Outside the Hobbesian hellscape we call Twitter, the 2016 Democratic race has been fairly tame. All it takes is one glance at the Dumpster fire across the aisle to see how much uglier politics can get. Even a look in the Democrats’ own rear-view mirror shows the outrages of the Sanders/Clinton race to be rather tepid fare. And yet:
Sanders has an unusually high net favorability from supporters of his primary opponent. Clinton gets unusually low marks from Bernie backers.
The 2016 Democratic race has featured fewer personal attacks than the 2008 edition but far more ideological ones. Judging from that NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the latter appear to be more divisive on the Democratic side. While Obama supporters may have resented Clinton suggesting that their candidate doesn’t appeal to "hardworking … white Americans," they knew that she shared the Illinois senator’s basic policy worldview. By contrast, Sanders’s personal attacks on Clinton are premised on her ideological failings — she is "not qualified" for the presidency because of her interventionist foreign-policy instincts and for her participation in the corrupt campaign-finance system that allows the billionaire class to stifle democracy. The latter line of attack not only implies that Clinton is personally corruptible; it also suggests that the stakes of that personal failing are nothing less than the perpetuation of an "Establishment politics" that is immiserating America’s working people. The Clinton/Obama race was a nasty argument about who would be the more effective implementer of their (mostly) mutual political program. The Clinton/Sanders race is a slightly more polite argument about who is actually on the side of the people, or at least that’s the argument the Vermont senator has tried to have in recent weeks.
For Sanders’s core supporters, those most attached to his diagnosis of what ails our political economy, being on the wrong side of that argument is, in fact, disqualifying. The antipathy of these voters toward Clinton goes a way toward explaining her historically high unfavorability. In a CBS/New York Times poll from March, Clinton had a net unfavorable rating of -21. Assuming she maintains her significant lead over Bernie Sanders, Clinton will become the second-most-unpopular non-incumbent presidential nominee in recorded history, just behind a certain proto-fascist reality star.
The hopeful reading of the NBC/Wall Street Journal data is that once the primary’s friendly fire goes quiet, Clinton’s popularity will enjoy a quick recovery. With America’s favorite democratic socialist stumping for her in the fall, his most skeptical supporters will stop worrying and learn to like Hillary. The pessimistic reading for the Clinton camp is that Sanders’s recent attacks have sown durable divisions in the Democratic coalition that will haunt the party’s standard-bearer into November.
Regardless, Democrats can console themselves with the fact that they are far more unified than the party of Lincoln. Clinton is one point underwater with Sanders voters. Trump is disliked by 71 percent of Kasich fans, and 56 percent of Cruz-ers.