New polls showing Bernie Sanders tied with Hillary Clinton in Iowa and ahead in New Hampshire are causing some consternation among conservative and corporate-friendly Democrats on Capitol Hill. Speaking as usual for the triangulating Third Way wing of the party is Steve Israel:
“There’s definitely an elevated concern expressed in the cloakroom and members-only elevators, and other places, about the impact of a Sanders nomination on congressional candidates,” Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said.
Israel, a former chairman of the Democrats’ House campaign committee, said that a Sanders nomination “increases the level of anxiety that many of our candidates have in swing districts, where a Hillary Clinton nomination erases that anxiety.”
Insofar as this statement is even true among swing district Democratic House members, there is little evidence to suggest that it is a valid concern. In fact, there are many reasons that a Sanders nomination would actually be helpful to Democrats up and down the ballot:
1) Most modern elections are base elections, and base-oriented populism has proven quite effective in recent years. The Republican Party has already learned from the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections that there is essentially no cost to pursuing an aggressive brand of politics tailored to their base. The only reason GOP extremism hurts them is that in the long run their base coalition is disappearing while the Democratic base coalition is demographically ascendant. But if the GOP could lock the country into the electoral demographics of 2004, they could essentially run successful raw base elections indefinitely even as Democrats would lose by playing to the middle. There is precious little evidence to suggest that progressive populist campaigns have hurt Democratic candidates in the past decade. In fact, the reverse has been true.
2) The “independent voter” is mostly a myth. The vast majority of supposed independents vote like partisans or even hyperpartisans, and far from being sober analysts who carefully weigh their choices and vote for the best candidate regardless of party, the few true independents that remain are actually among the most fickle, least knowledgeable and least likely to vote in the electorate.
3) Centrist worrywarts said the same thing about the downballot effects of an Obama nomination in 2008. Centrist Clinton supporters often argued that the nomination of Barack Obama would lead to a cratering of support for Democratic candidates in difficult districts. Just as the same crowd today argues that a Democratic Socialist will cause middle American voters to flee in droves, so too did they argue that nominating an African-American named Hussein would do likewise in 2008. They were wrong. 2008 was a wave year for Democrats downballot, and it is easily arguable that the disaster of 2010 was due to the depression of the Democratic base when the progressive promises of the Obama campaign to tackle Wall Street and implement real universal healthcare were dashed by conservative Democrats like Max Baucus and Joe Lieberman.
4) Bernie Sanders’ policies are still very popular. It’s a common trope to compare Sanders’ surge with that of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz because both feed off populist anger at the dysfunction and corruption in Washington. But the difference is that Ted Cruz’ positions on nearly every issue from economics to social issues to foreign policy are anathema to the majority of American voters, including to moderates and independents. Sanders’ progressive critiques of Wall Street and corporate America are immensely popular, as are the mainstream progressive stances on most issues of the day.
5) If either candidate has the potential for cross-partisan appeal, it’s Sanders. Given the intensely divided nature of the electorate, it’s deeply unlikely that any candidate on either side of the aisle will have significant ability to reach voters on the across the partisan gulf. That said, there is a small but significant movement of Republican voters who are backing Sanders because he represents a deviation from the status quo in a way that Clinton does not. The partisan battle lines in a race between Clinton and Rubio would be traditionally grim, with each candidate trying to drive base turnout in a status quo election; Republicans would try to poach a few Democratic Hispanics as Democrats would try likewise with GOP women, and the small effects would likely cancel each other out. Sanders and Trump, on the other hand, are wild cards. There is a swath of Middle American Radical voters who formed the basis of the Perot coalition: they are susceptible to racist appeals which explains their support for Donald Trump, but they are also change-seekers who are open to attacks on corporate corruption. This isn’t terribly fertile ground for Democrats, but these Perot voters may actually be more poachable for Democratic candidates than the very few truly independent “purples” remaining in the electorate.
6) It is unclear that a strategy based on strong turnout from women voters will be successful, while Sanders’ support is strongest among the very voters Democrats need big turnout from to win downballot races. Democrats across the country ran in 2014 on the War on Women platform, and it was not largely successful. For whatever reason, marginal younger and middle-aged women voters did not turn out for Democrats in hoped-for numbers on the basis of that message. Meanwhile, the relentless focus on the GOP’s misogyny made a caricature of many Democrats from Udall in Colorado to Wendy Davis in Texas as single-issue phonies out of touch with the core economic concerns of the day. And as it turns out, wide majorities of younger women are backing Bernie Sanders. If leading Democrats are concerned about depressed turnout among left-leaning women, they might be backing the wrong horse when it comes to women under 45–and in any case, the likely prospect of a Trump or Cruz nomination should be more than enough motivation to vote for men and women of all ages concerned about gender equality and reproductive rights. Meanwhile, the voters under 50 that Democrats desperately need to turn out in large numbers to win are backing Sanders over Clinton.
7) Current polling suggests that Sanders is more electable than Clinton, as he performs better in head-to-head matchups against likely Republican opponents. This has led to the odd spectacle in recent days of Clinton attacking Sanders from the left, even as Sanders burnishes his electability bona fides. While electability polling this far out from a general election is notoriously unreliable, it nevertheless suggests that Sanders is not actually a turnoff for the few persuadable voters being polled. It also suggests that negative views of Clinton in the general electorate may difficult to shake going into November.
Regardless of the merits of each candidate in other way, there is simply no evidence to support the claim that Sanders would damage downballot prospects for Democrats in swing districts. On the contrary, the available evidence suggests exactly the opposite. Given what we know now, Sanders would likely help downballot Democrats by driving progressive base turnout, reinforcing popular policies, capturing a few Perot voters, and bringing a swath of energized young voters to the polls.