Bernie Would Have Beaten the Donald?

Inside the world of a new deranged fantasy contest.

Since Donald’s electoral victory, we’ve been flooded with reports from the New York Times, Washington Post , Real Clear Politics and other polling outfits that if the president-elect’s opponent had been Bernie Sanders, not HRC, then the Democrats would have held on to the presidency. Unlike Hillary, Bernie is generally regarded as an honest person, who ran for the presidency as an “outsider.” Also unlike Hillary, when Bernie attacked banks and big business interests, the public knew that he was sincere and really looking out for the common man. The voters therefore were not repudiating the Left when they voted for Trump. Rather they were choosing, for want of a better alternative, a deeply flawed messenger of economic reform, who brought with him questionable right-wing baggage. A number of polling services have provided the comparative figures for the two candidate in a hypothetical matchup; and from their data it would seem that Bernie would have beaten Trump by between 5 and 15 points if he had been the Democratic nominee.

I wouldn’t bother to be responding to this fantasy contest if I had not heard the results being taken seriously by a former colleague in political science. The one who defended the polling data is not a Democrat but a centrist Republican who, as far as I can tell, was a Never-Trumper.  She considers Trump to be a clownish, unqualified presidential candidate who won our highest political office by cashing in on an anti-establishment mood. Presumably a brainier and more articulate Jewish intellectual playing the anti-establishment game could have done at least as well this week, if the DNC had allowed him to run. The working class would have voted for Bernie as readily as they did for Trump; moreover, in a presidential race Bernie could have counted in all those groups who backed Hillary.

There are several problems with treating this fantasy contest as something that might have happened. One, after seeing our authorized pollsters screw up the real presidential contest on Tuesday, why the hell should I believe them about an entirely hypothetical contest? Needless to say, the same leftist bias that skewed the authorized “finding” in the real contest, we have every reason to suspect, permeates the hypothetical one just as much. Two, it is silly to imagine that those white working class voters who supported Trump would have been even more willing to stand with Bernie. Certainly most of those voters have values and interests, other than expressing anger at the economically privileged. Further, from what I have seen of them in Central Pennsylvania, Trump attracted culturally conservative people. These voters would not likely have switched their allegiance to someone who slavishly parroted the stock phrases of the “LGBT community” or someone who took a stand with the Black Lives Matter cause even more emphatically than Hillary. And Bernie’s stand on immigration and Sanctuary Cities would have not resonated with Trump voters of any color, who were plainly concerned about illegal immigration and terrorism and the effects of these problems on safety and/or employment opportunities.

My former colleague incorrectly believes that Trump voters were expressing only material frustrations and that their concerns could have been addressed by Sanders even more effectively than by Trump. Of course she did not factor in the Evangelicals, conservative Catholics and most Orthodox Jews, who were voting for Trump specifically because they couldn’t stand where the Democrats stood on social issues. And she entirely ignored another reason that people with my views supported Trump, namely because he assailed, however incoherently, Political Correctness. It was Trump, not Sanders, who among presidential contenders monopolized that issue.

Three, there is no reason to assume that all of Hillary’s voters would have gone to Sanders last Tuesday. One may seriously doubt whether blacks would have come out to vote for a Jewish radical leftist from Brooklyn in the numbers that they did for Secretary Clinton, and yes, even if Hillary’s numbers lagged behind those achieved by Barack Obama.   Although Sanders recited the mantras of the Black Lives Matter movement, he connected badly with black Democrats, who overwhelmingly favored Clinton over him in the primaries. The cultural gap between Bernie and the majority of black voters may have been too great to bridge; and in all likelihood, more of them would have stayed home on Election Day than with Clinton as the Democratic nominee. Finally Bernie would have had less appeal among Jewish donors and Jewish voters than Clinton because of his recorded expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians. Whereas Clinton ran around frantically declaring her fervent support for Israel, Bernie ostentatiously shunned such gestures. Although he may have been more his own person by acting this way, he was also sending a message to Jewish voters who embrace both the Democrats and the Israeli cause. This may in fact be a hard juggling act for those attempting it, but Sanders would have made it even harder as the Democratic presidential candidate.  

In my considered opinion, Hillary may have been the strongest candidate whom the Democrats could have run, despite her unsavory deeds and unpalatable associations. She had the largest war chest of any presidential candidate in American history and a prodigious staff. She has been a widely known public figure since the 1990s and enjoyed the devotion of the mass media, many of whose leading figures were longtime friends. She lost not only because of her corruption but because she met in Trump an entirely unconventional opponent. She fell to someone who unlike establishment Republicans fought ruthlessly and unconventionally and showed an iron determination to win that was even stronger than Hillary’s. The greatest miscalculation of those who think that Bernie could have beaten Trump was underestimating the drive and shrewdness of the man who just won the presidency. As observers have noticed, Trump is “an irresistible force of Nature.” Neither Bernie nor Hillary is.