Jon Chait says that Democrats should be “terrified” about Bernie Sanders in a lengthy but very thin on evidence post. The problems start right at the beginning:
Watching the Brexit debacle from afar, it seemed impossible to understand how the Labour Party could know full well it needed to win a national election in order to prevent an irreversible setback, yet harness itself to Jeremy Corbyn, whose toxic leadership made victory nearly impossible. The rise of Bernie Sanders, at a moment when Donald Trump is accelerating his war on the rule of law, is retroactively illuminating. A liberal party drifting helplessly along as a small radical cabal steers it toward likely catastrophe? I didn’t think it could happen here.
Admittedly, some members of the Bernie Extended Cinematic Universe spent years making Corbyn/Sanders comparisons of their own, suggesting that Corbyn’s narrow loss proved Bernie woulda won etc. etc. But those comparisons were dumb, and they aren’t less dumb coming from the other direction. We’re about 250 days out from the election, and Sanders’s approval ratings are slightly underwater (and better than Trump’s.) Corbyn, on the other hand:
Corbyn spent years before the 2019 election as an extremely unpopular figure. Sanders is nothing like that.
At any rate, the problem with making highly confident predictions about candidate “electability” remains that 1)presidential elections are a small “n” and 2)are extremely complex events in which the identity and actions of the candidate play a marginal role and 3)cannot be run again with alternative candidates. Chait tries to dismiss this fundamental epistemological uncertainty with a comparsion that is compeltely inapposite:
But to concede that we cannot be certain about the future does not mean we know nothing. An imperfect comparison might be to predicting the outcome of sporting events. You don’t know the outcome in advance, but it is usually possible to make probabilistic predictions. Those predictions are wrong all the time. But it would be silly to conclude that, just because upsets happen, every game should be treated as a coin flip. A huge amount of pro-Sanders commentary is based on simplistically conflating the correct claim that we lack perfect clarity with the incorrect claim that we have no clarity at all.
Except, of course, that we have a lot of data establishing the relative quality of sports teams. If one were charged with making an argument that the 2020 New York Yankees will be better than the 2020 Seattle Mariners and it would be a huge upset if the latter even finished within 15 games of the former, one could cite all kinds of data making the case, the kind of data notably absent from the piece. Indeed, Chait is perfectly able to see the the limits in what little data there is when it’s favorable to Bernie’s chances:
But what about those polls showing Bernie doing about as well as anybody else against Trump? “Virtually every national and swing state poll shows Sanders tied with or beating President Trump,” notes VandeHei. Alas, as political scientist Brendan Nyhan has explained, trial-heat polling at this stage of the race has little to no predictive power. The likely reason for this surprising fact is that trial-heat polling during a primary is distorted by the primary itself. Candidates who are targeted by opposing party messaging will tend to sink, while for those who are spared, it will rise.
If you click through the link, you’ll see that head-to-head polls at this stage are not entirely meaningless, but I agree I wouldn’t put a lot of stock into them at this stage. But this just underlines that when it comes to assessing candidate quality we just don’t have very much to go on and should be very modest about making predictions. Chait is only appropriately skeptical when what data there is suggests that Bernie would be fine as a candidate.
It is true, as far as it goes, that Sanders’s use of the “socialist” label for his New Deal left-liberalism is, all things being equal, suboptimal. There is actual evidence that being perceived as relatively further from the center ideologically is an electoral liability. But this isn’t just a problem for Bernie. If you voted against Bernie in 2016 for this reason, it didn’t work — Trump was perceived by the electorate as being more moderate than Clinton. Similarly, Al Gore was perceived as being significantly further from the center than George W. Bush. That these perceptions were false is beside the point: the way the media covers elections means that any Democratic nominee is likely to pay this price even if they’re objectively more moderate than Bernie.
The other central problem with the piece is its fundamental unwillingness to address the “compared to what?” question. Sanders also has some strengths, such as a good electoral track record, an ability to appeal to independents and young voters and the ability to raise tons of money from small donors. But, more importantly, you can tell the same kind of story Chait tells about Bernie about any of the candidates. They all have potential liabilities. Biden is an gaffe-prone guy who can’t stay on message, is running out of money because even Dem donors who don’t like Bernie are skeptical about him as a candidate, and because he served in the Senate forever has a long history of votes that can be used against him. Warren would definitely be painted by the media as being Too Liberal and as we all know has an issue that could be EMAILsed. (Indeed, given that EMAILS was a whole lot of nothing, any Democratic candidate potentially does.) Buttigieg got crushed in his only race outside of a small college town and is less ability to attract African-Americans than the reunion concert of a second-tier prog band. Klobuchar has a similarly white base and a history of abusing her staff. Bloomberg, as we have discussed many times, has perhaps the least plausible electability story of all, a charisma-free billionaire chasing a “fiscally conservative, overbearing nanny state kinda social liberal” quadrant almost entirely devoid of voters. Which is why Chait focuses solely on Bernie’s potential liabilities while avoiding comparisons with anybody else who could actually be the nominee.
Johnny Unbeatable won’t be the Democratic nominee in 2020. Among the actual potential nominees, the case for Bernie’s “electability” is about as good as anybody’s, to the very limited extent we can say anything meaningful about “electability” at all. And he’ll be running against someone with more liabilities than any Democrat. Don’t panic, just fight.