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IF you have followed the race to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States you’ll have heard the argument a lot: Bernie Sanders, the social democratic senator from Vermont, would never beat sitting US President Donald Trump.
Indeed since Super Tuesday, when Democratic supporters in a slew of states voted on who should face Trump in November 2020, this assertion has become more prevalent — with an additional clause: it is former vice-president Joe Biden, not Sanders, who is best positioned to defeat Trump.
Even commentators who profess to support Sanders’s policies make this argument. After telling Channel 4 News he agrees with Sanders on “an awful lot of political issues,” Eric Alterman, a columnist at the left-leaning Nation magazine, said he fears the example of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. If Sanders ran against Trump “it would be the end of the American republic,” he said.
Addressing the popular argument that Sanders is “sure to be an electoral disaster” a couple of days later, MSNBC host Chris Hayes was unequivocal: “I am just here to tell you that the evidence we have, to the extent we have evidence about an unknowable future, just doesn’t support that at all.”
Summarising the Real Clear Politics polling averages from February on head to head match ups between Trump and the Democratic presidential candidates, Hayes noted Sanders “is consistently, in poll after poll after poll, at or near the top in all of them” — in beating Trump.
Author Steve Phillips, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, concurs. Writing in the New York Times on February 28, he explained “most of the available empirical evidence shows Mr Sanders defeating President Trump in the national popular vote and in the critical Midwestern states that tipped the Electoral College in 2016.”
He continues: “This has been the case for nearly a year now, with Mr Sanders outpolling the president in 67 of 72 head-to-head polls since March .”
Furthermore, Phillips argues Sanders’s “specific electoral strengths align with changes in the composition of the country’s population in ways that could actually make him a formidable foe for the president.”
In a February Reuters/Ipsos poll Sanders led Trump by 18 percentage points among independent voters in a hypothetical general election match-up — the highest score among all the Democratic candidates.
Famously, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton claimed “nobody likes” Sanders. In contrast, Peter Beinart, professor of journalism at the City University of New York notes “polls of Democratic voters show nothing of the sort.”
While the Democratic Party elite are deeply sceptical of Sanders, “among ordinary Democrats, Sanders is strikingly popular, even with voters who favour his rivals… on paper, he appears well positioned to unify the party should he win its presidential nomination,” Beinart explains in The Atlantic magazine.
Sanders’s popularity seems to stretch to being relatively personally popular too. Asked for their thoughts on the personal characteristics of several Democratic presidential contenders and of Trump, in a February USA Today/Ipsos poll Americans consistently gave Sanders the highest marks for his values and empathy.
40 per cent of respondents said they admired Sanders’s character, well above the 31 per cent for Biden and the 26 per cent for Trump, while 39 per cent of respondents said Sanders “shares my values” compared to 30 per cent saying Biden and 31 per cent for Trump.
And Alterman’s comparison to Corbyn is a red herring, of course. First, because in 2017 Corbyn led the Labour Party to its best electoral performance since 2001 — before the Brexit issue polarised the party and electorate.
And second, because Sanders is a much better political communicator than the often reticent Corbyn. In debate performances the 78-year old Brooklynite is laser-focused, impressively able to summarise his policies in everyday language and soundbites, and is unafraid to attack his rivals.
Johnny Burtka, executive director for The American Conservative magazine, agrees. “Bernie clearly has the pugnacity,” he told The Hill website in December. “He’s the only one that I think could ultimately take on Donald Trump on the debate stage.”
And it is Sanders, not Biden, who has a young, energetic mass movement backing him — an army of small donations giving Sanders a clear lead in campaign funding over Biden, according to data collected by the Centre for Responsive Politics until January.
Frustratingly though, politics, and political change, is never this simple and straightforward — since Biden’s strong performance on Super Tuesday the polling results have shifted. Biden is now favoured as the Democratic nominee by 54 per cent of Democratic primary voters, compared to 38 per cent supporting Sanders, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
However, the polling data is just one reason Biden would be a disastrous candidate.
Many are concerned about Biden’s long record of being on the wrong side of many political issues — from his 2003 vote for the illegal invasion of Iraq, to his support for the Wall Street bailout, the Rust Belt-decimating Nafta trade agreement, mass incarceration and cutting social security.
“The Trump people are going to fillet Joe Biden, they are going to fillet him in their ads, and Trump is going to mercilessly fillet him in the debate,” journalist Jeremy Scahill recently argued on Democracy Now. Why? “Because a lot of stuff they will say about him will be true! And Biden is lying, or he doesn’t know what room he is in.”
That last bit is a reference to what journalist Glenn Greenwald called Biden’s “serious issues with his cognitive abilities.” Or, as Scahill puts it: “Joe Biden is not a well man… he can barely complete a sentence.”
Recent well-publicised examples include Biden forgetting the “all men are created equal” passage from the Declaration of Independence, telling an audience he was running for the US Senate and his statement that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”
So why is Biden, and not Sanders, being presented as the safe pair of hands in the race to be the Democratic presidential candidate?
Beyond the party elite and corporate media falling in line behind the very establishment figure that is Biden, arguably a simplistic understanding of politics underpins the belief Sanders is an electoral liability.
This view sees a linear left-right political spectrum, with Sanders on the far left and Biden in the centre. Therefore, it seems obvious that the so-called centrist Biden would be able to appeal to a larger section of the American voting public than the “extreme” Sanders, who would likely alienate much of the political spectrum.
However, what this type of analysis misses is the fact around 13 per cent of Trump voters in 2016 backed Obama in 2012, according to the American National Election Study. Interviewing more than a dozen Obama supporters who were planning to vote Trump in 2016, the New York Times reported “a common theme: the message of change that inspired them to vote for Mr Obama is now embodied by Mr Trump.”
Adam Ramsay, an Editor at Open Democracy, provides some insight into this seemingly contradictory voting behaviour. “While journalists and pundits and academics tend to see politics as a question of policy and ideology” for the broader public “the first thing they go to is the question of trust,” he noted in a video recently.
Turning to the Democratic primaries he argues “the question isn’t really whether voters are looking at these candidates on a left-right spectrum… because most voters right across the Western world don’t really see politics like that. What they look at is whether they think they can trust each of these people to stand up for them or whether they think these people are going to be co-opted by the interests of the rich and powerful.”
Of course, Sanders might end up being a terrible presidential candidate, and Biden may defeat Trump. Nothing is certain. But the majority of evidence we have right now doesn’t support the argument that Biden is more electable than Sanders.
As The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan recently explained on MSNBC about the Democratic Party elite: “They tried to run a pro-Iraq War, pro-Wall Street establishment Democrat with a history of dubious claims, and dodgy dealings and dodgy comments about incarceration and super predators” in 2016. “Where did that end up? What’s the old saying? Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.”
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.
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