Vermont was clearly trending Democratic, but just six years earlier, Republican Senator Jim Jeffords had won re-election by 40 points. Sensing an opportunity, Tarrant poured millions of his own money into the race, aiming to label Sanders — still a socialist curiosity on the national stage — as an out-of-touch Burlington radical.
But Bernie too took the gloves off against “Richie Rich,” activating his base of small donors and lambasting his opponent’s effort to buy the election as a symptom of the rigged economy. In the most expensive Senate campaign in Vermont history, Sanders won by 33 points.
If Sanders brought that kind of unbridled energy to a general election against Donald Trump, it would amount to perhaps the most high-profile spectacle of class conflict in the modern history of American electoral politics.
The campaign ad practically writes itself. In 1940s New York City, two boys were born only a few years and a few miles apart.
The other, the son of a penniless immigrant whose family was killed in the Holocaust, grew up in a cramped Brooklyn apartment, sleeping on a trundle bed in the living room.
One, educated in the best private schools money could buy, devoted his life to the pursuit of profit and power, abusing tenants, stiffing workers, and flaunting his wealth in New York’s highest society circles.
The other spent his life working in the trenches on behalf of the vast majority — protesting segregation in Chicago, protecting poor tenants in Burlington, fighting for workers in Washington, and taking aim at the pampered elite who rule the economy from their penthouses.
This is a dynamic that we’ve never seen before in a presidential election. In fact, we’ve rarely seen anything like it in modern US history at all, so submerged has class politics been beneath the bipartisan pro-corporate consensus and its pablum about meritocracy and the marvels of capitalist free enterprise.
The self-seeking billionaire versus the lifelong crusader for the working class: it would be potent, resonant, and emblematic of the deep economic divide that people intuitively understand but don’t yet have the language for. It would be the kind of epic symbolic rivalry in which you can imagine people taking a side for the first time in their lives.
When people say that Sanders is a risk, they usually mean that his platform and his rhetoric are too far outside the Democratic political mainstream for comfort. But at this juncture in history, comfort itself is a risk. The Right has taken advantage of the public’s appetite for transformation in order to further enrich the masters of the universe. His opponents will have to take advantage of that same appetite to do the very opposite.
Sanders’s ambitious agenda represents a dramatic departure from the neoliberal Democratic consensus, and that’s exactly what we need to win. If we want to beat Trump and build a countervailing force capable of taking on the systems and institutions that produced him, we can’t afford not to nominate Bernie Sanders.