Could Bernie Sanders be elected president? Could he even be nominated by the Democratic Party? Would the latter be political suicide with respect to the former?
For the many despairing liberals who think they already have these questions figured out, indulge me a brief history lesson that just might give you pause and—dare I say—hope.
At precisely this point in the 2008 election cycle—namely, early October 2007—Hillary Clinton led Barack Obama by anywhere between 16 and 21 points in opinion polls of Democratic primary voters. What is more, out of the 133 national surveys conducted between January and October of that year, Clinton bested Obama on 131 occasions.
This trend continued throughout the fall, with Clinton more than 20 points up in the final days of the year. In fact, the first time Obama prevailed in any poll in the latter stage of the campaign was in the first week of February 2008—a full month into the actual primary process.
From that moment on—that is, between early February and the first week of June—everything flipped. Of the 52 polls taken during that time, Obama defeated Clinton by a score of 47-5.
Long story short (too late?), the man who’s been leader of the free world for the last six-and-a-half years did not even become leader of the Democratic Party until after many, many months of being firmly in second place.
While the thrust of history tends to wash away memories of what might have been, it is worth recalling how overwhelmingly likely it seemed that Hillary Clinton would be her party’s nominee for president in 2008. How very few people—for a very long time—took seriously the notion that a first-term senator with mixed blood and an African name could defeat the partner-in-crime of the most popular Democratic president of modern times.
For all the early passion of Obama’s smitten supporters—paired with the understandable exhaustion with all things Clinton—most, if not all, political prognosticators pegged an Obama victory as little more than a pipe dream until very, very late in the process. Clinton, it seemed, was unbeatable.
What changed? People starting voting, that’s what.
Once Obama won the Iowa caucuses—thanks, in large part, to his campaign’s superior organization and mastery of social media—the fantasy of his election suddenly became plausible, and all those who preferred him but feared Clinton was the only viable option were liberated to vote with their hearts, with the assurance that in doing so, they were also voting with their heads.
Which is all to suggest that this premise of “electability” is totally, utterly worthless. In truth, you cannot anticipate how the country will vote until it actually does so. History is inconceivable until it becomes inevitable, and someone who is unelectable today just might become president tomorrow.
It happened with Obama. Why couldn’t it happen with Sanders?
To be sure, the analogy between the two men is not exact. Their candidacies exist in different times and contexts—different political worlds, really—and the candidates themselves are hardly mirror images of each other.
All the same, I would maintain that their similarities are the key to understanding why and how Sanders is a more serious candidate than most people think, and that in several key areas, Sanders is actually better off than Obama was at this point in his presidential quest.
I mentioned Obama was polling at least 16 points behind Clinton in the fall of 2007. As it happens, Sanders right now is in roughly the same position. However, I would hasten to add that it was only two months ago that Clinton led Sanders by 30 points or more—sometimes a lot more—which suggests a Sanders tailwind that even Obama never enjoyed.
Then there are the polls that actually matter: those in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two primary states that, for better or worse, tend to determine whose name ends up on the ballot. (The last person to secure the nomination without winning either state was Bill Clinton in 1992.) In Iowa, Clinton currently leads Sanders by 6 points—the same margin she held over Obama in the fall of 2007—while in New Hampshire, Sanders is ahead by double digits. (There, Clinton led Obama by more than 20 points.)
“Feel the Bern” is not just a cheeky branding device; it is an actual, tangible phenomenon every bit as real as the worshipful throngs at the Obama rallies who thundered on about being “fired up and ready to go.” (Whatever the hell that meant.)
Just this past weekend, a Sanders gathering in Boston drew some 20,000 people—the largest crowd ever assembled in Massachusetts for a political primary event. Sanders has seen similarly huge showings all over the country for months now, and his campaign recently announced fundraising totals nearly equal to Clinton’s and, by some metrics, well ahead of ’08 Obama at this juncture in the race.
What is more, the reasons for this jubilation—this visceral, manic enthusiasm that Clinton can only fantasize about—are not terribly different from those that led Obama to be anointed the second coming of Christ.
In the twilight of the Bush administration—when it was clear to liberals that their government didn’t give a damn about lower-class concerns and that Congress was increasingly derelict in its most basic duties as a governing body—Obama promised to change the system: To squash the influence of plutocrats and other special interest groups, to bring a measure of fairness and justice to American finance and to redirect critical funding from futile overseas adventures back to the home front. And, of course, to moderate the “tone” on Capitol Hill so that Democrats and Republicans might occasionally treat each other with respect.
In other words, Obama premised his candidacy on creating a country in which ordinary people were given a stake in their own destiny, and it was a message so intrinsically appealing and so well-delivered that people responded with a fervor that hadn’t existed in decades.
That, in so many words, is what is now happening with Sanders. While much more strident than Obama in his indictment of America’s ruling class, he, too, is billing himself as a fighter for the working man. From his stump speech, his ultimate ambition is to create a society in which wealth and income do not determine how much (or how little) influence an individual exerts over his government, nor how much benefit he or she derives from it.
To America’s non-billionaires, this is a fairly irresistible platform, and given Sanders’ long and consistent history as a legislator, there isn’t a doubt in the world that he means it. Whether his prescriptions are feasible is a separate question. The more important point—as the sheer size of his campaign rallies attest—is that a significant chunk of the public apparently agrees with his diagnosis of the problem itself.
Bearing all of these considerations in mind—along with a few that we haven’t mentioned—the question isn’t, “How could Sanders possibly be elected?” Rather, it is, “Why on Earth shouldn’t he be?”
If appealing to actual concerns of actual people means anything, what makes Sanders any less electable than anyone else? To those queasy left-wingers who worry about Sanders having trouble in the general election, I wonder: Why are you so afraid to vote for exactly what you want? If you are convinced that his ideas about America are superior to everyone else’s, what exactly is stopping you from exerting every effort to put him in the Oval Office?
Is it simply that you don’t think enough of your fellow citizens are smart enough to see things the way you do? Are you worried that by nominating a true blue liberal, the Democratic Party will lose any chance of carrying Ohio and Florida? Are the stakes just too darned high to risk a long shot when a much safer option is available?
That’s certainly how the party felt in 2004 when it passed up firebrands like Howard Dean and John Edwards in favor of the more “electable” John Kerry. GOP voters behaved likewise in 2012 when they picked the “electable” Mitt Romney over much more conservative alternatives. Conversely, the Dems were said to be crazy to opt for an unknown quantity like Obama in 2008, and Ronald Reagan in 1980 was widely derided as a joke by most liberals right up until he won 44 states against Jimmy Carter’s six.
In other words, you don’t know who’s electable until the final results are in. If you want someone who shares your worldview to be president, try voting for that person. You might be surprised how many of your fellow citizens do the same.