Would It Help or Hurt Clinton to Adopt Some of Sanders’s Policy Positions?

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Hillary Clinton Addresses Planned Parenthood Action Fund
Should Clinton "move left" by adopting some of Bernie Sanders's policy positions? Photo: Alex Wong/2016 Getty Images

Donald Trump isn’t the only presumptive presidential nominee who is under pressure to make some significant changes during the shift from the primaries to the general election. In Hillary Clinton’s case, her vanquished opponent is explicitly demanding a progressive platform with some of his own policy preoccupations included.

It will certainly be tempting for Clinton to quickly throw enough policy bones to Sanders and his supporters to head off any unpleasantness at the convention and get the candidate himself on her team. In some cases, the differences between her own positions and Bernie’s are primarily a matter of emphasis. But as Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight notes, there are issues where Clinton will be sailing into the teeth of adverse or at least mixed public opinion if she moves toward Sanders’s positions, aside from the symbolic fallout over “moving to the left” when the cognoscenti all think she should be “pivoting to the center.”

A good example involves an issue of importance to the younger component of Sanders’s core audience: college affordability.

The positions on which Clinton and Sanders share common ground seem to be popular. In an August YouGov survey, 62 percent of Americans agreed with the idea of a debt-free college experience. Polling on free community college is more split and the results seem to depend on question wording, but — no matter how you ask — more people favor the proposal than oppose it. A YouGov poll from January 2015 found that 68 percent of Americans favored free community college for students who maintained a C+ average and are “making progress towards a degree.”

Sanders’s free four-year college plan, by contrast, splits the country down the middle. According to an August YouGov poll, support for free public college stood at 46 percent. In April, a Gallup survey found 47 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed. This doesn’t mean that Clinton would necessarily cost herself votes by embracing Sanders’s plan, but her current position is safer politically.

The same is true of her positions on the minimum wage and campaign-finance reform, and while Enten doesn’t mention it, her position on climate change is probably safer, too, insofar as knees jerk in opposition to the “tax” part of Sanders’s support for a carbon tax. 

The big exception would seem to be health care, where advocates of a single-payer system have plenty of evidence that “Medicare for all” polls well. But, as Enten notes, greater scrutiny of single-payer plans would almost certainly make them significantly more controversial:

Americans are less likely to support it when reminded of the potential cost. According to a February Associated Press-GfK poll, 39 percent of supporters of single-payer healthcare would oppose it if their taxes went up or if they needed to give up their employer coverage. Additionally, 47 percent of supporters would switch positions if there were longer wait times in non-emergency situations; 51 percent would flip if it took longer for “new drugs and treatments to become available.” Opponents of a single-payer plan would certainly make these arguments, just as opponents of Obamacare did in successfully bringing down support for the law.

Another factor making Clinton potentially less likely to cave to Sanders’s positions is that the vast gulf between the two parties on most issues makes perceived “centrism” more valuable, particularly at a time when each party is sure to accuse the other of extremism. 

In the end, the Clinton-Trump race is likely to revolve around perceptions of the two candidates and their parties that don’t involve fine policy distinctions. Are there really voters out there who are likely to agonize over this choice until they learn more about Trump’s position on climate change or Clinton’s on public funding of campaigns? Probably not. So Team Clinton is mostly free to deal with the Sanders policy challenge as a matter of Democratic unity and enthusiasm, with the significant reservation that her “trust” problems won’t be helped if she’s moving around on issues in a calculated way.