Sure, Bernie Sanders is electable.
The senator from Vermont is enjoying a summer surge as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination. He’s doing well among Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire against party front-runner Hillary Clinton. He’s attracting support from new voters. In national general election match-ups, he’s competitive against top Republicans.
So far, though, he’s faced little serious scrutiny or criticism. “Sanders has been running around the track on his own,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York.
Supporters compare the Sanders boomlet to 2007-vintage Barack Obama, then a little-known U.S. senator from Illinois. Skeptics then fretted that Obama, also up against the Clinton juggernaut, was too liberal, had no real national security expertise, and hardly fit the image of the traditional American president.
Clinton led Obama, 45 to 24 percent, among Democrats and Democratic leaners in the Sept. 7-8, 2007, USA Today/Gallup poll.
Sanders faces similar doubts. He’ll be 75 on Inauguration Day, about six years older than anyone sworn in for a first term. His lifetime rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action is 97 out of 100. Late-night talk show hosts compare his disheveled look and style more to comedy writer Larry David than to any president.
“People say, well, Bernie Sanders is unelectable, can’t win,” Sanders told reporters Friday. “In a number of those polls we are defeating some of the leading Republican candidates.”
A recent Quinnipiac University survey showed Sanders up by 4 over Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and by 3 over Republican front-runner Donald Trump. Sanders trailed Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida by 1.
“We are bringing out people who are not necessarily involved in politics,” he said.
Indeed, in Iowa, Sanders led Clinton among first-time caucus-goers, independents and voters under 45 in a new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll.
“These are the types of caucus-goers that gave Obama his victory in 2008,” said Ann Selzer, poll director.
Sanders leads Clinton by 23 percentage points among likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers under 45.
The big variable for Sanders is how he is defined to voters still not familiar with him. So far, Clinton has refrained from any strong criticism, though surrogates have not been so restrained.
Should Sanders remain a serious player, opponents first for the Democratic nomination and, should he be the nominee, in the general election would rapidly fill in those blanks. He’s potentially vulnerable on these fronts:
– Minorities. Sanders represents a state where whites make up 95 percent of the population. Blacks are 1.2 percent.
The Black Lives Matter movement wants to hear more from him about its cause, and protesters recently disrupted two events where he appeared. Sanders counters by citing his long record of support for civil rights.
– Gun rights. Sanders opposed the 1993 Brady bill, which established federal background checks and a waiting period for potential gun owners.
Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, a Clinton supporter, last week visited New Hampshire on behalf of the Clinton campaign and criticized Sanders’ record. “It’s an anathema to my own,” Malloy said.
Sanders explained he’s from a largely rural state where guns “mean different things to people” than in urban states. As a result, he said, he could play a role in bringing the warring sides together. Also, he later voted for the ban on semiautomatic weapons, closing the gun show loophole and tightening background checks.
– A democratic socialist? Sanders says he’s a democratic socialist. Elected as an independent to the House of Representatives in 1990 and then to the Senate in 2006, he has caucused with the Democrats.
Critics brand him a socialist. Sanders explains he’s talking about countries where health care is a right for all citizens and is provided at less cost with better results, and seeking tuition-free college, family and medical leave for workers and more secure retirement.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a Clinton backer, found the socialist tag a liability. “I think the question that some of us have is can someone who has said, ‘I’m not a Democrat,’ has chosen the title of socialist, is that person really electable?” she told CNN recently.
– Too liberal? Last year, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action found Sanders voting its way 95 percent of the time, the same as six other senators. One other, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who many liberals had urged to run for president, had a perfect score.
Sanders cannot get elected “in any universe I’m aware of,” said Whit Ayres, Rubio’s pollster.
He is so far to the left of the American electorate.
Pollster Whit Ayres on Bernie Sanders
If Sanders is to win, he has to continue making the sort of emotional connections that have won him support, said Don Kusler, the ADA’s executive director.
“If he can define himself in that arena rather than getting dragged into debates about what is ‘liberal’ or ‘socialist’ or ‘democratic socialist’ . . . he’d have a chance to win in the places that matter,” he said. The history of campaigns strongly suggests that should Sanders get stronger, that debate will rage.