Politics & Policy

Hillary Clinton’s Populist Problem

Clinton at a campaign stop in Las Vegas, February 19, 2016. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

If Hillary Clinton is having trouble fighting off Bernie Sanders’s angry populist campaign in the Democratic primaries, just how well can she expect to do against Donald Trump in a general election?

The media is treating Clinton’s victory in Nevada as decisive, and yes, the overwhelming support of the Democratic party’s super-delegates gives her a significant advantage. But even if Sanders doesn’t win the nomination, he’s demonstrating appeal to a sizeable minority of the party.  

The national polls vary quite a bit, showing everything from an 11-point lead for Clinton to a 2-point lead for Sanders. Let’s take the average and say Clinton wins the national popular vote in the primary by 6 percentage points, a 53-47 split. And let’s say about 15 million people vote in this year’s Democratic primary. Clinton would win the nomination with almost 8 million votes to about 7 million votes for Sanders.

He is crushing her among young voters; the entrance poll in Nevada showed her losing voters aged 17 to 29 by 68 points, and those aged 30 to 44 by 27 points. Democratic voters consistently say he is more honest and cares more about people like them.

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These are not the usual weaknesses for a Democratic nominee, and we haven’t even gotten to the FBI investigation yet. Sure, most of those 7 million Sanders voters will fall in line by November, but the more it looks like the Democratic National Committee stacked the deck in her favor, the angrier they will be at the “Washington establishment.” And as Jeb Bush learned in the Republican primary, this is the wrong cycle to be seen as the “establishment.”

In last week’s town hall on MSNBC, Mika Brzezinski had a little fun with guest Donald Trump, emphasizing his similarities to Sanders: “The candidate is considered a political outsider by all of the pundits. He’s tapping into the anger of the voters, delivers a populous 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 to the political process. And he’s not beholden to anyone. Who am I describing?” Trump guessed himself; Brzezinski answered Sanders.

#share#Most of the political world looks at Trump and Sanders and sees vivid differences — the 60s radical from Burlington, Vermont who honeymooned in the Soviet Union and wanted to abolish the CIA vs. the trust-fund baby who made himself a Manhattan cultural icon, known for his ostentatious displays of wealth and highly rated reality show. But quite a few independent voters look at the two men and just see two outsiders willing to tear up the existing system, expressing their frustration with the state of the country in the same mad-as-hell-and-not-taking-it-anymore tone.

There are some key differences between Trump and Sanders, but these differences don’t necessarily work in Clinton’s favor. For starters, Trump is a lot meaner than Sanders. Sanders initially gave Hillary a pass on her private e-mail server, declaring that, “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails!”

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By contrast, Trump has narrowed the scandal’s possible outcomes to an indictment or an Obama administration cover-up: “If she isn’t indicted, the only reason is because the Democrats are protecting her. She is being protected 100 percent,” he told Brzezinski.

Trump’s shamelessness and manipulation of the media make him a much tougher foe than Sanders. He’s already brought up Bill Clinton’s treatment of women and contended “Hillary abused those women.” The last thing Hillary wants to do is have to spend a lot of time arguing that she and her husband didn’t mistreat Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, or Juanita Broderick. Bernie Sanders would never “go there”; Trump will go there once a day and twice on Sundays.

#related#What have we seen of Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in 2016? She’s the kind of outsider who has lived in Washington since 1993. The kind of outsider who insists she doesn’t “exemplify the establishment” because she’s “a woman running to be the first woman president.” The kind of “everyday American” who insists she can relate to the financial worries of the middle class, telling tales of being “dead broke” when she left the White House, right around the time she signed an $8-million book deal.

And up against a 74-year-old socialist who relentlessly repeats the same far-left message in grating Brooklynese, Clinton has proven herself slow-footed, clumsy on the attack, unfocused, laughably dishonest, and as quick to blame her staff as ever. Just imagine how she’d fare against the media-fueled Godzilla that is the Trump campaign.

Sure, Trump trails Clinton in most head-to-head polling. But none of Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate are going to disappear once she wins the nomination. If American politics have truly arrived at a populist moment, she’s about the worst standard-bearer Democrats could ask for.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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