Progressive Democrats took to Twitter and Facebook this week flush with excitement. Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist from Vermont, received 41 percent of the vote in a straw poll at the Wisconsin Democratic party’s annual convention. Hillary Clinton won only 49 percent.
Sanders, who opened his campaign last month calling for a “political revolution” in America, is a liberal heartthrob. He wants to rein in Wall Street banks, vastly increase Social Security payments, and change the Constitution to restrict money in politics. “Remaining clear-eyed about hurdles but WI straw poll shows strength of Sanders’ insurgent campaign,” tweeted Katrina van den Heuvel, editor of the left-wing magazine The Nation.
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Clinton remains a prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination for two clear reasons. First, it’s likely that women will account for a sizable majority of the turnout in the Democratic primaries, as they did when Clinton ran in 2008, and the historic nature of her candidacy will be a big hurdle for any male Democrat to overcome. Elizabeth Warren, who isn’t running absent a major Clinton scandal, is just about the only plausible threat. Caitlyn Jenner, after all, is a Republican.
Sanders clearly has a deficit with minority voters.
Secondly, progressive Democrats historically don’t do well among minority voters in primaries. Perhaps it’s because trendy issues such as global warming, NSA wiretaps, gay marriage, and campaign-finance reform have less resonance with minority voters. There are almost no blacks at environmental rallies and many Hispanics and blacks actually have conservative social views. Perhaps minority voters prefer Democrats who they think can get things done and not just pontificate from a base of academic abstractions.
Sanders clearly has a minority deficit. The latest Washington Post poll finds Hillary Clinton leading him by 56 percent to 14 percent among white Democrats. But among minority Democrats, he trails by a whopping 72 percent to 5 percent. (Other candidates, such as former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, barely register with either group.)
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I’ve no doubt Bernie Sanders can do well in white-liberal precincts in Iowa and New Hampshire (the latter borders his home state of Vermont). But he will really struggle in primary states such as South Carolina, where a majority of the primary electorate is African-American, and Nevada, which has a huge Hispanic and Asian population in Las Vegas.
Sanders partisans say his weakness with minorities is rooted in the simple fact he isn’t well known yet. They believe he will attract minority voters when they learn he attended Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963 and has been harping on “income inequality” for decades.
But many progressives question that. Joan Walsh of Salon notes that Sanders didn’t address police behavior and mass incarceration in his announcement speech. “The rhetoric and stagecraft employed by white progressives whom I admire,” Walsh writes, “too often — inadvertently, I think — leaves out people who aren’t white.” She claims that President Obama has “exhausted the patience of many African-Americans with promises that a rising economic justice tide will lift their boats” instead of offering “race-specific solutions to the problems of black poverty.” In other words, she’s convinced liberals are ready for radical racial themes.
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I’m not at all convinced that minority voters are clamoring for race- or ethnicity-based solutions to overcome economic disadvantages. Decades of affirmative action and racial set-asides have in large part seen already affluent minorities prosper while the impoverished continue to struggle.
But Senator Sanders appears to be heeding supporters who fret he has no chance to lead his revolution without adding racial elements to his class-warfare themes. Last week he brought up the issue of mass-incarceration of young African Americans. He also cited an Economic Policy Institute study which claims “the real unemployment rate for black high school graduates, ages 17 to 20, was more than 51 percent during the 12 months ending in March. The jobless rate for Hispanics in that age group was just under 34 percent.”His solution? Massive new government spending. He’s joined with Representative John Conyers, the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, to introduce a bill that would give state and local governments $5.5 billion to hire a million new workers between the ages of 16 and 24.
Hillary Clinton must feel lucky. Sanders, who is 73 years old, can’t deploy age as an issue against her, and Democratic party elders aren’t about to nominate a self-described socialist. But Sanders will attract crowds and small donors and make it much harder for more plausible challengers like Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb to gain traction.
Hillary’s stock may be falling with voters overall as her negatives pile up, but when it comes to the Democratic nomination the weakness of her opponents will likely keep her share price stable through the primaries.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.