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Could Sanders Have Won?

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Bernie Sanders, left, speaks with Hillary Clinton during a break at a Democratic presidential primary debate Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Bernie Sanders, left, speaks with Hillary Clinton during a break at a Democratic presidential primary debate Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Last week, Bijan asked if I would address Kevin Drum’s argument that Bernie Sanders would have lost “in a landslide.” The tl; dr answer is that I didn’t find it very convincing, particularly the “landslide” part.

I haven’t written about whether Sanders would have won because it’s unknowable. There are just too many factors at play, many of which cannot be meaningfully measured. There’s also a meta-problem, which is that a Bernie Sanders who could win the Democratic nomination would just be a different candidate. When evaluating the comparative chances of the actually existing Sanders to Clinton, I would look at Pennsylvania and see him doing a little better to stop the bleeding in white rural areas but also being less effective at mobilizing people of color in urban areas, with the end result probably being a wash. But, of course, a Bernie Sanders who did well enough among urban minorities to win the nomination would be a different story. And there’s a second, related reason I haven’t discussed it: He didn’t have a path to the Democratic nomination. He pretty much maxed out how well a candidate without longstanding ties to the party from a small, white, rural state can do. I would say the same thing about Biden. I do think people are (understandably) glossing over some of the flaws and limitations as a candidate Biden revealed in two absolutely disastrous primary runs. But given the way the Electoral College played out, it’s possible that Biden could have won, even while doing no better or a little worse than Clinton in the popular vote (I can see the case for him holding Pennsylvania as much stronger than the case for Bernie, for example.) But I think it’s moot. Somewhat distressingly, “Hillary Clinton, even closer to the financial industry, but an affable white guy from Scranton” might be a better general election candidate in 2016, but what that formula is not is a viable path to beating Clinton for the the Democratic nomination. (For all the talk about Clinton and the DNC “clearing the field”, especially when you’re dealing with figures as prominent as Biden it’s a fine line between “pushed out” and “concluded I couldn’t win.”)

But the first point applies across the board, and it’s why I don’t think Drum has the goods. He focuses solely on a single variable, and that can never be a good answer. Sanders presumably would have been seen as being to the left of Clinton, and small sample caveats aside there is political science evidence that this would be a net negative. Now, I agree with Drum that the pundit’s fallacy argument for Bernie winning is extremely unpersuasive. In addition to the general evidence, it seems to involve a lot of projection. The economic anxiety of some marginal Trump voters is very real, but it doesn’t follow from this that social democratic solutions are what they’re looking for. And the pundit’s fallacy just can’t explain why marginal Trump voters are also voting for completely bland, explicitly pro-corporate Republicans like Scott Walker and Rob Portman and Ron Johnson.

But the problem here is that it’s only one variable. It might be true that Sanders would not have been a better candidate than Clinton because of ideological positioning, and indeed I find the argument that Hillary Clinton lost because she was perceived as not being left-wing enough massively implausible and not supported by meaningful evidence. But Hillary Clinton had other liabilities as a candidate. I don’t see Sanders getting very positive general election coverage from a media convinced that cutting entitlements is an objectively desirable goal, but it’s also fair to say that the risk is pretty much all upside. I don’t see the FBI being thrilled about a Sanders candidacy, but would they have found a way to throw the election? Again, pretty much all upside. Maybe Wikileaks would have still been pro-Trump, maybe not. And there’s no way of weighting all of these factors and figuring out how they would have played out in a different context.

Would Sanders have won? I have no idea. But I also don’t see any basis for assuming that he couldn’t have. We just don’t know.

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