The other night, my friend Will told me, “You’ve really been coming out strong for Bernie Sanders recently!” That surprised me because I feel more and more stuck in the middle. I have substantive problems with Clinton on policy. And I have real concerns about Bernie Sanders’ general election chances. This isn’t, of course, a brand new thing. I’ve been grappling with the question for some time. Back in September, I wrote, What Risk Is Bernie Sanders Worth? I wrote then, “If I think that Hillary Clinton has a 55% chance of winning the general election and Bernie Sanders has a 45% chance, then there is no question: I’ll go with Bernie. If Bernie has a 10% chance, I’ll go with Hillary.”
The funny thing is, at the last Democratic debate, I got a sense that Sanders himself is a little concerned that he might win the primary. All throughout this campaign, I’ve thought that Sanders was the real deal — that he wasn’t an issue candidate, but someone who really thought he could win the presidency. Now I don’t know. But it could be that I’m projecting. If Bernie is a real threat to Hillary, I need to get very serious about both of their general election chances.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Playing the electability game is foolish. In 2004, as a party, we chose Kerry over Dean because he was more electable. But knowing what I now know about political science, Dean was clearly our best chance of winning the presidency. The only way that we could have won that election was by making it about the Iraq War, and that was something that Kerry just couldn’t do. I do think that under normal circumstances, Clinton has the better general election chances. But if the economy starts to crumble, Sanders will likely be the only chance the Democrats have.
Bernie Sanders’ General Election Chances
One concern about Sanders that I’ve had for some time now is that if the economy continues to improve, the Republicans might be smart and make the election about foreign policy and terrorism. Now, as was fully on display at Saturday’s GOP debate: the Republicans have the problem of not actually wanting to do anything different than the Democrats; they just want to talk tough. But that could be enough to convince the electorate. In the end, it is all about perceptions anyway. But the Republicans couldn’t do that if Clinton were the candidate. So I tend to think that even a major domestic terrorist attack would benefit Clinton.
Last week, Max Fisher wrote a very good article, Why I’m Not Writing Off Bernie Sanders on Foreign Policy. Basically, he said that foreign policy was really all a game. There are certain advisers that presidents have, and this is how foreign policy is determined. The media are caught up in Sanders going through a certain political theater where he shows that he understands foreign policy and he knows who the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan is. Sanders is instead focused on the economy, which is why I love him. But it also hurts his general election chances.
My second concern comes from an article by Jeff Stein, We Asked 6 Political Scientists if Bernie Sanders Would Have a Shot in a General Election. It’s an actual article genre at Vox, with articles like, “We Asked 6 Zoologists What the Giraffe’s Most Distinctive Feature Is.” But they are useful. And the consensus was that Bernie could win under the right circumstances. Much of it is just conventional wisdom and I don’t buy into it. I continue to wonder about one bit of political science that no one seems to understand: why does the electorate get more liberal when a conservative is in the White House and vise versa. And if that’s the case, why do most presidents win re-election?
But Seth Masket said something that concerned me. He said that Sanders’ more liberal positions would probably cost him 2 to 3 percentage points in the general election. Now, maybe I’m just letting my natural affinity for math sway me — he used numbers! But he put it into a context that I know very well and believe in very strongly, “It’s not as big an effect as flipping a growing economy to one in recession. It’s more like flipping a growing economy to a stalled one.” Ouch.
If true, that makes Bernie Sanders’ general election chances more like the 10% case than the 45% case. And that frightens me. A Republican president would be a catastrophe. I keep thinking, “The electorate has to wake up eventually! They can’t keep voting for the same failed promises and utter incompetence!” But all evidence says that they can.
Meanwhile, I will continue to accumulate information about Bernie Sanders’ general election chances.