Could Bernie Sanders have beaten Trump?

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Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

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.

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Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Primary by a large 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.

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Russ Feingold (left) lost his Senate race in Wisconsin to Ron Johnson (right) by a larger margin than Hillary Clinton. 

 

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.

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If Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic nomination then he would have probably faced a well-funded independent candidate in the shape of former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg.

 

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.

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Bloomberg’s campaign would have been able to appeal in many of the same ways that Trump’s did. Namely the likely self-funded nature, and Bloomberg not being a part of the Washington D.C. establishment. 

 

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.

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Jeremy Corbyn should provide ample warning to the Democrats of the electoral dangers of turning to populist left-wing policies. 

 

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.

 

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Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. 

Did Gary Johnson and Jill Stein help Trump win?

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Libertarian Party candidate for the Presidency, Gary Johnson. 

The Electoral College system in United States Presidential Elections typically limits the viable field in Presidential Elections to just two viable candidates. In this case of course, that was Hillary Clinton and the ultimate victor, Donald J. Trump.

However, despite the fact that the system for the electing the President makes it near impossible for a third-party candidate to win, that doesn’t stop third-party or independent candidates running, and this election was no exception.

Of the myriad of other candidates who were on the ballots in some of the States, the most high-profile were the Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and the Libertarian Party candidate, former Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson.

Given the national unpopularity of the two main candidates in this year’s presidential race, it was expected that this election could be a bumper one of third-party candidates, with forecasts during the campaign suggesting that many voters were considering backing third-party candidates out of distaste for those nominated by the Democrats and the Republicans. However, in the end, third-party candidates didn’t do anywhere near as well as expected. During the campaign, Gary Johnson was polling upwards of nine percent nationally, and had a justifiable claim for being included in the Presidential debates. However, when it came to the Presidential Election he only received around four percent of the popular vote, which amounted to more than four million votes. This meant that Johnson didn’t achieve his stated aim of gaining a five percent of the national popular vote.

However, although the national returns of these third parties candidates were less than satisfying, both Johnson and Stein did manage to gain quite sizeable number of votes in the battleground States — many of which were ultimately won by President-elect Donald Trump. It has been argued by many that the presence of the likes of Johnson and Stein in the race helped to hand the Presidency to Trump. Whilst this is hard to prove or support, it is indeed inarguable that these candidates made an impact in the battleground States.

This was particularly notable in Florida. It was of course Florida where then Green Party Presidential candidate Ralph Nader’s candidacy in the 2000 Presidential Election was widely considered to have handed the State and the Presidency to Republican Candidate George W. Bush, despite Democrat Al Gore winning the national popular vote. This time around the situation was remarkably similar, with Hillary Clinton prevailing in the national popular vote, but ultimately being well beaten in the Electoral College. In 2000, Nader received 1.63 percent of the vote in Florida. The margin between Bush and Gore was just 0.05 in Bush’s favour. Although Nader has always disputed his impact, if he hadn’t been a candidate then it would have been hard to see his Green Party supporters plumping for Bush over noted environmentalist Gore.

This year, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Florida by 2.4 percent, so won by considerably more than Bush did in 2000. Gary Johnson won 3.1 percent in Florida, whilst Jill Stein won 0.7 percent of the vote there. It was a similar situation in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with the margin in all of these States being eclipsed by the number of votes cast for Stein and Johnson. This means that if you assume that the Stein and Johnson vote would go to Clinton, then Clinton would have won these States had they not been standing, and therefore she would have won the Presidency.

However, in my opinion, this is a pretty lazy assumption to be making.

Firstly, there is no way to prove that the Johnson and Stein vote would go directly to Clinton. Throughout the campaign, Johnson and his campaign team were clear that they thought that they were collecting votes from Democrats, Republicans, and independents, meaning that there is no guarantee that Johnson’s non-candidacy would have had any significant effect on the margins between Trump and Clinton.

Secondly, one of the main reasons that people were backing these third-party candidates was as a protest against the quality of the two candidates of the main parties. What’s to say that if Johnson and Stein hadn’t offered them another option, that they wouldn’t have just stayed at home on Election Day and not even voted. I’m sure some of them would have voted and particularly with Stein’s voters, you would have thought that most would fall on the Democratic side, however it seems unlikely that they would have been enough to overhaul Trump’s margin, particularly in Florida. In 2000, just one-third of Nader’s voters going for Gore, would have been enough to flip Florida into his column. However, in this election, more than two-thirds of Johnson and Stein’s combined support would have had to vote for Clinton in order to flip Florida. To me, this just doesn’t seem likely.

Overall, although the numbers mean that it is possible to argue that Johnson and Stein caused the Trump Presidency, to me it doesn’t really stack up. It looks to me more like an easy answer to the question of why Trump’s right-wing populism won the day. For the Democratic Party going forward, it is not at all helpful to any sort of re-building process to suggest that the election was in some way stolen because of the presence of third-party candidates. Of course, it is right to assess why many voters felt it necessary to cast a protest vote for one of the these candidates, but there should be no assumption that this was what lost the election, because the facts just don’t stack up that way.

Why did Donald Trump win?

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President-elect, Donald J. Trump. 

So I was wrong, Donald Trump has won the Presidency. Going into election day I still felt sure that the trend towards populist candidates would be halted in its tracks, and that normal service would be resumed thanks to the United States somewhat archaic Electoral College system. Before polls began to close, I didn’t really see a path to the White House for Trump. I mean, to win he had to win Florida, and although that would be close high Hispanic turnout would surely allow Clinton to edge the win. Likewise, I fully expected Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to go Clinton’s way. Michigan and Pennsylvania had voted Democrat in every Presidential Election since 1992, Wisconsin in every Presidential Election since 1988. Surely Trump couldn’t take them, could he?

Alas, I was wrong. Trump didn’t just take one of these States, he took all four. Add to his column North Carolina, Ohio (by an astonishing 8.6 percent), and Iowa, and you’ve got the recipe for a comfortable victory in the Electoral College — currently projected to be 306 votes for Trump to 232 for Clinton. Having said this, it looks as though Clinton narrowly won the popular vote. But, as we know only too well (Gore 2000), it’s all about the Electoral College.

So, why did Trump win? Most of the media and political pundits effectively anointed Hillary Clinton as the next President (and the polls also suggested this outcome), and I must admit that I was only too willing to follow suit, and I am sure that I wasn’t the only one.

Prior to the election, all the talk was about how the sleeping giant of the American electorate, the Hispanic population, was going to play a huge part in deciding the winner. But in actual fact, the Hispanic impact was overstated. Yes, it was arguably the Hispanic population which got Clinton over the line in Nevada (mostly as a result of early voting) but it was always going to be Florida which mattered the most. There was somewhat of a surge in Hispanic voters (particularly in the early voting), and more Hispanics did indeed vote in this Presidential Election than in any previous Presidential Election. However, although Hispanics did vote overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, they didn’t vote for Clinton quite overwhelmingly enough. In fact, Trump actually received around 27 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide. This means that he beat Bob Dole’s 1996 tally of the Hispanic vote (Dole got just 21 percent), and received a similar percentage to Mitt Romney’s 2012 share (Romney also took around 27 percent of the Hispanic vote). All this meant that despite the surge in the number of Hispanic voters, Clinton still couldn’t compete in Florida, undoubtedly the most important State in this election.

And on top of this, Trump had a surge of his own. The surge of the white working class. Similarly to those in the UK who voted to leave the European Union in June, these tended to be voters who felt disillusioned by the political elite and left behind by globalisation. Although the results of recent US elections and the ongoing demographic changes in many of the swing states suggested that the Democrats could win an election despite minimal support amongst working class whites, this view proved to be unfounded. In 2012, President Obama won so comfortably in the Midwest because of his strong showing with white working class voters. His low rating with this group was almost purely due to the result in the Southern safe Republican States.

In short, in the swing states Hillary Clinton did not outperform President Obama with Hispanics to the extent required to counteract the huge support Donald Trump was gaining with white working class voters. The biggest surges in Hispanic support for Clinton came in California and Texas, States which were never going to have any bearing on the result. Yes, she did outperform President Obama slightly in some areas of Florida, with Clinton slightly improving the Democratic margins in heavily Hispanic counties such as Miami-Dade, but she did not improve the margin enough to counteract the white working class voters which Trump was winning — many of whom had voted for Obama in 2012.

The same huge support for Trump amongst white working class voters was evident in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In counties which President Obama had won by twenty points in 2012, Trump was drawing level. In counties which President Obama had won by double figures in 2012, Trump was winning handsomely. In these swing states, the same was true as in Florida, Clinton wasn’t over-performing President Obama in the Democratic strongholds. For example, in Pennsylvania, Clinton was unable to get close to the margin needed in Philadelphia to overturn the white working class vote in over areas of the State. The same was true in Ohio, with Clinton not winning cities like Cleveland by enough to overturn her deficit elsewhere.

In short, Clinton certainly made gains among minority groups and the well educated during this election. However, these gains did not seem to occur in the swing states which needed them the most. Either this, or they were simply overwhelmed by the unexpected huge support Donald Trump had amongst the white working class — a group everyone expected him to win, but very few suggested he would win by as much as he ultimately did.

Perhaps the Clinton campaign’s real failure was to misread which were the actual swing states. Throughout the campaign, Clinton barely visited Wisconsin and Michigan, with the campaign putting out hardly any television advertising in these States. Given that they had voted Democratic in Presidential elections for so many years, they thought that they were absolutely safe. Even in nearby Minnesota, typically an even stronger Democratic State in Presidential Elections, the margin of Clinton’s victory was very, very low.

Given how wrong the polling was about these States it is, in hindsight, no surprise that the Clinton campaign didn’t foresee the problems that they were going to have in these States. The same was true in the Trump campaign, who said that their polling results were much the same as professional pollsters. Very few people saw the surge in Trump support in any of these States, apart from perhaps Ohio — although even there the polls generally only had Trump a point or two ahead, nowhere close to the 8.6 percent margin he ultimately took Ohio by.

It is difficult to now what caused such a huge polling error, but perhaps the most simple explanation was that voters were simply not willing to tell pollsters that they were backing Trump. We saw a similar phenomenon in the recent European Union referendum, where polls before the referendum gave the Remain campaign a surprisingly strong lead, seemingly because many Leave voters were telling pollsters that they planned to vote remain. We also saw a similar thing in the recent referendum in Columbia on the agreement on a peace deal between the Columbian Government and the FARC rebels. Whatever the error is, it will take far a far deeper evaluation of the polls and the methodology used, in order to ascertain what the errors were.

So it was the surge in white voters which took Donald Trump over the line, but that isn’t really an explanation for why Trump was able to win the Presidency.

Was he able to win because of Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity? I’m not sure I buy into this argument, mostly because I think that generally both candidates were disliked, and personality wise Trump probably was disliked more than Clinton. Indeed according to the results of the preliminary exit polls, 54 percent of voters viewed Hillary Clinton unfavourably, whilst 61 percent of voters viewed Donald Trump unfavourably. Therefore, to some extent, I feel that this debunks the argument that Clinton lost because of her national unpopularity — although it was arguably a contributing factor.

Delve more deeply into the exit polls, and I think they shine more light on why Trump won. The exit poll revealed that among Trump supporters, 92 percent felt that the country was on the wrong track, 88 percent were angry with the way the government was working, and 70 percent were voting for a candidate who they felt could bring about change. For Clinton supporters, they were found to generally feel as though the country was on track, and only fourteen percent were voting for a candidate who they felt could bring about change.

So, in short, voters were switching to Trump because they felt that he was the only chance to bring about change. For these voters, many of whom had voted for Obama in 2012, they were willing to vote for Trump despite their misgivings about him purely because he could bring about change, and shake up the Washington establishment. This is much the same as in the EU Referendum, where many people voted Brexit purely to give the Westminster political establishment a bit of a kicking.

Typically, when a single party is in government for an extended period of time (in this case, Obama had been President for eight years) their supporters grow disillusioned, particularly if their ‘champion’ is failing to enact the change that they voted for. This is the main reason why since 1952, there has only been one occasion where the same party has held onto the Presidency for three consecutive terms, with this of course being between 1980 and 1992 when Ronald Reagan was succeeded by George H.W. Bush.

In recent years, gridlock has characterised the workings of Washington D.C., and in his second term President Obama has been able to accomplish little without the use of executive orders. It was here that Clinton’s status as a member of the political establishment counted against her. Throughout his campaign Trump kept saying things along the lines of “she’s been in Washington for thirty years and she hasn’t solved these problems, don’t expect her to solve them now.” Whilst it isn’t true that Clinton had been in Washington D.C. for thirty years, the view that she wouldn’t be able to end the gridlock in government was clearly one shared by many. Indeed, even Clinton’s most ardent supporters would be hard-pressed to support the notion that Clinton would have been able to enact transformative change. It was this reason, that so many voters chose to go for Trump. They simply thought that he was the only chance that they had to change things with regard to healthcare, immigration, manufacturing jobs.

Whether or not he actually has the ability to do, they are not really that bothered. Having exhausted every other avenue for what these voters perceive to be positive change, they are willing to give a complete outsider a go, in the hope that he can shake up the establishment.

This trend in favour of populist and anti-establishment political candidates is one which is replicating itself around the world, on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Of course we’ve got Trump, and we also had Bernie Sanders during the Democratic Primary. Before that we had the win for Leave in the EU Referendum. Even earlier we had the win for Syriza in Greece. Next year we’ll find out whether the trend continues in the French Presidential Election, where Marine Le Pen continues to look strong.

All over the world, voters are concluding that they want a change from the political establishment who they blame for the poor economic situation which many voters experience in their daily lives. For those who have been more insulated by the economic problems experienced by the developed world over the last eight years, this is perhaps quite hard to comprehend. But the truth is perhaps that voters are willing to vote for anything that they feel will bring about change, and shake up the political establishment.

Overall, Trump won because the voters felt that he was the only candidate who could bring about change. We will soon see whether he manages this task, and if so what changes he brings about.