In my recent Odds and Ends Vol 24, I noted that I think the #NeverBernie brigade should be more respectful of Bernie Sanders because his millions of supporters are very much part of the Democratic Party’s coalition. Indeed, a big argument against Sanders in 2016 was that on policy issues, there was no difference between his voters and Hillary Clinton’s voters. The fact that this is now ignored is one of many aspects of what I’ve come to see as “Bernie Sanders just can’t win.”
Many people make a big deal of the fact that 12 percent of Sanders supporters voted for Donald Trump. I’m going to dig into this. But there is a bit of confusion on the matter. When this number comes up, I am sometimes also told that many Republicans voted for him in open primaries. That certainly means that Sanders actual support was less than is indicated by this vote total.
Personally, I just don’t think there are that many Republicans who voted for him. Sanders got over 13 million votes. It is absurd to think that even one million of those votes were from Republicans. But even granting that, it’s only 8 percent.
More importantly, if a lot of Sanders voters were really Republicans, that means that a much smaller number of actual Sanders supporters voted for Trump — more like 4 percent. But as I said: this is nonsense. To a first approximation, we can assume that all the people who voted for Sanders actually supported him. And that means that roughly 12 percent of them voted for Trump over Clinton.
Now 12 percent sounds like a lot. But it actually isn’t. Sure, in a ridiculous race like 2016, just a few votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania could have turned the election. But I don’t think we can blame Sanders voters generally.
As political scientist John Sides points out in an article in The Washington Post, far fewer Sanders voters voted for Trump in 2016 than Clinton voters voted for John McCain in 2008. Did you get that? Let me repeat: far more Clinton voters in 2008 refused to vote for Obama than Sanders voters in 2016 refused to vote for Clinton.
How many more? According to polls, 24-25 percent of Clinton voters in 2008 refused to vote for Obama. So double. That’s pretty amazing.
Conservative Sanders Voters
But let’s return to the “Republicans voted for Sanders” idea. Sides presents some evidence that even if Sanders supporters weren’t Republicians, there were a number of conservatives in his coalition. It makes sense. There were people who would simply never vote for Hillary Clinton. So in the primary, they voted for Sanders.
For example, only 35 percent of the Sanders-Trump voters voted for Obama in 2012. Compare this to 95% for Sanders-Clinton voters.
What are we to make of this? I think it is clear. There was a small but important fraction of Sanders support that came from people who were conservatives and so just didn’t like Clinton. Some were Republicans and independents, but mostly they were simply conservative Democrats. They were never going to vote for Clinton, and had Sanders won the primary, most of them wouldn’t have voted for him in the general election. Most important: the vast majority of Sanders supporters will support whoever the Democrats nominate.
Just the fact that so many Clinton supporters went for McCain in 2008 should be enough to put a halt to all the #NeverBernie nonsense. But there is another, much more troublesome, way of looking at it. It could be that roughly a quarter of the Democratic Party (its more conservative members primarily) simply don’t support the party if it nominates someone considered too liberal. Or just “not who I want.”
Note that for all the screaming about Bernie Sanders not being loyal to the Democratic Party, he has been. He campaigned often and well for Hillary Clinton. He’s told his supporters not to harass his opponents. And he has said that he will support whoever the Democratic nominee is.
Not that I think any of this will matter. For a lot of Democrats, Sanders is simply “the bad child.” Everything that is bad will be taken as confirmation that Sanders is horrible and everything that is good (in as much as it is acknowledged at all) will be taken as an exception.
What if Sanders Became President?
This brings up something very concerning. I believe that if Sanders became president, he would get the same kind of support that Labour has shown Jeremy Corbyn. Most of the party will provide him with lukewarm support while a notable fraction will actively undermine him. And then he’ll be accused of alienating the party.
The truth of the matter is that there are liberals who would rather see Trump get another term than allow Sanders to become president. And God knows, they have their reasons. We all have our reasons, even if they will look pretty weak as we watch Trump start his sixth year in office.
The truth is that I would have liked it if Sanders had formally joined the Democratic Party in 2016 and stayed in. I find his claims to independence and socialism annoying. But I don’t think it would have mattered. There is just a set of people who will always hate him just as there is a set of people who will always hate Hillary Clinton.
I’m not looking forward to this upcoming election. And if Democrats don’t watch out, we’ll have a repeat of 2016 — one way or another. And I can’t even feel good about the obvious hypocrisy of many in the Democratic Party. They’ve already shown who they are.
But there’s time to realize what I’ve been saying for years: there are two alternatives in the coming election. And that’s it. I noted in 2016 that people who thought there was no difference between Clinton and Trump were delusional. And in 2020, people who can’t choose between Sanders and Trump are equally delusional.
And if Sanders Loses?
On the other side, pretending that Sanders is some kind of villain probably will cause him to lose. But at what cost? One idiotic #NeverBernie person tweeted:
How many Dems support Bernie as opposed to socialists, Russians, bots and nutjobs? We won in 2018 without Bernie.#NeverBernie
— ritamary (@ritamary6) March 4, 2019
We know how many Dems support Sanders: millions. We also know that if the vast majority of Sanders supporters hadn’t supported Clinton in the general election, she would have lost profoundly.
But this tweet shows that in this particular echo chamber, people just “know” that Sanders supporters don’t matter. But they do.
In their scorched-Earth approach to Sanders, the #NeverBernie brigade threaten the entire Democratic Party. No one needs to like Sanders if they don’t want to. But it would be really helpful to the party if they didn’t act so stupidly.
So let me say it: all Bernie Sanders supporters are critically important. And they are welcome by the vast majority of party members. That’s because the vast majority of them are party members. I don’t remember all this fuss when the Democratic Party marched to the right for three decades.