In the field of political forecasting, almost nothing is a matter of certainty, and almost everything is a matter of probability. If Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders — who currently leads the field in Iowa and New Hampshire, and appears to be consolidating support among the party’s progressive wing, while its moderates remain splintered — his prospects against Donald Trump in November would be far from hopeless. Polarization has given any major party nominee a high enough floor of support that the term “unelectable” has no real place in the discussion. What’s more, every candidate in the race brings a suite of their own liabilities Trump could exploit.
That said, the totality of the evidence suggests Sanders is an extremely, perhaps uniquely, risky nominee. His vulnerabilities are enormous and untested. No party nomination, with the possible exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964, has put forth a presidential nominee with the level of downside risk exposure as a Sanders-led ticket would bring. To nominate Sanders would be insane.
Sanders has gleefully discarded the party’s conventional wisdom that it has to pick and choose where to push public opinion leftward, adopting a comprehensive left-wing agenda, some of which is popular, and some of which is decidedly not. Positions in the latter category include replacing all private health insurance with a government plan, banning fracking, letting prisoners vote, decriminalizing the border, giving free health care to undocumented immigrants, and eliminating ICE. (I am only listing Sanders positions that are intensely unpopular. I am not including positions, like national rent control and phasing out all nuclear energy, that I consider ill-advised but which probably won’t harm him much with voters.)
Not every one of these unpopular stances is unique to Sanders. Some have won the endorsement of rival candidates, and many of them have been endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, Sanders’s closest rival. In fact, Sanders seem to have overtaken Warren in part because she spent most of 2019 closing the ideological gap between the two candidates, which made Democratic Party elites justifiably skeptical about her electability, thereby kneecapping her viability as a trans-factional candidate. Sanders probably wasn’t trying to undermine Warren by luring her into adopting all his policies, but it has worked out quite well for him, and poorly for her.
But Warren at least tries to couch her positions in a framework of reforming and revitalizing capitalism that is intended to reassure ideologically skeptical voters. Sanders combines unpopular program specifics in the unpopular packaging of “socialism.” The socialist label has grown less unpopular, a trend that has attracted so much media attention that many people have gotten the impression “socialism” is actually popular, which is absolutely not the case.
Compounding those vulnerabilities is a long history of radical associations. Sanders campaigned for the Socialist Workers’ Party and praised communist regimes. Obviously, Republicans call every Democratic nominee a “socialist.” But it’s one thing to have the label thrown at you by the opposition, another for it to be embraced willingly, and yet another thing altogether to have a web of creepy associations that make it child’s play for the opposition to paint your program as radical and dangerous. Viewing these attacks in isolation, and asking whether voters will care about Bernie’s views on the Cold War, misses the way they will be used as a stand-in to discredit his entire worldview. Nobody “cared” how Michael Dukakis looked in a tank, and probably not many voters cared about Mitt Romney’s dismissive remarks about the 47 percent, but both reinforced larger attack narratives. Vintage video of Bernie palling around with Soviet communists will make for an almost insultingly easy way for Republicans to communicate the idea that his plans to expand government are radical.
Sanders has never faced an electorate where these vulnerabilities could be used against him. Nor, for that matter, has he had to defend some of his bizarre youthful musings (such as his theory that sexual repression causes breast cancer) or the suspicious finances surrounding his wife’s college. Democrats are rightfully concerned about attacks on Hunter Biden’s nepotistic role at Burisma, but Sanders is going to have to defend equally questionable deals, like the $500,000 his wife’s university paid for a woodworking program run by his stepdaughter.
It’s impossible to measure the weight all these liabilities would bear upon a Sanders candidacy. The quality of a candidate is not the only, or even the main, determinate of election outcomes, and having popular views is only one factor in the quality of a candidate. Still, political science has generally found that, all things being equal, the electorate tends to punish ideologically extreme candidates. You can peruse studies finding such a conclusion here, here, and here. Again, none of this says the more extreme candidate always loses, merely that extremism creates a handicap.
For obvious reasons, the Democratic Party’s left wing has always resisted this conclusion (as has the Republican Party’s right wing.) But Hillary Clinton’s surprising defeat created an opportunity for the party’s left to promote an alternative theory for how the party could and should compete. It deemed Donald Trump’s win a sign that capitalism had created such distress that voters were now rejecting conventional politicians altogether and open to radical alternatives who might promise to smash the failing system. Indeed, by this reasoning, Democrats would do better, not worse, by nominating more left-wing candidates, who could distance themselves more credibly from the discredited Establishment.
Yet this theory has had two clear tests, and failed both of them spectacularly. Numerous activists and intellectuals in the Sanders orbit held up Jeremy Corbyn as proof of concept for his viability. Anticipating a Corbyn victory, they argued over and over that Corbyn was showing how socialism would attract and mobilize, not repel, voters. Corbyn is more extreme than Sanders, but Sanders enthusiasts themselves drew a connection between the two, and his massive defeat obviously casts serious doubt on the model he was supposed to vindicate.
A second example, closer to home, is even more relevant. In the months leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, the Democratic Party was the subject of bitter and widespread criticism from its left wing. The party’s strategy was to flip the House by recruiting moderate candidates who would avoid controversial left-wing positions and instead focus attention on Trump’s agenda, especially his effort to eliminate Obamacare. The left predicted the strategy would fail — only an inspiring progressive agenda could mobilize enough voters to win back the House.
“Their theory of the case is to recruit old white guys who are longtime Establishment insiders who will run on a boring agenda Democrats would have run on 20 years ago,” complained Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “The DCCC is doing it wrong,” insisted Democracy for America’s Neil Sroka. “In district after district, the national party is throwing its weight behind candidates who are out of step with the national mood,” proclaimed a long piece in the left-wing Intercept attacking the party’s House recruitment strategy, “The DCCC’s failure to understand the shifting progressive electorate is costing the party.” Zephyr Teachout was quoted saying, “Their strategy is stupid in the first place and bad for democracy, but then it’s really stupid because they have 26-year-olds sitting around who don’t know anything about the real world deciding which candidates should win.”
Ryan Cooper, a socialist columnist, cited the Intercept piece to ruminate just why the Democrats would advance such an obviously doomed strategy. “Their naked self-interest and bourgeoise ideology is camouflaged behind a technocratic facade of just doing ‘what it takes to win’ — but it’s a facade they generally believe wholeheartedly.” The Democratic plan was obviously doomed to fail, so perhaps their motivation was actually to enrich themselves and advance neoliberalism, while claiming it was a good strategy to win the House.
As we now know, it was a good strategy to win the House. Democrats flipped 40 seats. Tellingly, while progressives managed to nominate several candidates in red districts — Kara Eastman in Nebraska, Richard Ojeda in West Virginia, and many others — any one of whose victory they would have cited as proof that left-wing candidates can win Trump districts, not a single one of them prevailed in November. Our Revolution went 0–22, Justice Democrats went 0–16, and Brand New Congress went 0–6.* The failed technocratic 26-year-old bourgeoise shills who were doing it wrong somehow accounted for 100 percent of the party’s House gains.
Had Democrats failed to win back the House, their left-wing critics would have claimed vindication. Instead, the entire debate sank below the surface without a trace. Indeed, what happened instead was something peculiar. The leftists chose to focus on a handful of left-wing candidates, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated center-left Democrats in deep-blue districts. The conservative media strategically elevated her in a bid to make AOC and her squad the party’s face. The mutual interest of the two sides made AOC the narrative center of the election. The fact that the party had just run a field experiment between two factions, and the moderate faction prevailed conclusively, was forgotten.
At this point there is hardly any serious evidence to believe that the best strategy to defeat Trump is to mobilize voters with a radical economic agenda. Public satisfaction with the economy is now at its highest point since the peak of the dot-com boom two decades ago. Trump has serious weaknesses of issues like health care, corruption, taxes, and the environment, and a majority of the public disapproves of Trump’s performance, but he does enjoy broad approval of his economic management. Therefore, his reelection strategy revolves around painting his opponents as radical and dangerous. You may not like me, he will argue, but my opponents are going to turn over the apple cart. A Sanders campaign seems almost designed to play directly into Trump’s message.
Whatever evidence might have supported a Sanders-esque populist strategy for Democrats after the 2016 election, it has since collapsed. But in the ideological hothouse of the Sanders world, no setbacks have been acknowledged, no rethinking has taken place, and the skeptics are dismissed as elitist neoliberal corporate shills, as ever. The project moves forward even as the key tests of its viability have all failed. Once enough energy has been invested in a cause, it has too much momentum to be abandoned. For the socialist left, which has no other standard-bearer to choose from, Bernie is too big to fail. The question is whether the Democratic Party, the only political force standing between Donald Trump and his authoritarian ambitions, will risk failing with him.
*The original figures referred to all 2018 races, but I’ve edited the number to limit it solely to House races, which is most directly relevant.