Earlier this month, the headlines began to appear that made the Democratic Party poohbahs weak at the knees.
“Sanders becomes Dem frontrunner,” claimed the D.C.-based political magazine, The Hill, last week. USA Today, the Associated Press, MSNBC, and Fox News all had similar headlines.
It was the same week that the New York Times reported on secret meetings by some top party officials, like Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and longtime Clinton pal Terry McAullife, to discuss ways to halt Sanders’ growing momentum, which is fueled by enormous grassroots enthusiasm and a devoted cadre of more than a million small donors who have given Sanders an almost limitless supply of “people-powered” campaign cash.
For now, the party establishment appears to be pinning their hopes on former Vice President Joe Biden, who was expected to announce yet this week, demonstrating yet again that they have failed to learn the lessons of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Back then, the party operatives all hitched their wagons to a dyed-in-the-wool centrist with a muddled message and a heaping pile of political baggage. They lost to a political neophyte, who they now think they can beat by offering up more of the same.
It shows just how out-of-touch the Democratic Party establishment has become with the country, and even their own voters.
Despite a still-strong economy, polling consistently demonstrates that Americans are troubled by our current state of affairs. Overwhelming majorities of Americans consistently tell pollsters that the country is on the wrong track— a troubling sign for an incumbent president and an obvious opening for an insurgent candidate, like Sanders, who shares the voters’ sense that all is not well in America.
The Democratic establishment and their supporters in the media have stepped up the drumbeat of attacks against Sanders in recent weeks, suggesting that he’s too far out of the mainstream, or at least what passes for “the mainstream” among the D.C. cocktail crowd. They suggest he won’t play well with moderate Republicans in the suburbs, a demographic that has become a kind of holy grail for the free trade, pro-Wall Street, Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. They’re happy to write off efforts to expand the electorate, showing little interest in engaging young voters, or rural America, two groups that have shown strong enthusiasm toward Sanders.
The problem that the Democrats face, besides misplaced overconfidence regarding the 2020 race, is that Trump could well lose the popular vote for a second time and still keep the White House. With a candidate in the same mold as Clinton, Trump is an odds-on favorite to hold Florida and Ohio, which gives the Democrats a relatively narrow path to 270. A Democratic candidate would need to win back Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, under this scenario, which could be challenging.
But Sanders is working from an entirely different scenario— one that seeks to realign the electoral map in the same way Trump was able to do in 2016.
A case in point is West Virginia, which Trump won by an astonishing 69-27 percent margin over Clinton in 2016. An online poll conducted for 2018 legislative races in that state asked respondents a number of questions, including who they’d support for president. That poll showed Sanders beating Trump in West Virginia by two points. Online polls aren’t known to be tremendously accurate, but the result was an eye-opener nonetheless. And it’s actually consistent with exit-polling in West Virginia, which found that 44-percent of Sanders supporters in the West Virginia Democratic primary voted for Trump in the general election.
Hillary supporters cited this phenomenon, which was documented elsewhere, as evidence that Sanders supporters somehow lacked the requisite party loyalty. It’s more accurate, however, to say that Sanders simply appealed to sizable numbers of voters who will not consider a Democratic candidate who represents the continuation of a status quo that no longer works for large numbers of Americans.
West Virginia is hardly alone. I remember being amazed at the turnout at area DFL caucuses back in 2016, when huge numbers of local residents, some of whom I had long assumed were Republicans or disaffected Democrats, turned out to throw their support behind Sanders.
Sanders won every congressional district in Minnesota in the caucuses and did exceptionally well in rural parts of the state, including here in northern St. Louis County. That exact same phenomenon played out in Wisconsin, where Sanders won every county except Milwaukee, and in Michigan, where Sanders dominated everywhere but Detroit and one or two other major cities.
The political pundits who routinely claim that Sanders’ message won’t play well in rural America apparently haven’t talked to any of us out here in the sticks. It was Clinton who didn’t play well, and Trump was the only real alternative on the ballot.
The question now is, which candidate on the Democratic side is best positioned to win back the legions of rural and white working-class voters, including huge numbers in northeastern Minnesota, who jumped the Democratic ship for Trump in 2016? And which candidate is likely to spark the highest turnout from some of the disaffected groups, like Hispanics and the young, who don’t turn out when they aren’t inspired. On that question, it’s Sanders in a walk.
Keep in mind, while 2020 is critically important, so are future elections. While the Democrats might be able to win some support in 2020 from moderate suburban Republicans when faced with the prospect of Trump’s reelection, how many will opt to stick with the party should the Republicans select a more traditional conservative in 2024? Probably not many.
If the Democrats want to win back the White House, and keep it, they’ll need to win back some of the white working class that has long been a key part of their political base. In 2016, Clinton let Trump outflank her on the left with his rhetorical support for fairer trade and more infrastructure spending, and those policies won the backing of many traditionally-Democratic voters, including many here in the North Country. Since then, he’s passed a tax cut that directs 85 percent of the savings to the top One Percent, hurt farmers and many other manufacturers by starting a trade war, and did exactly nothing to advance infrastructure improvements.
That’s where Sanders could have the advantage. Trump has used his time in the White House to feather his own nest and ingratiate himself with his fellow billionaires. In other words, he only plays a populist on television. Sanders, by contrast, is the real McCoy.