Saturday, February 20, 2016

No, Bernie Sanders Is Not Electable

As the Democratic primaries tighten (and as I write this, Nevada seems to be a toss-up), we're increasingly hearing Sanderistas argue that Bernie is more electable than Clinton--long an article of faith in the Sanders camp, now proclaimed louder and with greater confidence. And the first prong of these arguments, that Clinton has some electability concerns of her own, is valid up to a point (though they exaggerate it). Nobody who's paying attention is going to argue that she's a shoo-in. Where they go off the rails, though, is in arguing the affirmative case for Sanders.

The most extraordinary of these arguments comes from the Baghdad Bob of Sanderistas, the spectacularly deranged H. A. Goodman1:
Bernie Sanders, unlike Clinton, defeats Donald Trump in a landslide of “epic proportions” in a general election and is the antithesis of a Republican. If you don’t believe me, then watch my friend Brian Hanley’s animated rap videos about Bernie Sanders demolishing Donald Trump.
Well if an animated rap video says so, it must be true.

More commonly, we see the electability argument made by Christopher Cook in a piece purporting to be The Pragmatic Case for Bernie Sanders. There's lots wrong with the rest of this piece (he elides the difference between change within electoral politics and change from social movements--and I'm not sure he really understands the dynamic of the latter), but for now let's focus on the electability argument:
On the pragmatics of electability, nearly every major national poll consistently shows Sanders equaling or bettering Clinton against all Republicans. Polls show Sanders nearly tied with Clinton nationally and rising. On electability, if anything, Sanders has the edge right now. There is nothing empirical to suggest Clinton’s superior electability—quite the contrary given her loss to Barack Obama in 2008 and her flagging campaign this year. While Clinton might gain more moderate Independents (particularly against a polarizing Republican nominee), Sanders can inspire massive Democratic and liberal Independent turnout and likely win over many white working-class swing voters.
This has the two basic elements: 1) current polling, and 2) expanding the electorate.

On the former point, obviously general-election polling at this stage is a pretty reliable guide to what happens on Election Day; just ask Presidents Dukakis and Kerry. (Remember Jimmy Carter's second term? Good times!)

But hey, he'll bring out a massive and unprecedented number of millennial voters, right? Well, maybe. Or maybe not. Democratic turnout was lower than 2008 in Iowa--171,000, down from 240,000--and New Hampshire--250,000 vs. 280,000 in 2008. The electability argument for Sanders assumes young voters turn out at Obama levels. So far, we haven't seen it.

But there's another, unstated, assumption the Sanders campaign is making: that besides bringing out record numbers of millennials, they'll maintain Obama's share/turnout among African-American and Latino voters. They don't say it, but it's built into their numbers. And that's a questionable assumption, given the palpable lack of enthusiasm for Sanders among African-American voters. He's been trying to win over African-Americans at least since July, and the numbers haven't really moved--due in part, maybe, to hilarious pratfalls like using Cornel West as a surrogate and saying Clinton's embrace of Obama is pandering to African-American voters. It's not a given that African-Americans would turn out in the same numbers for Sanders, especially if he wins the nomination without ever winning a majority of their votes--that is, if the Democratic nominee is effectively chosen by white voters.

Now that's all big picture stuff; Cook just sort of waves away the actual campaign. But it's a pretty crucial electability question: how would Sanders do when faced with the full fury of the GOP slime machine?

Here, too, Sanderistas have an answer:
I'm astounded that anyone who has been paying any attention to our toxic partisan politics in the last decade would think that the Republican attacks would be somehow less vehement for one candidate over the other. Eight years ago, I remember how Obama partisans would point out how "divisive" and "polarizing" Hillary Clinton would be as POTUS. Even then, the perpetual rage machine from right-wing talk radio and Fox News was completely disconnected from facts and logic, and I predicted pretty much what happened: If Obama was elected, the narrative and outrage from the right would be just as vigorous.

So, from their perspective, we've already had a Marxist/Leninist/Maoist/Islamic/Fascist Kenyan in the White House these last 7 years. Sanders breaks no new ground there.
Well, okay, sure--up to a point. But the question isn't whether those attacks will be made; the question is whether they'll stick. Hey, they didn't hurt Obama--but Obama is the most talented politician of our time, and he had what may have been the most effective campaign apparatus in American history. Sanders isn't Obama, and his campaign isn't Obama's campaign.

And Americans hate socialists, so yeah, the Republicans will use that against any candidate. But there's a huge difference between an attack (Obama is a socialist!) that's at odds with observable reality, and an attack (Bernie is a socialist!) the veracity of which the candidate himself confirms.

Of course as Steve points out, "socialist" may not even be the most effective anti-Sanders attack. To pay for his single-payer plan, Sanders is proposing a 6.2% payroll tax (plus a 2.2% income-based premium)--in other words, a tax hike on middle-class families. In theory the tax is more than offset by reduced premiums, but that's nuance, and we all know how that plays.

And in fact Sanders is even more vulnerable on taxes than Steve suggests, because his single-payer plan is based on all kinds of magical assumptions that underestimate likely costs by a trillion dollars per year. So on that payroll tax,
Thorpe...estimates that you'd need a 14.3 percent payroll tax on employers for a national single-payer plan, and a 5.7 percent income-based premium, for a combined 20 percent tax — about what Vermont estimated.
In other words, the Republicans could eviscerate Sanders on his healthcare plan without even being particularly dishonest.

But I'm not sure taxes are even the most damaging attack on Sanders' plan. The other big (maybe bigger) factor is loss aversion. Loss aversion is the reason President Obama promised we could keep our insurance if we liked it, and it's the reason that became an effective attack when it turned out not to be true in every case. Sanders is promising voters that if his plan passes you are absolutely guaranteed to lose your health insurance whether you like it or not. That includes Medicare, by the way, and old people get very angry at even imaginary threats to Medicare, and it doesn't much matter if it's likely to be replaced by something better because loss aversion doesn't work that way.

And this reader email to Josh Marshall gives us a glimpse of how it would play out in the general:
I've seen results of a poll (and heard about another) done by a group here in DC that tested Sanders's support before and after likely lines of attack against him. The results are bad, real bad.

The attacks are pretty obvious (and it's telling that no one in the GOP is making them right now), and the effects are dramatic. Sanders does well at the beginning of the poll (like he does now in face-to-face polling), but by the end is significantly behind *every* GOP contender. Basically, in the words of one highly-placed, data-driven Democratic friend of mine, "the numbers are brutal in many demographics. There's just no math that gets Sanders to a victory."

And I say this as a mild Sanders supporter, or at least I was before seeing these numbers. I've known Bernie for years and like him a lot, but the prospect of a Bernie-Cruz race is terrifying to me now.
Obviously there's no way to verify the details of this, so take it with a grain of salt if you like. But as a scenario it is terrifyingly plausible.

One last point: in evaluating any other electability arguments for Sanders, the essential question is whether the author, like Mulder, wants to believe. When someone's argument is perfectly aligned with what they want to be true, it creates a rebuttable presumption that the argument is wishful thinking. I haven't seen any of these arguments where the presumption can be rebutted. I would love to believe we live in a country where someone with Sanders' politics (not Sanders himself, because he's temperamentally and intellectually unsuited to the job, but someone better with similar policies) could be elected President. But I believe wishful thinking is morally indefensible, and given the stakes here I'm not prepared either to indulge in it myself or tolerate it in others. Nor should you.


1Who, a little over a year ago, was proclaiming his intention to vote for Rand Paul

30 comments:

Lit3Bolt said...

Half of all Bernie fans are Republican operatives and/or Nadarites who wouldn't vote Democratic even if Cthulu was the Republican nominee.

Not impressed with this field at all.

Never Ben Better said...

I've been worried for some time now about how dismissive the Bernie fans are when Republican attacks are raised as a concern. I can see the right-wing attack machines destroying him without breaking a sweat.

Heck, if I were devising tactics against him, one fruitful line would be portraying him as that annoying old half-senile uncle at the holiday table who won't shut up about his crackpot theory of everything that's wrong with the world today -- because, frankly, that's how he often comes across to me even when I'm agreeing with him.

Tom said...

The ads write themselves:

Opening shot: Bernie on 5the stump giving his "Washington is corrupt" part of his schtick.

Freeze: Unflattering photo of wild eyed dishevelled Bernie.

Voiceover: And what does Bernie want to do? Bernie wants give corrupt Washington more power and more influence over your life. He wants you to send trillions more of your money to corrupt Washington.

If the system is rigged, isn't it better to give Washington less?

Tom Hilton said...

Watching the last debate, it occurred to me that he would be really easy to Gore (remember how Al was ridiculed for sighing in one debate?). That tic of his that Samantha Bee calls "trying to hail a waitress", where he gestures with his raised index finger whenever his opponent is talking and he wants to make a point, would be painfully easy to ridicule in a way that dovetails with the crackpot uncle narrative.

Feud Turgidson said...

2008 Obama was unelectable on many fronts: a shallow callow empty-suit, scary black, in-the-face Muslim name, junior nobody, weird surreal calm uppity sort, versus (2) shallow callow empty-suit volume ambulance chaser from the Cackalackies, & (1) shallow empty-pant-suit, most baggage-hauling candidate ever, cheated-on wife of a preznit serial philander.

But someone has to win, and Obama did.
Then he was un-electable against the most famous widely admired military hero of our second maybe first worst most brutal blunder of a losing pointless foreign war, but the dude was old, with tired ideas where any, nominated by a party of old, tired white folks identified with multiple catastrophic devastating clusterfux, disasters & failure on everything, plus he actually wasn't popular with white bigots and knew it, so he panicked & found a way to make himself less popular with non-bigots of all colors. But someone has to win, and Obama did, by a whole bunch.

Over the next 4 years, economic woes, a fascisti-socialista horror of a compulsory health insurance program, & general feck hung on Obama to make him once again un-electable. Plus the other side ran at him with gleaming glowing white middle-aged toothpaste commercial posterboys for Winning! Yet, Obama won.

So now the Dems have a 2-candidate nomination contest between that same empty-pantsuit totally un-electable old water-retaining bag hag with the 2000-year-old husband, & a biblically ancient white Jew athiest socialist who's not even a Dem & is leading a children's crusade, at least as definitively un-electable as Obama was. So BOTH Ds are un-electable, but how this all works, one will win.

And the Rs have a 6-candidate clown car race where 2 have already blown their engines and are reduced to hand-paddling their campaigns but they REFUSE TO DROP OUT; and the 2 'most electable' are also the 'least nominate-able' plus they REFUSE TO DROP OUT - leaving the nation's most famous, and famously un-electable, CLOWN way in front. But how this works, one of those WILL win (probably the Clown, because 4 losers REFUSE TO DROP OUT).

So then we'll have a general election that, as usual, is between two un-electable characters - except one will win.

This "un-electable" horseshit is horseshit.

Tom Hilton said...

No such thing as Bernie Bros. No misogyny at all. Nothing to see here, move along.

Cathie from Canada said...

I agree very much with this.
There might be a chance that Sanders could be competitive against Trump, because they are both angry old men, though Trump has the advantage of being angrier, and funnier. But just imagine a white-haired finger-waving Sanders trying to win over Cruz, or worse yet, Rubio. It wouldn't be pretty. Sanders might take New England and the West Coast, but otherwise nothing.

Ray said...

I am a long time Democratic Party member. I would enjoy seeing an election where the voters are allowed to vote without having to see pundits on the Democratic side put down the other candidate that is running. If you like Sanders or Hillary that is the right of each individual voter. Those attacking candidates just help suppress the voting when the final candidate is chosen.

What is the incentive for voters to show up at the polls to vote for the final chosen candidate. If during primary the other candidates campaign or supporters treated them and their candidate with disrespect.

When President Obama came out and said, "all he was asking for was a little civility" Democratic Party members should of listen and took heed. Negativity turns people off to voting. Want someone to vote for your candidate focus on their strengths and differences respectfully and politely or risk another 2010 turn out.

I will vote straight Democratic Party ticket no matter what. The problem is other younger voters seem not to have the ability to look at all of the future affects of not voting. Those that negative campaign against other candidates in their own party seem to not realize that they are helping the other political party to win.
Everyone needs to remember every no show to vote is a vote for the opposite party.
Thus I have watched the Democratic party that once had a huge majority in the Congress. Steadily over the years lose that heavy majority. check it out for yourselves, here research.... http://history.house.gov/Congressional-Overview/Profiles/75th/
Watch the change in congress over the years.

Chai T. Ch'uan said...

Yep, that whiff of PUMA desperation has become a stench now. Keep chanting "BernieBros" and invoking the ghost of Henry Kissinger, that'll make those Millenials listen.

Ten Bears said...

I expected no less.

Tom Hilton said...

Ray: I don't have a lot of respect for Sanders, but I'll definitely vote for him if he's the nominee. I want the Democratic party to win.

But I think anyone who shares that goal needs to think clearly about what the party needs to do to win. And if one candidate is more or less electable than the other, that's an essential part of the conversation. I don't think it serves the party to shove that under the rug.

Whispers said...

Bernie is doing just as well, if not better, than Clinton in the general election polling.

Clinton supporters really need to find a reason for people to vote for _her_ other than "Sanders isn't electable". How many elections has Clinton won in her life? One? And that was under extremely favorable circumstances. Sanders has been winning elections for decades.

"Not electable" is the emptiest of accusations. It's what people said of Reagan until he actually won. None of you guys has a handle on what it means to be "electable" anyway. Is Ted Cruz "electable"? What about Donald Trump? Certainly Marco Rubio isn't electable. What happens if the general election is between two candidates who have been deemed "unelectable"? Does Mitch McConnell step forward and say that we're not going to swear in a new President until 2020?

Just wondering how this works.

Tom Hilton said...

Bernie is doing just as well, if not better, than Clinton in the general election polling.

Which, as noted above, is meaningless.

I laid out several enormous, known, foreseeable obstacles to Sanders winning in the general. You want to argue that some or all of these are not really obstacles, or that there are attributes I don't take into account that outweigh them, knock yourself out. Handwaving about the meaninglessness of "electable" doesn't refute any of them, though.

Feud Turgidson said...

"Does Mitch McConnell step forward and say that we're not going to swear in a new President until 2020?"

It's like what's happening now is a down payment on that.

McConnell: 'Elect us, or not. We really don't care. It's all the same to us. If you elect us, we''ll take and take, but it won't be stealing because we'll legalize all that taking. Or, if you want, don't elect us, and we won't be able to take from the government, but we'll make as much or more in donations.

Maybe you figure, no, you won't elect us, because we've done so many really bad terrible things. You may think, if you elect us again, given our track record, which is pretty bad, we'd probably do MORE really bad terrible things.

Now, that isn't necessarily the case, since no one can actually predict the future. I mean, it seems probable to YOU, and it may well seem probabl to ALL thinking people; yet, still: you never can tell. Maybe we won't!

But here's the thing: if you do elect the other side, this is what we'll do, and you can take this to the bank: we will make sure nothing at all gets done. We might not be able to actively cause categorically bad things to happen, or at least not so bad as we could (and probably would) if you had elected us.

But, honestly: we really don't care. As soon as you get tired of nothing at all ever getting done, as soon as you elect us 'to shake things up' or whatever you think you're after, we'll start right in doing all the really bad things we haven't had the power to do. And there's a material chance - because we've constantly working to improving efficiency in getting more really bad things done in shorter time periods - that we'll more than make up for all that lost time.

So go ahead and do whatever. We're going to win eventually.'

Ken_L said...

Sanders' platform is a grab-bag of impracticable populist nonsense. His promises to implement a shopping list of items that are not even remotely within the power of a president to achieve are so unrealistic as to be dishonest.

Fortunately the likes of Paul Krugman are beginning to say so publicly. With a bit of luck, Peak Bernie has come and gone.

weirdscien said...

So you handwave away all the actual data, and post your gut feeling. Very convincing.

Unknown said...

The Democratic Party loyalists used to pretend that they were fine with people challenging the establishment favorite during the primaries - just as long as everyone rallied behind the eventual nominee in November.

Thank you for confirming my suspicion that was bullshit.

If we agree for the sake of argument that Bernie is as unelectable as you insist, what does it say about Hillary's crappiness as a candidate that she hasn't been able to put him away despite all her financial and institutional advantages?

Perhaps that you can't motivate people to support a corrupt corporate puppet by threatening that you won't "tolerate" their having higher standards than you?

Ken_L said...

"Unknown" I anticipate Hillary will win 45 or 46 states. I'd say that's a pretty convincing "putting him away".

Tom Hilton said...

"Corrupt corporate puppet"--everybody take a drink! Jesus, we're all gonna have cirrhosis before this primary is over, these Sanderbots are so fucking predictable.

Weirdscien: what data? Because I don't wave away the data about turnout, which points to Bernie's "revolution" definitely not happening. And I don't wave away data about Bernie's inability to whitesplain African-American voters into loving him. So maybe you're talking about the polls that say Dukakis and Kerry were Presidents and Carter won a second term...but that can't be, because that would be idiotic. So I confess, I have no idea what you're talking about.

Ten Bears said...

I just don't know what's got all you guys' panties in such a twist, Hillary will be the next president. She's the establishment candidate, like Romney the "presumptive candidate", the media darling. Hell's Belles, even the Republicans are doing everything they can to get her elected. Lighten up.

Calling people names and churlish condescending sermons back and forth isn't how you win the debate... it's what the Retards do. Look it up.

Ten Bears said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

"Hillary took millions of dollars from Wall Street."
Bernie Bro!"
"She pushed for the overthrow of Libya and now the country lies in ruins.
"Sandersbot!"

Slightly Irregular GeoX said...

Beating Clinton would be a huge uphill struggle for Sanders. But if he somehow DOES demonstrate that he has the political savvy and toughness to do that, I think it's fair to say he also can also win the general. If not...not, but that should go without saying.

Tom Hilton said...

GeoX: Not necessarily. McGovern was a longshot in the primary, and had the savvy and toughness to win the nomination...but the general election, not so much. Primary voters aren't even representative of the party, necessarily, much less the general election voters.

Kevin Hayden said...

>>>But I believe wishful thinking is morally indefensible<<<

I think wishful thinking is common, predictable and has no unethical component . Most voters aren't strategists and even the Nevada exit polling shows that electability was key to the decisions of just 18% of the caucus members (25%, 26% and 27% cited other factors.

Personally, I can only judge my own morals in making my decision. I can't vote for any Democratic Senator who went against the majority of all elected Democratic Congress members to hand Bush the authorization to kill half a million (plus) Iraqis.

I can't vote for candidates who went ballistic to support a drug war that decimated Black communities and created a massive prison expansion for profit.

Make all the electability arguments from other existing data, but please don't push the absurd notion that wishing for better moral decisionmaking is in itself immoral.

CH said...

Well, yes, it's certainly been true that picking the "safe" candidate has historically been wise: Carter (not Kennedy) in '80... Mondale (not Jackson) in '84... Dukakis (again, not Jackson) in '88... Kerry (not Dean, at least the original version) in '04. Ah, but '92 and '96? Those glorious Clinton wins? It's arguable both ways, but Perot's 19% of the pop vote in '92 skewed things a bit, and I fail to see any reason to think Jerry Brown would not have done at least as well as BC in '92 - but a Sister Souljah moment and a hands-on Arkansas execution convinced the timid & gullible. By '96, we'd managed to lose the House to Gingrich et al for the first time in two generations, but surely Mr. and Mrs. Clinton's masterly handling of their Rube Goldberg-esque health care proposal had nothing to do with that; no Dem had the heart to oppose a second term for fear of weakening what had by then become our party-wide "firewall", feeble and triangulated as it was. In any event, no doubt you get my drift.

But, at the moment, my inclination is for Sanders to down tools and let Hillary have the damn nomination. We'd be free for a few months from the incessant Clintonian maneuverings and spin, and perhaps she'd use the break to up her game enough to compete with Trump/Cruz/Rubio - although I have grave doubts about that. (I'll vote for the nominee, whoever it is, I should add.) If she wins, fine, we'll continue with gridlock alternating with concessions until 2018 when as usual, the uninspired D base will stay home and we'll have even less of Congress than we do now, and she'll have nominated at least one "acceptable" (read, "OK by Mitch McConnell & friends") S Ct justice. Or, she'll lose, and if we survive a Trump/Cruz/Rubio term, by 2020 we'll at least be done with the Clinton clan and can perhaps move on to better days.

Joshua Holland said...

I also reject these HA Goodman-style magical thinking arguments. We've heard from dozens of candidates who later flamed out that they would inspire non-voters to come out through the sheer force of their messages.

And I don't think Sanders is going to win the primary.

But if he somehow did, I certainly think he'd have a path to the White House, and I base that on some very basic understandings of how our two-party system works. I wrote about it this week...

http://www.thenation.com/article/heres-how-bernie-sanders-could-win-in-november/

Matt Osborne said...

If Bernie Sanders is so electable, then why isn't he winning?

Just one more example of what the GOP attack machine has to look forward to if he did win the primary race: in 1979, Sanders did an entire 30-minute documentary about Eugene V. Debs. Not only was Debs a socialist, but he was a big fan of Lenin for many years, and then he was convicted (wrongly, but convicted) of sedition during WWI. So Karl Rove would have Sanders's own voice praising this guy, set on loop at the Drudge Report, Fox News, etc., with the historical record as commentary. That's the Reverend Wright situation x1000, or maybe a million, and it's just ONE possible line of attack. There are maybe a dozen others like it.

Dave Walker said...

That's the best thing I've read in forever. Bravo!

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