I like Bernie Sanders the candidate. I really like Bernie Sanders the person. I really, REALLY like Bernie Sanders the cranky, disheveled, old man hellbent on carrying out a revolution even if he dies trying (and he might!). However, despite his irresistible likeability and his front-runner status, I’ve been unconvinced that he represents the best option for Democrats in their efforts to unseat Donald Trump in 2020.
And I’m still not convinced. This write-up is way less about convincing others to think like I do and way more about figuring out what it is that I actually think. And at the moment, I think that I think, despite his obvious weaknesses, Bernie Sanders has as good of a chance as anybody to take back the presidency for the Democratic Party.
Common sense suggests otherwise. If, like me, you agree that the most important quality in any potential Democratic nominee should be that candidate’s ability to defeat Donald Trump in a general election, then a self-described “democratic-socialist” hardly seems like the best fit. When I cast my vote for Bernie on Tuesday, I will do so with this reservation very much weighing on my political conscience. However, while it’s not enough to quell my worries completely, deeper consideration of this concern has me questioning if it’s really as common sense as it seems.
The prevailing thinking goes as follows: Donald Trump is an extreme right-wing candidate who has alienated many moderate Republican supporters. Therefore, the Democratic strategy should be to nominate somebody left-of-center—a candidate who can turn out the Democratic base, united in its opposition to Trump, and perhaps also attract some more moderate conservatives who are fed up with the chaos of the Trump presidency. To nominate a progressive candidate, particularly one as radical as Bernie Sanders, is to forgo that potential moderate support, and by consequence, lose the election. Moderate Republicans may be able to hold their nose for a Joe Biden vote, but they will NOT vote for a socialist.
This all makes sense, and undoubtedly describes many individuals in the electorate who would view Bernie as a deal-breaker when it comes to casting a Democratic vote. However, it is also based on a questionable assumption: that this is how the majority of the American electorate actually makes its decisions.
People plugged into American politics know where they lie on the political spectrum. So do people who write about American politics and say things like I said two paragraphs above. But for a lot of American voters, the political spectrum doesn’t always seem to be the best indicator in determining how they might vote. Bernie Sanders has much more in common ideologically with Hillary Clinton than he does with Donald Trump, yet the numbers suggest that at least 1 in 10 voters that supported Bernie in the 2016 primaries went on to vote for Trump in the general election. Different numbers also suggest that the key voter group that cost Clinton that election might have been former Obama voters who also opted for Trump. And while surely these voters each have their unique reasons to explain why they voted the way that they did, on a macro level, it doesn’t make a whole lot of ideological sense.
Which leads us to another fact that we know about American voters: while some vote with their mind, many others vote with their gut. They vote less based on what a candidate believes, and more on how that candidate makes them feel. Anyone that has ever seen a Trump rally should know that this is true about Trump voters, and the rabidity of the Bernie Bros suggests that its true for many of those voters, as well. Not all Bernie supporters are radical socialists. Many are just people who perceive him to be an authentic truth-teller that represents a refreshing departure from the status quo. And they’re not wrong.
Bernie’s crossover appeal also extends to his message. I’m not sure how it plays in Florida, but his appeal to working class people resonates loudly in states vital to Trump’s 2016 victory. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin—all states won by Donald Trump in 2016, and all states in which Bernie Sanders could fare well in 2020. And while his policies are very different, the populist undertones of Bernie’s campaign are not that dissimilar from some parts of the promise to Make America Great Again (just not the racist and xenophobic parts).
Once again, I am not even convinced of my own position. Part of me still very much feels that I should cast the “safe” vote for a more moderate candidate. But I’m also reminded of what happened around this time in 2016. Bernie Sanders was surging in Democratic primaries, but ultimately came up short of securing the nomination. His failure to do so resulted from many of the same preoccupations that surround his candidacy today—concerns that his democratic socialism made him unelectable, and that it was safer to go with the more moderate, establishment choice. After Trump secured the Republican nomination, the “safe” choice seemed like an even bigger no-brainer. Surely the relatively moderate Clinton would defeat the radical, right-wing demagogue in the general election. And we all know what happened next.
Come November, I will vote for the candidate that receives the Democratic nomination, no matter who that happens to be. For the most part, I like all of the candidates on the Democratic side, which is a lot more than I can say about the buffoon that will once again represent the Republicans. The big question continues to be which Democratic candidate has the best shot at an electoral victory. My mind tells me one thing, my gut tells me another, and on Super Tuesday, I’m going with the latter. Feel the Bern.