Concerns About Sanders’ General Election Chances

Bernie Sanders' General Election ChancesThe 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.

If true, that makes Bernie Sanders’ general election chances more like the 10% case than the 45% case. And that frightens me.

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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

50 thoughts on “Concerns About Sanders’ General Election Chances

  1. Assigning percentage numbers to “electability”? Really. Are you sure it’s information you’re accumulating? And how much of this sort of thing is people trying to create self-fulfilling prophecies?

    1- Didn’t the same arguments apply to Third Way Dem Gore? And Kerry? They turned out to be not so electable after all.
    2- According to Reeves’ thesis and the graph in the Vox article, Romney should have won.
    3- Polls have consistently shown that voters prefer more liberal economic policies than either the Republican or Democratic establishment, regardless of how they self-identify on a Left/Right scale.
    4- Lots of people just don’t like Hillary and Trump. How do you put that into percentage points?

    Augh. Why even bother?

    • I agree. It’s hard. But… Gore didn’t lose. And I discussed Kerry and why Dean was the better choice.

      Regardless what I say, you or Elizabeth will be unhappy. In this case: both!

      When it comes to practical politics, I will always be wringing my hands. It’s my nature. But as Elizabeth pointed out: I’ve been a big defender of Sanders. And I’ve said for months that the only argument against Sanders is electability. I’m glad we are talking about that issue now. Who’s more electable will depend upon who the Republicans pick. I tend to think Sanders is better against Trump. And electability is an important issue, or I would just vote for myself!

            • Political Trivia

              Who Said:
              “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”
              Who Said:
              “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party…”
              Who Said:
              “If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.”

              Answers Here

                • Yes, but wouldn’t I make a great judge/dog-catcher/whatever?!

                  For the record: if nominated dog-catcher, I will not run; if elected dog-catcher, I will not serve.

                  • Lowest position on the ballot is precinct committeeperson, an unpaid position that essentially lets you vote for various party officials you don’t know.

                    I was going to write your name in for “Grand Vizier”

                    • I think you’ve mentioned that before. I think I’m more the Grand Poobah type myself.

                      Now that you mention something as technocratic as “precinct committeeperson,” I think I should stay out of the Democratic Party. I am not good for morale!

                    • I know you guys have them in California so don’t give me that nonsense Poobah.

                    • But that’s my point. My defeatist attitudes would bring everyone down. I’m better at cheering from the sidelines so they don’t hear me muttering, “What a joke…”

                    • It might not matter. I’d just be the cynical old guy.

                      But I did see a picture of Sanders supporters and it was interesting: it was young people, and older people like me. The 30-40 set was definitely missing. It might just be that one shot. And I know Clinton does well with older voters. It’s just that there is a certain percentage of the older set who have been waiting decades to strike a blow against the New Democrats!

      • Clearly I got out of bed on the cranky side today, but economists and political analysts tend to push my buttons on the best of days.

        • I understand. Dean Baker wrote an article in response to Krugman’s over-reliance on “experts.” Baker pointed out with few exceptions (eg, Dean Baker), all the experts missed the huge housing bubble. So are we really to believe them when it comes to this stuff? And political science is a lot more random than the economy.

          I think this article is part of my continuing evolution on the question of what matters in presidential elections. I’ve always know that it wasn’t just economics. But I’m getting a better idea of just how other things affect the result. But it’s all a crap shoot. In 2004, I thought that Kerry was a better general election candidate than Dean. Most people did. Now I think the opposite. In this election, I’m lost — groping for answers. And I’m sure I will continue to. But that’s probably why I continue to be a Sanders supporter: I agree with him more and I don’t know about the general election.

  2. Republicans will always vote for their failed leaders. Look at Kansas. If the people in Kansas can re-elect those people, what hope is there for any change in the voting pattern?

  3. Will is right-you are pretty open about how much more you like Sanders as well as how little you think of the counterarguments against him from the Democratic party peeps as well as the media but he does have a lot of issues that will be coming up.

    There are questions that Clinton will not ask-like how come he is not part of an organized faith? Is he an atheist? Why does he have an out of wedlock child? Did he abandon his child? What about that essay he wrote where he claimed women want to be raped?

    And those attack ads are going to be so very horrible. The biggest advantage that the Clinton has over Sanders for the Republican Hate Machine is that she is used to it as is the rest of her family. And to be honest, based on some of the questions she keeps getting like “are you going to pick the drapes in the White House?” “How come no one likes you?” the hate machine is not limited to the Republicans.

    Republicans are very authoritarian and so they will vote for whoever the nominee is even if they hate him. It is about their tribe and of course to them Sanders is a godless socialist who wants to take all of their money, give it to the unworthy who couldn’t be bothered to marry the mother of his child and he thinks Godfearing women want to be raped by those people.

    None of it is true but it will be something that sways people.

    • I do wish you and paintedjaguar would get into a ring, fight it out, and let me know who wins!

      I think Sanders has a good answer to the religion question. The others I haven’t heard because I’m not on “Hillary Clinton’s Sanders Slander of the Day” mailing list. But I do know that he sacrifices goats to Stalin, which is messed up because goats are really cool! He should do what I do: sacrifice pigs to Lenin.

      Elections are complicated. I think the Sanders camp is too sanguine about him pulling in new people. But I also think that the Clinton camp is too sanguine about her automatically being the better general election candidate.

      So here I sit, decidedly in the Sanders camp, but with a very healthy skepticism. And that is exactly what anyone reading me these last 6+ years would have predicted. As Popeye so eloquently put it, “I yam what I yam!”

  4. That is a good question about the electorate veering away from the party in power. My first guess is when Democrats are in, people fear new government programs that will be ineffective (or transfer money to the wrong people.) when Republicans are in, voters fear government will attack popular existing programs. But that wouldn’t explain why incumbents have the advantage. Maybe personality plays a role. Reagan was more popular than his policies.

    • I’m not sure incumbents have the advantage. It has just been that over the last 40 years, the economics have lined up to make it that way.

      Although I can tell you why, say, Representatives have the advantage. I remember many years ago, my father had some problem with a government agency and he went to our Representative’s office and they solved the problem pretty much instantly. My father spent the next two weeks telling almost everyone he met the story and how great the Representative was. And the Representative was a Democrat and my father was a Republican. Being helpful trumps ideology any day.

      I don’t know why people fear Democrats enacting ineffective programs after all these years. Then again, I don’t understand why they think Democrats want to take their guns either. It’s kind of like Democrats going around complaining that the Republicans want to end slavery. It’s way out of date.

    • Homework?!

      I just wrote a pretty angry article for tomorrow morning. I can’t believe how much whining the Clinton campaign has done after I looked at the polls in the upcoming states. I now think it would be a miracle if Sanders gets the nomination. And miracles are like infinity: two is as easy as one. I’m beginning to think that Sam Seder has been right all along: if Sanders can win the nomination, he can win the general. On the other hand, I think the Clinton campaign has done a great job of alienating young people — most especially women. There’s nothing like telling young women that they only support Sanders because that’s where the cool boys are.

  5. Years ago I would have called Sanders unelectable. Ponder. I thought and said the same of Obama the hour following his first campaign announcement. I also thought Gore was pretty far from electable….but on the morning of that presidential election, I saw the (wagering) line move substantially (YES! You can actually wager on politics!)……and piled a substantial percentage of what money I had on Gore.
    No longer do I kid myself that I can forecast elections or electability.
    I am really excited about Sanders, I have to admit…….despite the short list of let-downs I have suffered over the Obama Presidency. Hoping for BS(?) to be elected is only the edge of my dream…..that Congress would suffer a paradigm shift and actually support the senior elect, would also be needed.
    When all you have is a dart board….you play darts.
    Let’s hear it for BS!

    • Regardless what happens, we’ll still have Bernie. And I do think he has pushed Clinton to the left. What’s more, it is a wake-up call to the establishment that there is a left wing of the Democratic Party and they can’t take it for granted. Not that I expect them to react appropriately about it. It will likely be like Labour with them claiming that the voters are just wrong. Remember when Rahm Emanuel called liberal activists “fucking retarded.” I suspect Elizabeth will disagree with me, but that’s the Democratic establishment right there.

      • Rahm Emanuel is a fucking asshole who needs to be shot into space where he can spend the rest of his miserable evil life picking up space garbage.

        So yes, I probably would disagree since I doubt you feel that strongly.

        • Well, at this point, I tend to agree. But the fact that he could be a power broker in the party… But as you’ve noted many times, the problem really comes down to me. The liberal wing of the party allowed the New Democrats to take over. I’d like to think that Sanders supporters are an indication of a resurgent left. But I have at least one young friend who says he will not vote for Clinton if nominated. But we’ll see.

          • A very dear, and I do mean dear (he donated a lot of time to my campaigns for free) posted something pretty nasty about Clinton and her supporters on his Facebook page.

            As I have said repeatedly, I am pretty tired of this fight and want it to be over with already. The only fun part of it is needling the Sanders supporters on Salon and even that is losing is attraction.

  6. @Frank because I still got the hint

    You know it is interesting you point that out, the two age groups. Most of the people I know who are supporting Clinton are between 30 to 50. People who really do not have the space in their lives for a revolution. We have mortgages, kids, and a dozen other things we are a lot more worried about losing. And we don’t have the energy to want to go out and push for things like the $15 wage increase. So Clinton’s promise of continuing progress, slow and steady, is what we can stand. Now of course a dozen people will immediately jump on me and say “nuh unh!” but that is my impression of it.

    The people with the space in their lives for serious change are those who have nothing to lose because they are either just starting out or the ones who know nothing will be taken from them.

    • Or… It could just be generational. Or not. In general, the older one gets, the more they support Clinton. I think it really comes down to this: Sanders is more liberal than Clinton; Sanders supporters are more liberal than Clinton supporters. I mean, a $15 minimum wage phased in over years is not exactly a revolution. Or if it is, so is a $12 minimum wage phased in over years.

      • The WaPo (sorry, I am feeling lazy) had a piece by Milbank who pointed out that Sanders is doing a lot of things that are essentially the same thing as Clinton so he is no revolutionary.

          • I pointed out to him that I believe Clinton will be pretty bad ass in the general. Right now she is trying to stay civil (not always succeeding) however in the general, all bets are off.

            And she is spoiling for a fight.

            • I hope that comes in the general election. What I expect to happen is for this race to settle into a consistent 60-40 — pretty much the opposite of what we saw in NH. But we’ll see. I’ll be interested to see how Sanders does in Nevada. But unless he wins it outright, I think the nomination is over.

    • That’s probably often true. Strikers were usually either people with very strong unions (who, at worst, would lose some weeks of wages) or people so beaten down by employers they had virtually nothing left to lose but their lives (which is why employers hired thugs to beat/kill them.)

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