Could Trump’s Success Help Bernie Sanders?

Even mainstream pundits are now finally acknowledging what many of us have been saying for weeks now: the Trump surge isn’t just a flash in the pan, but a real reflection of the dissatisfaction of the GOP base and its desire for a tough-talking, no-holds-barred racist, sexist populist rebel.

As the Very Serious People come to grips with that reality, the time has come for the rest of the us to say, “now what?” There are many potential implications for the Republican Party, of course, but one of the more interesting effects could be on the Democratic nomination. It’s no secret that Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers have been slipping partly due to simple political gravity, and partly as a result of the continued overhyped media drumbeat about her State Department emails.

As in 2008, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Clinton’s wonky, play-it-safe approach to elections is uninspiring to a large number of Democrats. One of Clinton’s main strengths, however, remains her perceived electibility. While Bernie Sanders’ stock has been rising, he still underperforms Clinton in head-to-head matchups against potential Republican candidates.

But that matters less than it used to. Given the wide and increasing polarization of the electorate, it matters less and less who the actual nominee is. Most people don’t vote for the presidential candidate of their choice so much as against the presidential candidate of their opponents. That narrative is not one that helps Camp Clinton.

A Donald Trump candidacy further hurts Clinton’s core argument. If Trump becomes the GOP nominee, the expected Clinton vs Bush Round Two campaign basically becomes a negative storm in which Trump’s personal foibles, awful statements and broad unpopularity are paraded nonstop in front of the voters. In that world it matters even less how electable the Democratic nominee may be at first glance. In fact, a comparatively fresh face and lack of unfavorable personal history might help Democrats in the general election against the ethical morass that is Donald Trump.

As the actual primary elections approach, Democratic voters who might be personally sympathetic to Sanders but inclined to make a pragmatic vote for Clinton might be encouraged by the likelihood of a Trump nomination to place less emphasis on electibility.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.