Bernie Sanders and the Unorthodox Campaign

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Back in early July, I took a look (here and here) at what Rand Paul or Bernie Sanders would have to do to win their respective nominations and then the presidency. Looking back at those pieces, about the only thing still relevant that I said about Rand Paul was this: “If Rand Paul’s candidacy flames out early enough, [his] voters are Bernie’s for the taking, and he’s going to need them if he hopes to actually win anything.” I also said “I don’t even think Sanders’ potential appeal on the right is limited to Rand Paul supporters. It’s just that I think Paul’s supporters are riper for the picking than, say, Mike Huckabee’s supporters.”

Ah! Yes. Mike Huckabee supporters!

What was Bernie Sanders doing yesterday at Jerry Falwall’s Liberty University?

He was going after Mike Huckabee’s supporters, of course.

And why would he be doing something crazy like that?

Well, here’s some of what I had to say about what Sanders needed to do to win.

If Sanders has a mission, it isn’t to convince the natural constituents of the Democratic Party that they ought to vote for a Democrat. So, if you’re projecting how he’s going to do, you need to evaluate what his prospects for success will be among people who are more conservative or moderate, or who are normally disengaged from the process…

…To win the overall contest, including the presidency, however, he is going to have to achieve a substantial crossover appeal. If he beats Hillary, he’s going to lose a portion of the Democratic coalition in the process, and he’ll have to make up for it with folks who we don’t normally think of as socialists or liberals.

Some of this deficit can be made up for simply by bringing people into the process who would otherwise have stayed home, but that alone will never be enough. If you think the electorate is so polarized that Bernie can’t change the voting behaviors of very many people, then there’s really not even a conceptual way that he could win. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to wait and see if he can appeal to a broader swath of the electorate like he has consistently done in his home state, then the “white liberal” vote isn’t quite as decisive…

…But what should also become clear is that unorthodox candidates can only win by attracting unorthodox coalitions. Arguments that Sanders can outflank Hillary from the left are just wrong, as are arguments that Rand Paul can hold the Republican coalition together and then add enough to it win the Electoral College. No, if either of these gentleman want to win, they need to do it by reshaping the dividing lines, and that’s particularly hard to do in a system with a lot of closed primaries where only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote.

Around the same time I was discussing potential Sanders strategy in an email with a colleague and I basically came out with something bound to upset most progressives if they ever caught wind of Bernie trying it:

Sanders is really popular up in Vermont with dairy farmers and hunters and basically the kind of people who normally watch FOX News and stew about immigrants. He could start cutting a weird kind of Perotesque row through through the thickets, much like Rand Paul hopes to do. But he has to get out of Madison and Portland to do that. I’m thinking about the folks in Chattanooga who wanted to unionize the VW plant. There are a lot of places like that in the South and Midwest where he could build support even if doesn’t makes sense in a strictly Electoral College sense. He needs to go after the [George] Wallace voters, frankly. Take a left wing message to Hillary’s right flank and hope the left stays with him.

I don’t think this is really doable even if he’s imaginative enough to try, but it’s the only way I can see that he could prove us all wrong.

Later on in the email exchange I admitted that my own readers would hang me for heresy if they got wind of my political advice for the Sanders campaign.

Well, yeah, I mean think about what I’m saying.

We have a bunch of people bitching that Bernie, a progressive caucus champion, isn’t getting much support from people of color. And my response is that he should be focused on George Wallace voters. If they understood me correctly, they’d go ballistic.

That’s an acknowledgment that my idea of a potentially winning strategy for Bernie isn’t exactly brimming with sensitivity training. If he actually tried it, I thought at the time, I might be downright uncomfortable with the whole idea.

But I got over myself.

The way Sanders can go after these voters is to do what progressives are always saying the Democrats should do, which is to explain how Republicans (the billionaire class) are ripping them off and rigging the electoral process. He does not need to pander to their bigotry and incite their anger against the wrong people getting redistribution in the form of access to health care or higher education or food stamps or welfare.

Sanders can pander a little bit, too, as he did at Liberty by quoting Scripture to back up his ideas on economic fairness. But that’s pandering (mostly) to people’s better angels.

There’s no clean or pure way to win over the George Wallace bloc of voters, but that’s basically what the Blue Dogs did and we always said there was a better way.

So, yeah, there’s a lot of overlap between Sanders supporters and Paul supporters, but there could be overlap with Sanders and Huckabee, too.

There’s just no way that Sanders can outflank Hillary from the left, but if he can bring in the disengaged and carry a big chunk of the middle, he’ll be cooking with gas.

And he doesn’t have to ignore or sell out black and Latino voters in any way while he’s doing this. Just before he went to Liberty, he was down in South Carolina visiting with mostly black Democrats, including a visit to Benedict College.

The name of the game is getting the most delegates to the Democratic National Convention and then getting the most votes in the Electoral College. Sanders still doesn’t have any clear path to those goals, but his campaign seems to understand that they can’t try to win with the standard Democratic primary electorate and have any hope of success.

After all, he’s not a Democrat. So why would Democrats prefer him to one of their own?

But, hey folks, it’s only political advice. You only get to crucify me if I take money for providing it.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.