Politics & Policy

Bernie’s Bros Say He Will Boost Turnout to Beat Trump

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Houston, Texas, February 23, 2020. (Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters)
But data show that the nonvoters Sanders seeks to convert could support Trump.

Bernie Sanders has a succinct and biting response to all the establishment Democrats who are freaking out over the prospect of a cranky socialist leading the party into battle this November. They are wrong, he says. Indeed, only he can be the savior of the party.

“The only way that you can beat Trump is by having an unprecedented campaign, an unprecedentedly large voter turnout,” he says. Faiz Shakir, his campaign manager, claims that Sanders has such a great appeal to young people and alienated voters that they “will vote in percentages that they have never voted before.”

That’s just swamp gas, counters James Carville, the now retired Louisiana political consultant who helped engineer Bill Clinton’s 1992 election by summarizing his strategy as “It’s the economy, stupid.” Carville isn’t mincing words when he says that Sanders is peddling a turnout theory akin to a belief in unicorns. “If you’re voting for him because you think he’ll win the election, because he’ll galvanize heretofore sleepy parts of an electorate, then politically, you’re a fool,” he told MSNBC on Saturday as Sanders was sweeping Nevada.

Ruy Teixeira, a voting specialist at the Center for American Progress, agrees. “It is truly magical thinking to believe that, in a highly polarized situation, only your side gets to increase turnout,” he wrote in the Washington Post this month.

Indeed, a new study of non-voters by the Knight Foundation looked at 12,000 “chronic non-voters in America, across the country, and in key battleground states.” They concluded that if they all went to the polls, Democrats would increase their popular-vote margin and lose the Electoral College even more decisively than they did in 2016. Most of the untapped vote in such states as Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and Arizona consists of white voters who have little to no college education. Many like Trump’s blowtorch rhetoric and anti-elitist attitude and are suspicious of left-wing social planners.

Bernie supporters say that all of this is theory; on their side, they cite the 2018 midterm elections, which saw the highest voter turnout of any off-year election since 1914. Democrats gained control of the House by winning 40 seats, and they captured then–GOP governorships in swing states that Trump had carried, including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maine.

But Teixeira says this analysis is electoral fool’s gold. “The overwhelming majority of the Democrats’ improved performance” in the midterms did not come from “fresh turnout of left-of-center voters,” he wrote. Catalist, a respected liberal data center, found instead that 89 percent of the improved performance by Democrats came from Trump voters who switched to their side. But they switched their vote to Democrats not because they favored radical change but because they didn’t like Trump’s “tax cuts for the rich” and attempt to gut Obamacare.

“Sanders’s bouquet of unpopular positions hardly seems likely to help the Democrats make up ground among these voters,” Teixeira concluded.

The problem that establishment Democrats face in making the argument that Sanders would lose to Trump is simple. Bernie’s base of supporters simply can’t bring themselves to accept that their guy’s positions on issues could be less popular than those of Trump The Fascist. “Even if people give credit on the economy to Trump, his personality disorder will draw people to Bernie,” Alice Charters, a New Hampshire Democrat told me this month.

The problem with that is that a lot of Americans think that Bernie Sanders has a personality problem, too. He comes across as an irritable, red-faced scold, waving his arms while he calls for revolution, sort of the crazy uncle of American politics. Trump may come across as the neighborhood bully, but that persona is probably more appealing for many voters as long as they think he will protect their interests.

I am inclined to welcome a matchup between Sanders and Trump, not because I’m enamored of either of them but because the campaign would be fought over an important issue: Should America move rapidly toward socialism? That’s an important debate to have, and in between the name-calling, perhaps the country would render a useful and definitive answer.

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