Hill-Weld: Stop Saying Bernie Can't Win

Moderates are the ones who will lose this race.

by Teddy Hill-Weld | 2/12/20 2:00am

If the New Hampshire election results hold at the time I’m writing this column, this newspaper will likely be announcing a victory for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary — or at least a very good finish. With what has been described as a functional home-state advantage, Sanders won the 2016 New Hampshire primary against Hillary Clinton by a whopping 22 points. His closest competitor in the polls here this year is former South Bend, IN mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is benefitting from unease in the moderate segment of the party after former vice president Joe Biden’s weak showing in the Iowa caucuses. Biden is still polling just two points behind Sanders nationally, but New Hampshire and Iowa have clearly demonstrated that moderate voters are far more inclined to vote strategically and switch their vote in order to get a candidate that they agree with in office. But are these self-proclaimed pragmatists really playing the game with a winning strategy?

Moderate Democrats have been quick to point to the results of last year’s U.K. general election — where the Labour Party was trounced by the Conservative Party by more than 150 seats in Parliament — as proof that a moderate candidate has the only path to victory against President Trump. But the results of the 2016 presidential election paint a different picture, and one that centrists should pay closer attention to. In Pennsylvania, Sanders won 117,000 voters that Clinton did not, and Trump won the state by 44,000. In Michigan, it was Trump by 10,000 after Clinton failed to rally some 48,000 voters who went for Sanders in the primary. And in Wisconsin, where Trump won by 22,500 votes, Clinton missed out on another 51,000 of the Sanders-faithful.

This doesn’t support the conclusion that running a moderate Democrat caused Sanders voters to switch to Trump — although the few who did strike me as more than a bit disoriented — it reflects the fact that moderate candidates just do not have the same ability to mobilize voter turnout in their favor. People were excited by Sanders in a way that Clinton just couldn’t compete with. 

Either way, Republican strategists will accuse any Democratic nominee of being as radical as Sanders. Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh has explicitly said “There is no centrist lane,” when asked about Biden and Buttigieg. So really, it’s about whether the candidate who is stuck with the label is able to use it to their advantage, or if they collapse under the pressure.

Another key indicator of Sanders’ strength is his fundraising apparatus. The Sanders campaign completely disavows big-money donors — a move that would eliminate nearly all financial support from the self-funded campaigns of billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, and which would severely hamper the fundraising efforts of Biden and Buttigieg. Despite this decision by Sanders, his campaign is still clobbering the competition: With an average campaign donation of just $18 and some five million individual donors, the campaign raised $95 million in 2019. In December alone, 900,000 individuals donated to Sanders, and in the first month of 2020, the campaign raised another $25 million. Meanwhile, the Biden campaign has raised 64 percent of its funds from large donations, Buttigieg is at 55 percent and Elizabeth Warren is the only candidate within spitting distance of Bernie’s 55 percent small-donation mark. The reason why the Sanders campaign has had so much success is not because the Twitterverse of Bernie Bros and hyperactive primary voters skew the numbers, despite what many in the media and Washington intelligentsia might say. Sanders is in the lead because his message is stronger than any of his competitors, and it speaks to a greater portion of the electorate.

The Sanders message isn’t about eliminating polarization; it’s about understanding where it originates. The Bidens and Buttigiegs of the world are more than ready to believe that once we get Trump out of office, we can get things back to normal and everything will be okay. If the Big Nasty™ is gone, all the sexism and white supremacy and climate denial will all go away and we can focus on the real problems: climate change and automation and North Korea. But Donald Trump was not the cause of the political divisiveness we witness today, and neither was the Tea Party movement that emerged in the Obama era. The real reason we experience polarization today is because voters have been strategically misled into voting against their interests.

It’s easy to think of examples of this problem. There are working-class Americans who voted for Trump, but rely on the Affordable Care Act for health insurance. There are poor workers afraid of immigrants stealing their jobs even though their state’s right-to-work laws are what have prevented them from bargaining for higher wages and better protections against arbitrary dismissal. Most notable to me is the fact that there are countless Americans voting for politicians who rail against estate taxes despite the fact that they will never come close to inheriting enough money to reach the threshold of the so-called “death tax.”

Bernie Sanders understands that these divisions are not the result of inherent evils in the hearts of some and virtues in others. The real reason we face these problems is because the ruling class has divided up the electorate and pitted us against each other. Every speech that frames one segment of the population as a violent threat, every policy that criminalizes a population born into circumstances no one could reasonably escape, and every ideology that says some people must win while others must lose cannot be the way forward. Critics will say that running on “economic gloom” and “class war” just won’t work, but that’s where they miss the point. The Sanders campaign isn’t about doom and gloom over the structures we’ve known about for decades — the real appeal isn’t some pessimism inherent to democratic socialism. Bernie Sanders will win because, for once, voters have a reason to be truly hopeful.