Since Donald J. Trump beat Hillary Clinton to the Presidency on Tuesday night, various hypotheses have been put forward as to why the Democrats lost an election that so many thought they would win comfortably, against a Presidential Candidate in Donald Trump whom at first glance looked about as unelectable as it was possible to be. With President Obama’s approval rating relatively strong and on the rise, most thought that the election of Hillary Clinton to the Presidency was a foregone conclusion. Alas this was proved to be wrong, and in the days which have followed the inquest has begun into why Clinton and the Democrats failed to win, and why the Republicans managed to win the Presidency and retain control of both Houses of Congress for the first time since 2006.
One of the most popular hypotheses put forward has been that Clinton’s main rival in the Democratic Presidential Primary, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, would have defeated Donald Trump by a comfortable margin. There are many who feel that Sanders, with his own brand of left-wing populism, would have been a better candidate to take on the right-wing populism of Trump.
Indeed, this was a view espoused by Sanders and his supporters throughout the primary campaign. During an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sanders said:
“Right now in every major poll, national poll and statewide poll done in the last month, six weeks, we are defeating Trump often by big numbers, and always at a larger margin than Secretary Clinton is.”
Sanders and his supporters put this view forward many times throughout the campaign but ultimately they were unsuccessful, with the wider Democratic Party rallying around Clinton and helping her to the nomination despite Sanders running her extremely close in the Iowa Caucus, and winning the New Hampshire Primary by a very wide margin.
Sanders supporters point to various reasons as to why he could have defeated Trump in the Presidential Election, if only the Democrats had selected him.
One key thing that supporters point to is the popularity of Sanders, who has been named the most popular United States Senator for the past two years. In an election where the two main candidates were uniquely unpopular, they suggest that this could have been a huge asset which would have propelled him to victory. Sanders supporters also point to his popularity amongst millennials, many of whom didn’t warm to Hillary Clinton, and as a result cast their votes for the likes of Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, or simply stayed at home. Mostly though, Sanders supporters point to his primary successes in the very States in which Clinton struggled most on Tuesday. During the Democratic Primary, Sanders won victories in Wisconsin and Michigan, both of which were considered Democratic strongholds prior to the election but which were ultimately won by Trump. It has been suggested that Sanders was propelled to success in these primaries by the same forces that propelled Trump to victory in these States on Tuesday, namely the forgotten men and women of the white working class. This means that, in theory, Sanders could have competed with Trump better than Clinton for the votes that ultimately decided the outcome of this presidential election.
However, would Sanders really have done better than Clinton against Donald Trump?
In the Presidential Election, although Clinton had issues gaining the support of the white working class, arguably her biggest problem was failing to energise African-American voters to turn out and vote for her in the same way that Barack Obama did four years previously. In winning the Presidency, Donald Trump actually received less votes than the 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, however the Democratic vote fell so significantly that Trump won the Presidency. In large part, this was because the African-American vote fell significantly. Around 88 percent of black voters supported Clinton, compared to around 8 percent for Trump, however turnout wasn’t high enough for this margin to make a difference, with black voters making up 12 percent of the electorate as opposed to 13 percent four years ago. Had Clinton been able to garner the same turnout among black voters as Barack Obama, she probably would have won States like Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida, and with them the Presidency.
But would Sanders really have done any better?
During the Democratic Primary, Sanders’ main difficulty was his low support with African-American voters, and in many of the primary contests he lost black voters to Clinton by around fifty points. Clinton struggled with the young and the white working class during the primary campaign, and then struggled with these groups again during the general election. Given that Sanders struggled with African-American voters during the primary, it would be expected that he would also struggle with African-American voters in a general election. Therefore, whilst Sanders may have been able to turn more white working class voters over to the Democratic cause, this would likely be counteracted with a fall in African-American support — meaning that Sanders would have probably suffered the same fate as Clinton when coming up against Donald Trump.
As well as this, although it seems a fair argument that Sanders’ left-wing populism could have matched the right-wing populism of Trump, the results around the United States seem to provide little evidence for this. In Colorado, one of the key battleground States which Clinton won, on the ballot alongside the Presidential Election was a referendum on a single-payer healthcare system. The introduction of a single-payer healthcare system was one of the key planks of Sanders’ candidacy, yet in Colorado it was defeated comfortably. In Wisconsin, former Senator Russ Feingold, who is an ally of Sanders, was attempting to win back his old Senate seat. He lost to Republican Tea Party incumbent Ron Johnson — by a bigger margin than Clinton lost Wisconsin by. Therefore, there seems little concrete evidence that Sanders’ policies would have played better with the electorate than Clinton’s policies.
As well as this, Sanders was a regular surrogate on the campaign trail for the Clinton campaign, consistently telling voters that they had to vote for Clinton lest they get a Donald Trump Presidency. However, this didn’t turn the tide, with Trump still emerging victorious. So perhaps Sanders’ popularity with the white working class is indeed being overstated, and he wouldn’t have gained much more support for the Democrats in a contest between him and Donald Trump.
Also, Bernie Sanders’ policies were scrutinised during the Democratic Primary but not in the same way as they would be during the general election. During the primaries, Donald Trump dismissively referred to Sanders as “Crazy Bernie”. Facing him in the general election would have allowed Trump the opportunity to paint Sanders as a radical socialist, which in all likelihood would have torpedoed his candidacy.
In addition, the presence of two populist candidates on the ticket, could well have precipitated a major third-party candidacy. In January, there was a lot of speculation that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would enter the Presidential Race as an independent candidate.
Bloomberg’s candidacy would be unlike most third-party or independent candidacies in that it would have been extremely well funded and able to compete around the country, much like the candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 and, if you think about it, the candidacy of Donald Trump this time around.
Indeed, Bloomberg had already set up campaign offices and conducted polling all around the country. It was only when Hillary Clinton took a commanding lead in the Democratic Primary that he announced that he would not be running. Following this, it was reported that his advisers had said that if Sanders and Trump were at the top of each of the tickets, Bloomberg would have run. The candidacy of Bloomberg would have meant that even if Sanders’ candidacy had won back the voters who Clinton lost to Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, and those who stayed at home, he would have lost voters on the right of Clinton’s coalition, meaning that the result could well have been the same for the Democrats.
Ultimately, it is hard to see where Sanders could have done better than Clinton. Although he may have lessened Trump’s support amongst the white working class, his candidacy would likely have further reduced turnout amongst the African-American community. And although Sanders is able to pitch himself as a more anti-establishment politician than Clinton, he is still a career politician who has been a Senator working in Washington D.C. for almost ten years. Trump would have been able to tap into exactly the same level of anti-politics feeling against Sanders as he could against Clinton. More than anything, this result was a vote for change and a vote against the Washington establishment. Although Sanders is arguably not an establishment politician, I think that Trump would probably have still been able to paint him that way, and what’s more he would also have been able to deride him as a radical socialist.
Overall, although it makes for a nice and easy conclusion, the reason that the Democrats lost was not because they didn’t choose Sanders as their candidate, he would in fact have probably have suffered the same fate as Clinton. If the Democrats come to this conclusion, and choose to shift to the left as a result, then they would be hugely mistaken. Just look at what has happened to the Labour Party in the UK, where after losing in the 2015 General Election running on Ed Miliband’s centre-left platform, they then chose to elect as leader the arch left-winger Jeremy Corbyn after concluding that the reason for their loss to David Cameron’s Conservative Party was that they were not left-wing enough. However, unsurprisingly, Corbyn is languishing in the polls and shows no sign of being able to compete for power in the UK.
Although Bernie Sanders is clearly a very gifted politician and it would be remiss of me not to praise his excellent primary campaign, it would be a huge mistake for Democrats to conclude that their failure to nominate him for the Presidency caused their loss. To do so could confine them to the electoral wilderness for an extended period of time. Instead, they should concentrate on re-building the party (and although he is not suited as a Presidential candidate, Sanders should certainly have a role in this rebuilding job) and finding another centrist candidate who can challenge Trump in 2020. Because in the 2020 Presidential Election, the Democrats will have a very real chance to regain presidential power, and they will need to be prepared for this.