As the Democratic presidential nominating contest reaches its climax, the Bernie Sanders campaign is relying more and more heavily on arguments that polls show him doing better than Hillary Clinton against the three remaining Republican candidates. Team Bernie is not cherry-picking polls like Donald Trump sometimes does to make this case. In the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Sanders is running about six points ahead of Clinton against Trump, nine points ahead of her against Cruz, and twelve points ahead of her against Kasich.
There are three reasons, however, to doubt these polls. The first is that most political scientists and data journalists believe general-election polls prior to, well, the general-election campaign, are not very reliable. Comparing general-election candidates by polls is a dubious proposition for a second reason: Candidates who aren’t very well known tend to have lower unfavorable ratings. That’s definitely the case when he (i.e., Sanders) is running against someone (i.e., Clinton) who has been a bête noire for conservative voters for an entire generation.
The third reason it’s not that clear Sanders is more “electable” than Clinton is that, when pressed, Republican operatives cheerfully admit running against Bernie in a general election would be like shooting fish in a barrel. At Bloomberg Politics today, Sahil Kapur collects some of these admissions, and they paint a bright-red picture of a negative campaign that would bring back bad memories of some of the low points of Richard Nixon’s — and maybe even Joe McCarthy’s — careers.
[P]rominent Republican operatives are chomping at the bit to face Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont and self-described democratic socialist, in the general election, believing he’d be an easier opponent than the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state.
“Republicans are being nice to Bernie Sanders because we like the thought of running against a socialist. But if he were to win the nomination the knives would come out for Bernie pretty quick,” said Ryan Williams, a former spokesman for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign. “There’s no mystery what the attack on him would be. Bernie Sanders is literally a card carrying socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union. There’d be hundreds of millions of dollars in Republican ads showing hammers and sickles and Soviet Union flags in front of Bernie Sanders.”
Cynical Sanders supporters may suspect this is a head fake on grounds that Republicans actually Fear the Bern, and maybe they should — but there’s not much evidence that they do.
Believing that Sanders may be too far outside the mainstream to win the Democratic primary, the Republican National Committee is doling out reams of opposition research on Clinton, and virtually none on Sanders.
Indeed, the typical silence of Republicans about Sanders probably reflects self-confidence rather than fear. John Kasich may have let the cat out of the bag:
At a debate in January, Kasich joked that “we’re going to win every state if Bernie Sanders is the nominee.” The same month, RNC chief strategist Sean Spicer tweeted Sanders-friendly commentary during a Democratic debate and quipped that he was trying to “help” the underdog.
A putative red-baiting general-election campaign against Sanders could operate on dual tracks. The easy part would be to trade on the heartburn many older swing voters might have over any prospective president who calls himself a socialist. Yes, polls have been showing that millennials do not share that phobia, but as Sanders’s struggle in the nominating contest with Clinton shows, even near-universal support among young voters does not a majority make. Beyond that, however, you can be sure Republicans and allied conservative groups will dig deeper into Sanders’s background to find the inevitable expressions of support for anti-American Marxist insurgencies in various parts of the world, and exploit even riper targets like his decision to appear as an elector for the Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party’s presidential ticket in Vermont in 1980. Could Sanders’s relatively robust approval ratings survive weeks, and even months, of relentless pounding on these themes?
That’s hard to say. What isn’t really debatable is that the material Sanders offers Republicans for their attack ads is much more user-friendly than the tortured Alinsky-esque conspiracy theories they’ll be forced to deploy against Clinton. And even if young people shrug at all the red-baiting, its value in whipping up the Republican base would be considerable. Can you imagine what Ted Cruz’s father and campaign surrogate, Rafael, who claims Barack Obama is a Fidel Castro clone, would do with a gen-u-wine red-flag-waving Popular Front veteran on the opposing ticket?
We probably won’t find out because Clinton is very likely to be the nominee. But if Sanders is going to keep touting his electability right down to the balloting in Cleveland, then he and his people should probably acknowledge he’s got some special vulnerabilities the polls aren’t picking up just yet.