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Electability v. Progressive Policy in the Sanders Campaign

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Photograph of Bernie Sanders

Persuading voters on issues is important, but Sanders should have done more to convince them he could win.

Leftists and progressives justifiably emphasize the extent to which our policies are popular with voters. For example, we celebrate the fact that Democratic primary exit polls showed strong support for replacing all private health insurance with a single-payer, Medicare for All system. It is a notable achievement that millions of Americans report a positive view of this central, progressive goal. On closer inspection, however, exit polls also showed strong support for a public option, “Medicare-for-all-who-want-it” proposal when pollsters included that choice.

And yet many—in some cases even most—primary voters who said they supported Medicare for All didn’t vote for Bernie Sanders! While Sanders may have convinced those voters that replacing or weakening private health insurance with a single-payer program is a good idea, that intellectual conviction did not result in their casting a ballot for the candidate who brought this policy to the mainstream.

While persuading voters on individual issues is important—Bernie has transformed the policy landscape of the U.S. electorate—winning their votes requires addressing what actually matters to them in the context of a particular election. This requires dynamism, something not necessarily incompatible with Sanders’s beloved consistency. But this, unfortunately, is one place Sanders fell short—and one place we must do better in future elections, both national and local.

What 2020 Democratic voters wanted

It shouldn’t really surprise anyone who was paying attention to what Democratic primary voters said they cared about and didn’t care about in 2020 that people who support Medicare for all did not vote for Bernie. Exit polls showed that substantial majorities of Democratic primary voters preferred a candidate who could beat Donald Trump to a candidate who agreed with them on the issues. This number presumably included many of the self-proclaimed supporters of socialism who remarkably voted for Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg instead of Sanders.

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When pollsters asked voters to prioritize among various candidate characteristics, “electability” consistently led other traits. Anecdotally, the dozens of voters I met on New Hampshire doorsteps almost always mentioned defeating Donald Trump as their priority in 2020. Only one or two mentioned health care policy. With a historically unpopular Republican incumbent whom Democrats largely regard as the worst President of their lifetimes, 2020 was the Year of the “Electable” Democrat.

A path not taken

While he did many things right, Bernie Sanders mostly missed the opportunity to make the case for his unique ability to defeat Donald Trump, and other candidates’ (especially Joe Biden’s) entirely predictable general election liabilities. His stock debate answer, that his candidacy would bring out younger voters in large numbers, was a good start. But standing on its own, it sounded speculative and risky, playing into many older voters’ perception that Joe Biden and his more conventional strategy of appealing to moderates represented the safe choice.

This perception—that Biden or another centrist was more electable than Bernie—could and should have been vociferously contested at every opportunity. After Hillary Clinton’s devastating 2016 loss to Donald Trump, the argument could have gone: why trust the same pundits and media telling us to go with another centrist? How could anyone believe a general electorate that chose Donald Trump just wanted another establishment politician? How many more elections will pass before we recognize that “moderate Republicans” don’t exist?

Bernie Sanders’s status as an independent, which may have been a Democratic primary liability, should have been touted as a general election asset. To thread the needle, he might have dropped “Democratic” from his attacks on the establishment, drawing in Democratic primary voters, while making his case to defeat Trump in the general election. Low-propensity voters are demonstrably frustrated and cynical about both major parties. “Bipartisanship” only doubles the disgust they feel at a rotten political establishment. Bernie Sanders could have run as the candidate who promised to beat Donald Trump by matching fake anti-establishment with real anti-establishment, fake populism with real populism.

Instead, Bernie Sanders largely declined to question other candidates’ electability. In the case of Joe Biden, this was reportedly due partly to warm personal sentiments toward the Bidens. But Sanders may have also feared appearing disloyal by attacking other candidates’ ability to defeat Trump. Other candidates, of course, had no similar compunction about suggesting that Sanders’s left-wing views would be a unique liability against Trump, in spite of Sanders’s polling at the high end of Democratic primary candidates in hypothetical general election matchups.

In a more electability-centric Sanders campaign, the policies we know and love would still have played an important role. But they would have been part of a larger story of what is happening in America, making the case to the Democratic primary electorate that Bernie was the candidate for the general. People are rejecting the political establishment. They crave a candidate who is not beholden to concentrated wealth. Such a candidate can credibly offer policies like Medicare for All in a way that other candidates cannot. In the future, we are going to be facing an increasingly stark choice between candidates like that, and right-wing fake-populist candidates who offer an outlet for the same sentiments. We likely could not return to the Obama years, even if we wanted to: the “moderate” electorate for which candidates like Joe Biden have auditioned for decades does not exist. Socialism or barbarism!

Instead, many voters understandably got the impression that they had to choose between policies they liked and the candidate most likely to win. To be sure, this was how the mainstream media and other candidates persistently framed the 2020 primary. But it was ultimately Sanders’s responsibility to show voters that this was a false choice. Not only could a candidate like Sanders win, but only a candidate like Sanders represents more than a surface response to Trump.

Preparing for the next time

Bernie Sanders was not our movement’s last presidential candidate, and hence we must learn as much from what he did not do as what he did. Similar to the British Labour Party’s 2019 general election campaign, which propounded policy after policy all apparently relatively popular, but lacked a compelling message on Brexit, the Sanders campaign did not fully grapple with the electability concerns in the primary electorate. In some ways, Sanders looked all but indistinguishable from Elizabeth Warren: a conventional politician with plans and policies rather than a plausible vehicle for thoroughgoing repudiation of both Trump and the corrupt political establishment that gave rise to Trump.

Future leftist electoral campaigns at all levels should focus on addressing the actual, context-specific concerns of voters rather than assume that their support for particular policies in the abstract will translate into votes.


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