Memo for Benie supporters

Apparently Ross Douthat is making the case that Bernie is the unifier that the Democratic party has been missing.  Really?

The Democratic Party needs a nominee, but right now it has a train wreck instead. The front-runner seems too old for the job and is poised to lose the first two primary season contests. The woman who was supposed to become the front-runner on the basis of her policy chops is sliding in the polls after thoroughly botching her health care strategy. The candidate rising in her place is a 37-year-old mayor of a tiny, not-obviously-thriving city…

But it’s still reasonable for Democratic voters to look for someone who can do a version of what Harris was supposed to do, and build a coalition across the party’s many axes of division.

And there’s an interesting case that the candidate best positioned to do this — the one whose support is most diverse right now — is the candidate whom Obama allegedly promised to intervene against if his nomination seemed likely: the resilient Socialist from Vermont, Bernie Sanders.

Like other candidates, Sanders’s support has a demographic core: Just as Elizabeth Warren depends on very liberal professionals and Joe Biden on older minorities and moderates, Bernie depends intensely on the young. But his polling also shows an interesting better-than-you-expect pattern, given stereotypes about his support. He does better-than-you-expect with minorities despite having struggled with them in 2016, with moderate voters and $100K-plus earners despite being famously left-wing, and with young women despite all the BernieBro business…

That decent polling, I suspect, reflects a sense among voters drawn to populism that Bernie is different from not only the more centrist candidates — latecomers Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick especially, but Buttigieg as well — but also from his fellow left-winger, Warren, who has fully embraced the culture-war breadth of the new progressivism while Sanders remains, fundamentally, an economic-policy monomaniac.

He’s still a social liberal, of course, and he isn’t in the culturally conservative/economic populist quadrant where so many unrepresented voters reside. But for the kind of American who is mostly with the Democrats on economics but wary of progressivism’s zest for culture war, Sanders’s socialism might be strangely reassuring — as a signal of what he actually cares about, and what battles he might eschew for the sake of his anti-plutocratic goals. (At the very least he’s no more radical on an issue like abortion than a studied moderate like Mayor Pete.)

This is why, despite technically preferring a moderate like Biden or Amy Klobuchar, I keep coming back to the conservative’s case for Bernie — which rests on the perhaps-wrong but still attractive supposition that he’s the liberal most likely to spend all his time trying to tax the rich and leave cultural conservatives alone.

Certainly an interesting take, but color me unconvinced.  I did receive an email asking for my take from a Bernie supporter, so I figured I might as well turn it into a blog post.  So, here you go…

Oh, yeah, and I still stand by that statement [that Bernie has no chance], as does pretty much every other political scientist I know that studies American elections.  I think Douthat makes an interesting case, largely by cherry-picking polling data in ways that suit his argument, but the short version is that Sanders has never really shown much ability to reach beyond his base and I haven’t seen anything in 2019 to make me think otherwise. I would also argue that he’s never had the truly harsh media scrutiny that comes with being a candidate seen as having a real chance of winning (e.g., the scrutiny Warren was put under after her big surge in the polls).  Ultimately, he’s a factional candidate and factional candidates don’t win primaries.  Also, Douthat elides the fact that one of the central knocks on Biden is his age, and Bernie, especially post heart attack, faces the same issue.  After Donald Trump, I generally avoid “no chance” type statements (except, rhetorically, to make a point), so I would not say Bernie has “no chance,” but I still think his chances of winning the nomination are quite low, and much lower than they would be for a candidate with his polling numbers.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

7 Responses to Memo for Benie supporters

  1. Mika says:

    News from Finland. Our Prime Minister resigns blah blah blah an all that but _the_ BIG news is that our neighbor is a very strong contender to be the next Prime Minister! Absolutely fabulous!

    • Steve Greene says:

      Wow. And by “neighbor” just how close geographically and interpersonally are we talking here?

      • Mika says:

        Every morning when I make coffee in our kitchen I can check if Prime Minister’s spouse & child have woken 🙂 They live in a building next to ours but since she is a minister right now she spends a lot of time in Helsinki I suppose.

        Interpersonally they aren’t very near. I say “Hi!” to all my neighbors but if they don’t say “Hi!” to me I’ll stop it at some point. Then again my spouse says that the Prime Minister’s husband has started saying “Hi!” to her ever since their daughter was born. Fatherhood makes a difference sometimes. Prime Minister’s mother lives in the same building where we live and she plays bridge at the same club as I do. With her I’m at much more friendly terms.

        The best thing about it is that I can say to my daughter “Hey, see who might be the next PM?! You can be a PM too if you want. You don’t have to but it’s possible!” That’s pretty cool.

      • Steve Greene says:

        That is very cool!

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    Bernie’s appeal is too narrowly on economic issues. Somehow I can’t see him spending much time on what I think would be one of the top three goals: restaffing the government and re-energizing the federal work force. Also, what are his ideas about foreign policy? Does he believe, not just say, that women’s rights are important and can’t be entirely solved by economic policy?

    The optimistic view is to look back to Harry Truman, a man few thought would turn out to be an outstanding President. If we can’t locate the FDR maybe we should look for the potential Truman.

  3. samhbrewer says:

    See, billy idol (and Ross Douthat) gets it.

    Bernie is the mirror of trump. Nobody serious thought he could win because they don’t get that all his core positions line up much better with the voters of his primary than his rivals. The serious political professionals don’t take him seriously because their values align not with the general electorate but with economic elites of their party. A big difference is in how they are covered. trumps message is blasted out to voters by over the top news coverage so republicans learned almost immediately and reinforced constantly that he is easily their top choice. Meanwhile voters are left to learn (or not) for themselves that they probably agree with Bernie more than any other candidate on almost every issue important to them. But Bernie has been working hard for decades, including the last four years, to reach out, show up, fight for people, and build coalitions. I think this will pay dividends and he has much better than no chance of overcoming the media “Bernie blackout”

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