Politics & Policy

Insiders See Trump and Sanders as Unelectable; the Public Disagrees

Sanders works the crowd at a rally in Las Vegas, February 14, 2016. (Ethan Miller/Getty)
Stranger things have happened — this year, in fact.

For a couple of seconds, Donald Trump was caught off guard. He then admitted he may have more in common with Bernie Sanders, his Democratic counterpart in political revolution, than he would normally admit.

At MSNBC’s GOP town-hall event in Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday, Trump was asked a gotcha question by Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski. She wanted him to match the candidate with the following description:

That candidate is considered a political outsider by all of the pundits. He’s tapping into the anger of voters, delivers a populist message. He believes everyone in the country should have health care. He advocates for hedge-fund managers to pay higher taxes. He is drawing thousands of people at his rallies and bringing in a lot of new voters into the political process.

“Who am I describing?” Brzezinski asked.

“You’re describing Donald Trump,” Trump responded.

“Actually, I was describing Bernie Sanders,” Brzezinski replied.

There are a lot of similarities between the two candidates who most represent disgust with political elites in both parties. Both are populists prone to pointing fingers at unpopular adversaries (illegal immigrants for Trump, Wall Street for Sanders), and both are short on specifics about how they would actually accomplish their goals.

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But there is no denying their impact on the race. Trump is pushing Republicans in a more nationalist, anti-globalist direction, and Sanders is pushing Democrats towards a socialism they have sometimes practiced but rarely articulated in public discourse. As this week’s National Journal notes:

Trump and Sanders are rising largely because they are amplifying the voices of constituencies that have usually been outshouted in fights for their party’s nomination. For Trump, that key constituency is working-class Republicans; for Sanders, it’s the millennial generation. By demonstrating — and crystallizing — these groups’ electoral clout, each man is signaling a lasting internal power shift in the party that he is seeking to lead.

But an unexpected political irony is also emerging about the two men who are roiling the Democratic and Republican parties. Donald Trump is the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination, but he fares the worst of any GOP candidate in a general election. In the new Quinnipiac poll, every Republican beats Hillary Clinton but Trump. A new Fox poll released late Thursday also shows Trump as the weakest GOP candidate against Clinton. Sanders outperforms Clinton in a hypothetical matchup against Trump by 53–38 percent; Clinton has only a narrow 47–42 percent lead.

#share#Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist,” still trails Hillary Clinton, but recent national polls show him beating most or all Republicans. Pragmatic voters who want a winner would be excused right now if they wanted to dump both Trump and Hillary right now. (Check out the chart from the Quinnipiac poll out this week.)

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One factor that has sustained and elevated the rise of Trump and Sanders is a gap between what political insiders think and the views of the broader electorate. Insiders in both parties believe Trump would be a weak general-election candidate. For example, the Quinnipiac poll shows him winning only 17 percent of Hispanics, a full ten points below Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing.

Ditto with Bernie Sanders. Despite a more favorable attitude toward socialism among young people, the general public is not likely to warm to a radical once the implications of his views are known. Remember, Bernie hasn’t had a single negative ad run against him from the right. (Yes, the one pointing out that he honeymooned in the old Soviet Union is being prepared.) “Hillary Clinton doesn’t have to explain socialism to suburban voters,” Congressman Steve Israel, the New York Democrat who used to head his party’s House campaign committee, told the New York Times in January.

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But the general public doesn’t share the insider view. In the Quinnipiac poll, a full 78 percent of Republicans believe Donald Trump “would have a good chance” of winning in November. Among Democrats, 69 percent believe the same thing about Bernie Sanders.

In addition, in another surprise, Republicans aren’t yet that concerned about electability. The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 16 percent of GOP voters considered electability the quality that matters most to them in picking a candidate, trailing shared values, telling it like it is, and bringing needed change.

If Trump and Sanders are still surging after Saturday’s GOP primary in South Carolina and Democratic caucus in Nevada, it will be in large part because the country’s populist anger is so great that the normal laws of political science have been suspended. A lot of voters are convinced Trump and Sanders are electable, and as long as they think that, their candidacies will stay aloft.

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