Can we agree, in the wake of primary contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and now Nevada, that everything we were told about Sen. Bernie Sanders was wrong? That the press, the pundits, the politicians were all wrong about him? And not just wrong, but completely, utterly, demonstrably, embarrassingly, catastrophically wrong?You would have to go back to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to find another example of where our political and media elites were so out of step with reality; so off in their predictions and prognostications; so keen to peddle myths and misinformation. (On a side note, whenever we mention Iraq, it’s always worth recalling how Sanders opposed that disastrous conflict, whereas his rivals Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden both supported it.)
Let’s consider the nonsense that has passed for “reporting,” “commentary,” and “analysis” on Sanders over the past year or so.
He isn’t electable. The 78-year-old independent senator from Vermont, goes the argument, is too old and too kooky to win — and also, Americans won’t vote for a socialist. Yet in the wake of his blowout victory in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, Sanders is now the first candidate in the nation’s history, of either party, to win the popular vote in the first three races. You might think the concept of electability should be connected somehow to, y’know, actually winning elections (hello Joe Biden!).
But those are primaries. How about the general election? Well, at least according to the latest national CBS/YouGov head-to-head polling, Sanders beats Donald Trump by a (slightly) bigger margin than any of his Democratic rivals.
Forget national polls. What about the battleground states in the Rust Belt? According to the latest UW–Madison Elections Research Center survey, Sanders has a bigger lead over Trump in Michigan and Pennsylvania than all of his Democratic rivals, and the same 2-point lead over Trump in Wisconsin as Biden and Elizabeth Warren. (By the way, does anyone with a brain really believe that Bloomberg, an elite billionaire from New York, has a better chance of winning the Rust Belt than Sanders, a working-class socialist from Vermont?)
He has a ceiling on his support. Sanders, said the critics, wouldn’t be able to reach out beyond the left, beyond young voters, beyond his base. In Nevada, however, Sanders won a plurality of self-identified “moderate” or “conservative” Democrats. In fact, as the Washington Post’s Matt Viser tweeted: “The Sanders win was emphatic: he prevailed among those with college degrees and those without; in union, and nonunion households; in every age group except over 65… and even narrowly carried moderates and conservatives.”
Sanders’s critics have long ignored the reality that the senator from Vermont is popular with grassroots Democrats of all backgrounds. Not only is he the most popular member of the Senate, but he also has the highest net favorables of any presidential candidate with Democratic voters. He also happens to be the candidate who the biggest proportion of Democrats “expect” to prevail against Trump. As Peter Beinart noted in The Atlantic last week, “Across the ideological spectrum, ordinary Democrats like Bernie Sanders.”
Some on the right of the party have tried to argue that Sanders has been benefiting from his “moderate” opponents splitting the vote between them; they have pointed to the fact that Iowa gave 54 percent of its votes to Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Biden combined, versus 44 percent to Sanders and Warren, while New Hampshire gave 53 percent to the three moderates, versus 35 percent to the two progressives. Yet in Nevada, Sanders alone won more votes than Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden combined. And, in head-to-head matchups, Sanders beats each and every one of his Democratic rivals — including Bloomberg by 15 points!
He has a problem with people of color. The longstanding argument that Sanders struggles with black and Latino voters, that his supporters tend to be white, male “Bernie Bros,” is perhaps the most pernicious and dishonest anti-Sanders argument of them all. After three contests, it is clear that the Jewish senator from Vermont is now heading a multiracial, multifaith coalition of both Democrats and independents. In Nevada, this past weekend, he is estimated to have won a whopping 70 percent of the Latino vote.
Meanwhile, among black voters nationally, Sanders is now in a virtual dead heat with Biden who, we were told, had a “lock” on this particular minority community. Is it any wonder, then, that in South Carolina, often described as Biden’s “firewall” state because black voters make up at least 60 percent of the Democratic electorate, Sanders has been able to slash the former vice president’s lead from 29 points last month to just 5 points last week? (South Carolina now looks more like the border wall than a firewall.)
His policies are extreme and unpopular. Sanders, goes the argument, is a socialist who backs radical policies too far to the left of not just the electorate as a whole, but even mainstream and moderate Democratic voters. Yet in Iowa and New Hampshire, as I pointed out earlier, a clear majority of caucus-goers and primary voters backed Medicare for All over the current private insurance system. In Nevada, too, 6 in 10 Democrats said they supported a Sanders-style single-payer health care system.
At a national level, a (narrower) majority of Americans support Medicare for All, according to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, then, it is Sanders, and not Biden or Bloomberg, who is the real centrist candidate — in terms of pushing policies popular with most Americans.