Election 2016: Election at Bernie’s
A few short months ago, Hillary Clinton seemed unassailable. When she launched her campaign in April it seemed like the road to 2016 was going to be more coronation than election. Yet these days the First Lady turned senator turned Secretary of State is facing serious challenges from within and without her party.
Then Bernie Sanders came along. What started out as a quirky novelty campaign for the left wing Vermont senator has turned into a serious challenge; he is now in a statistical tie in New Hampshire, something no one thought imaginable just a few weeks ago.
Sanders is still well behind in the national polls, but he continues to gain. While the possibility of a Sanders nomination still seems a bit fantastical, it is not an utter impossibility. After all, the Democratic Party has a long history of nominating left wing populist insurgents for the presidency. Unfortunately for them, however, those insurgents also have a long history of losing to Republicans in general elections. Too often, the populist and left wing elements of the party have managed to make enough noise to get their standard-bearer nominated, resulting in a candidate who is unpalatable to the broader public.
Republicans, on the other hand, very rarely get so cranky. The last time a true right wing insurgent won the nomination was in 1964 when Barry Goldwater ran on a hardline conservative platform and was duly smashed in the general election. It may be that Republicans are just less tolerant of losing and are willing to make compromises to win. That certainly does reflect the more pragmatic, pro-business attitudes of the party faithful.
There are exceptions to this general rule, of course. In times of genuine upheaval people do tend to favor more radical ideas and politicians. Most recently, Barack Obama won as the insurgent Democrat, but that was largely thanks to a profound upheaval in the political mainstream; the promises of hope and change he was selling were exactly the sort of thing voters were willing to buy in the face of doom, gloom, war, and recession.
Could Bernie Sanders repeat that achievement? Well, the American people are in a fairly bad mood these days, with polls showing 67% of them saying the country is going in the wrong direction. But 2016 will not be 2008. While voters are certainly cantankerous about a perceived lack of opportunity, and are definitely waking up to long-dormant issues like inequality, they are by and large not socialists.
And that is the reason Sanders can never win a general election. There is still a gut reaction among a vast swathe of swing voters against the label socialism. It came close to undermining Obama and his agenda even when he did everything in his power to distance himself from the label. Sanders embraces it.
Democrats may get upset enough to nominate him. But America is not ready to vote for him.
If the Democrats want to win they better come to terms with that fact.