The electability question
There is something that prospective Democratic voters are overlooking in their conversations about who to support in the ongoing primaries ahead of the 2020 general election.
Naturally, people are starting to focus more on “electability” of each candidate compared to the others. Who is most likely to win the general election versus Donald Trump?
I’ve observed a common denominator in the thoughts of voters who haven’t committed to Bernie Sanders but have shown interest in him by virtue of discussing his strengths and weaknesses as a candidate. In my experiences almost all of them acknowledge he is a strong candidate with a strong platform, but also that they “aren’t sure that America is ready for Bernie Sanders.”
Sometimes they seem to mean they don’t believe the country will accept a progressive presidency that is associated with socialism (or at least Americans’ mixed perceptions of social policies).
Other times, they seem more concerned with his general demeanor and the impressions he could give to others: That he is a “grumpy old man.”
They think he will be unlikable to other prospective voters.
I think that this question of Sanders’ electability is based on a flawed premise and is ultimately self-defeating.
It is a sentiment that grows stronger as more and more people are exposed to it. The notion that Sanders isn’t capable of rallying the votes needed to secure a win in the general seems ridiculous as he continues to surge in the polls.
The idea that Sanders won’t muster enough turnout doesn’t seem likely, and we’ll get into the specifics of that a little later, but if enough people are introduced to said idea and accept it as the likeliest outcome, its chances of becoming true in the primary (as opposed to the general election) actually rise.
And therein lies the tragedy of the commons.
The electability question surrounding Sanders is a meme; a thought, an idea. Like a virus, it needs vectors and it needs hosts to spread to and incubate within.
The vector could be an average Joe that comes across the idea naturally and figures it is sensible enough to discuss with their pals at the water cooler. And off it goes.
Or, the vector could be of a pointed, controlled nature, such as propaganda whose wielder has an express interest in achieving the kind of outcome described earlier; that is, where the electorate becomes convinced that a Sanders general win is so unlikely that his real world chances in the primary plummet.
The latter vector is more threatening because of its sphere of influence; it could be prime time television news, manufactured gossip on social media, or targeted multimedia campaigns by foreign and/or domestic actors.
Regardless of who or what the vector is, the very act of injecting the meme into the collective conversation gives it power to reshape the environment in its own image.
If a small group of people who held this idea canvassed their local neighborhoods to share it, they could actually introduce the meme of unelectability in a Sanders nomination to more people who otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to it.
Imagine that this electability meme continued to spread. On its face to the layman it appears reasonable. As it propogates, public sentiment on it strengthens, and the notion is implanted in so many minds that it becomes evidence of itself in social circles. The electability meme would quickly generate more social credit than it was originally worth.
One can see how it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; or a self-defeating one.
Sanders has climbed the polls into the frontrunner position in the Democratic primaries. On Feb. 20, The Washington Post reported Sanders leads with a majority of 32% support in primary polls, a solid 16 points above second place and former frontrunner Joe Biden, whose support has seemed to collapse from underneath him.
Sanders’ theoretical projections in a general election versus Trump bode well for him. He is projected to win as of Feb. 18 by an average 4.6 spread with 50.2 % votes for Sanders to 45.6 % for Trump, according to an analysis of polls on RealClearPolitics.
So where is this sentiment that he is unelectable coming from?
Sanders helped to ignite a progressive fire within the Democratic Big Tent, and energized progressives are vying with tradional, more moderate Democrats for control of the party and its future.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that entities benefitting from the current composition of the Democratic Party (and the Republican Party, for that matter) have an interest in preventing some of Sanders’ fundamentals policies from taking form.
It is also crucial to recognize that foreign election interference is a real threat that is aiming to persuade public perception on issues such as electability. As revealed years ago by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on investigations into Russian 2016 election interference, disinformation and misinformation campaigns perpetrated by Russian actors have not stopped in the three years since Trump took office.
We know from the special counsel report and other intelligence agency data and statements that Russian efforts specifically aim to sow division and discord across American politics. We also know that Russia favored a Trump presidency to a Clinton presidency in 2016, and that it prefers a Trump presidency in 2020 as well.
Russian propaganda and social engineering efforts are described by the special counsel to target political sentiments across all spectrums. They aren’t just playing “both sides,” they are playing all sides.
At the time of writing the afternoon of Feb. 21 news actually broke that Sanders had been informed by intelligence officials that Russian actors were found to be attempting to “support” his campaign.
Actual details of the “revelations” are still scarce, but the general concept shouldn’t be of any surprise to anyone in the loop on the Russian interference scandal. Russian actors have been posing as Sanders supporters, Clinton supporters, Trump supporters and everything else under the political miceoscope online and, in some cases, through recruited physical persona, for years now.
The electability meme could all too easily be another product of hostile foreign influence. Most likely, foreign actors are (or will be) amplifying the meme, which is already being broadcasted by domestic vectors, as indicated by the special counsel’s report.
Either way, if the meme sticks in contribution to other forces in play, and Sanders fails to achieve the nomination, the progressive fire is contained and moderate Democrats regain more stable, if temporary, control over their party as everyone unites for the looming race against Trump.
It is yet unclear if Sanders will be able to beat out a more uniform moderate Democratic vote in the primaries, and the electability meme could very well have a real role in the outcome of that decisive final tally.
The electability meme has a flawed premise and works to fulfill what it warns against. But if left unchecked, could it also hinder other Democratic candidates and the party’s electability as a whole?
Sanders’ base is a wild card
Sanders’ base probably carries the least loyalty to both the establishment Democratic and Republican Parties.
“Vote Blue No Matter Who,” a slogan for the idea of uniting behind whoever the Democratic nomination is with the ultimate goal of removing Trump from office and undoing his policies, would if adhered to be the most decisive victory for the Democratic Party by far.
But because of progressives’ disatisfaction for establishment Democrats, if a candidate such as Bloomberg is elected there is a chance that a portion of Sanders supporters don’t show up to the polls, tipping the scales toward an outright failed Democratic run.
Other Democratic candidates probably come off as the familiar and safer choices for moderate Democrats and some Independents; those supporters are more likely to accept, for example, a Bloomberg candidate if their preferred nomination in Biden, Klobuchar or whoever doesn’t make the cut. In other words, moderate Democrats might more reliably follow the Vote Blue No Matter Who strategy than some of Sanders’ supporters.
Especially if Bloomberg is nominated, Sanders’ base is, if only slightly less, likely to turn out. After all, Bloomberg’s presence as an uber wealthy billionaire is basically antithetical to the progressive movement that Sanders has energized. But then again, so is the Trump Administration.
If we were to run simulations of the general election with Sanders as the nominee and then rerun them with Bloomberg, I think we would see that Bloomberg would garner less overall victories, thanks in large part to disillusioned Sanders supporters refusing to support him.
To reference RealClearPolitics‘ polling again, Bloomberg as of Feb. 18 averages at 49.6 % of votes ahead of Trump’s flat 45.0 % with a 4.6 spread tying Sanders in the difference of Democratic to Republican candidate totals.
The key take away, though, is that Sanders has a higher average popular vote win against Trump, squashing early criticisms about Sanders’ overall electability.
The electability meme’s premise doesn’t assume the true nature of things, which are that every Democratic candidate is predicted to win versus Trump, at least in the popular vote, and that Sanders has some of if not the best early showings.
Sanders and Bloomberg are neck-and-neck in general election prediction polls, but keep in mind that we haven’t even made it through the primaries yet.
I could be vastly overestimating moderate Democrats’ ability to stomach a Sanders nomination. I could also be underestimating the Sanders base’s willingness to follow the Vote Blue No Matter Who strategy.
But if we assume that the assessment of how different groups of Democratic supporters will react to one candidate or the other, particularly Bloomberg, is correct, then it follows that Sanders’ nomination is most likely to draw the largest turnout.
If every single Democratic and Independent voter block went with the Vote Blue No Matter Who approach, then the election would be in the bag for Democrats. The question is, can all of those voter blocks be trusted to toe the line?
If they can’t, then a Sanders nomination would be the Democratic Party’s safest bet and its best chance at unseating Trump.