Jacob Denz

Electability v. Progressive Policy in the Sanders Campaign

Electability v. Progressive Policy in the Sanders Campaign
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Bernie Sanders transformed American politics with his two runs for president, and he made many good decisions along the way. But we must also learn from his missteps, if we want our candidate to win the primary next time around. While persuading voters on issues is important, winning their votes requires addressing what matters to them in the context of a particular election.

Jacob Denz

Leftists and progressives justifiably emphasize the extent to which our policies are popular with voters. For example, we celebrate the fact that Democratic primary exit polls showed strong support for replacing all private health insurance with a single-payer, Medicare for All system. It is a notable achievement that millions of Americans report a positive view of this central, progressive goal. On closer inspection, however, exit polls also showed strong support for a public option, “Medicare-for-all-who-want-it” proposal when pollsters included that choice.

And yet many—in some cases even most—primary voters who said they supported Medicare for All didn’t vote for Bernie Sanders! While Sanders may have convinced those voters that replacing or weakening private health insurance with a single-payer program is a good idea, that intellectual conviction did not result in their casting a ballot for the candidate who brought this policy to the mainstream.

While persuading voters on individual issues is important—Bernie has transformed the policy landscape of the U.S. electorate—winning their votes requires addressing what actually matters to them in the context of a particular election. This requires dynamism, something not necessarily incompatible with Sanders’s beloved consistency. But this, unfortunately, is one place Sanders fell short—and one place we must do better in future elections, both national and local.

What 2020 Democratic Voters Wanted

It shouldn’t really surprise anyone who was paying attention to what Democratic primary voters said they cared about and didn’t care about in 2020 that people who support Medicare for all did not vote for Bernie. Exit polls showed that substantial majorities of Democratic primary voters preferred a candidate who could beat Donald Trump to a candidate who agreed with them on the issues. This number presumably included many of the self-proclaimed supporters of socialism who remarkably voted for Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg instead of Sanders.

When pollsters asked voters to prioritize among various candidate characteristics, “electability” consistently led other traits. Anecdotally, the dozens of voters I met on New Hampshire doorsteps almost always mentioned defeating Donald Trump as their priority in 2020. Only one or two mentioned health care policy. With a historically unpopular Republican incumbent whom Democrats largely regard as the worst President of their lifetimes, 2020 was the Year of the “Electable” Democrat.

A path not taken

While he did many things right, Bernie Sanders mostly missed the opportunity to make the case for his unique ability to defeat Donald Trump, and other candidates’ (especially Joe Biden’s) entirely predictable general election liabilities. His stock debate answer, that his candidacy would bring out younger voters in large numbers, was a good start. But standing on its own, it sounded speculative and risky, playing into many older voters’ perception that Joe Biden and his more conventional strategy of appealing to moderates represented the safe choice.

This perception—that Biden or another centrist was more electable than Bernie—could and should have been vociferously contested at every opportunity. After Hillary Clinton’s devastating 2016 loss to Donald Trump, the argument could have gone: why trust the same pundits and media telling us to go with another centrist? How could anyone believe a general electorate that chose Donald Trump just wanted another establishment politician? How many more elections will pass before we recognize that “moderate Republicans” don’t exist?

Bernie Sanders’s status as an independent, which may have been a Democratic primary liability, should have been touted as a general election asset. To thread the needle, he might have dropped “Democratic” from his attacks on the establishment, drawing in Democratic primary voters, while making his case to defeat Trump in the general election. Low-propensity voters are demonstrably frustrated and cynical about both major parties. “Bipartisanship” only doubles the disgust they feel at a rotten political establishment. Bernie Sanders could have run as the candidate who promised to beat Donald Trump by matching fake anti-establishment with real anti-establishment, fake populism with real populism.

Instead, Bernie Sanders largely declined to question other candidates’ electability. In the case of Joe Biden, this was reportedly due partly to warm personal sentiments toward the Bidens. But Sanders may have also feared appearing disloyal by attacking other candidates’ ability to defeat Trump. Other candidates, of course, had no similar compunction about suggesting that Sanders’s left-wing views would be a unique liability against Trump, in spite of Sanders’s polling at the high end of Democratic primary candidates in hypothetical general election matchups.

In a more electability-centric Sanders campaign, the policies we know and love would still have played an important role. But they would have been part of a larger story of what is happening in America, making the case to the Democratic primary electorate that Bernie was the candidate for the general. People are rejecting the political establishment. They crave a candidate who is not beholden to concentrated wealth. Such a candidate can credibly offer policies like Medicare for All in a way that other candidates cannot. In the future, we are going to be facing an increasingly stark choice between candidates like that, and right-wing fake-populist candidates who offer an outlet for the same sentiments. We likely could not return to the Obama years, even if we wanted to: the “moderate” electorate for which candidates like Joe Biden have auditioned for decades does not exist. Socialism or barbarism!

Instead, many voters understandably got the impression that they had to choose between policies they liked and the candidate most likely to win. To be sure, this was how the mainstream media and other candidates persistently framed the 2020 primary. But it was ultimately Sanders’s responsibility to show voters that this was a false choice. Not only could a candidate like Sanders win, but only a candidate like Sanders represents more than a surface response to Trump.

Preparing for the next time

Bernie Sanders was not our movement’s last presidential candidate, and hence we must learn as much from what he did not do as what he did. Similar to the British Labour Party’s 2019 general election campaign, which propounded policy after policy all apparently relatively popular, but lacked a compelling message on Brexit, the Sanders campaign did not fully grapple with the electability concerns in the primary electorate. In some ways, Sanders looked all but indistinguishable from Elizabeth Warren: a conventional politician with plans and policies rather than a plausible vehicle for thoroughgoing repudiation of both Trump and the corrupt political establishment that gave rise to Trump.

Future leftist electoral campaigns at all levels should focus on addressing the actual, context-specific concerns of voters rather than assume that their support for particular policies in the abstract will translate into votes.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0.

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  • Ralph Galen
    Ralph Galen May 18, 2020 at 9:33 pm

    Dear Mr. Denz,
    Thanks for your article. It helps my thinking. Do you actually think there will be another election? You don’t think that like Viktor Orban in Hungary, DJT will find a way to extend his power indefinitely? He hasn’t rewritten our Constitution, as his fascist counterpart has, but he does as badly by ignoring it. He incites violence while removing millions of opposition voters from the roles and eliminating the only safe option of voting during this plague, which is by mail-in absentee ballot.
    Even though it will be shot down by Mitch McConnell, the appropriation for absentee voting is about a tenth of what it needs to be. DJT and those overseas in military service vote by mail. Colorado almost entirely votes by mail. And when I refer to DJT of course I reference his cabal of all those unprincipled fascist devils who only crave one thing: to stay in power. That virus is far worse than the present plague which we can actually curb and eliminate.
    If the country were compared to a family and its leaders then its parents, one would expect them to make the necessary sacrifices in order to see that their children prosper. To take a page from Swift, it is clear that the great majority of our leaders are in fact eating our children. Instead of protecting the vulnerable and caring for the most needy, they consume the resources it takes for a human being to thrive. I take Robert W. Cox’s 2012 lecture to heart and highly recommend it to you as a crucial summary to the challenge that faces us, as a human beings and stewards of the entire biosphere. http://stephengill.com/news/wp-content/uploads/RW-Cox-York-lecture-Oct-2012.pdf
    The 2008 collapse, which was minor compared to the depression that is upon us, was an inevitable result of the decades long and it could be argued, centuries long failures to develop human consciousness and the defining human qualities of mindfulness, empathy and compassion, and instead promote the material fortunes of a few.
    There is no justification for it. Is there any truth to the claims that justice and prosperity will trickle down to the masses if only the power mad few could gorge themselves even more? When have you heard Secretary Pompeo, or Mike Pence or Dr. Birx utter anything that wasn’t an outright deceit or prevarication? There is no Watergate to expose: it’s happening right before our eyes.
    Bernie Sanders was a very vigorous campaigner. He has always been an insightful and compassionate leader. He has been effective in all of his political roles. How in the world do you contend with a situation where not only Republicans but Democrats themselves undermine him? Exit polls indicated that as many as 70 percent of primary voters supported what I think he should have called universal health care. I’m sure that number if higher today. Sanders was always electable but how do you fight those odds? Now once again the Democrats, more exactly the DNC, have chosen the least likely candidate to beat DJT, a career long liar of low character who claims he will restore the soul of the nation.
    Bernie Sanders did all that he possibly could. We let him, and the country, down.
    Do keep at it young sir. There is still a chance that civilized beings will triumph and you will be needed at the American version of the Nuremberg Trials.
    Sincerely,
    Ralph Galen

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