Of course it didn’t take long for some of Bernie Sander’s supporters to exclaim with certainty that their candidate would have „easily/certainly/absolutely“ won against Donald Trump.
That is not only an easy thing to say because it can never be tested, it’s also as useless as me saying “if I had been born in America and had run against Donald Trump, I would have won”. But beyond the general problem with counter-factual alternatives, the claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The claim is usually based on one poll from six months ago in a year in which most polls were wrong and in which the level of Trump’s support was consistently under-polled, both in the primaries and in the general election.
It’s like saying that 35 years ago, I was a better football player than Messi (because he wasn’t born yet, and I was), so I assume I would easily beat him.
Bernie Sander’s message
Let’s face it: half the voters opted for a racist, sexist, megalomaniac authoritarian because he’s “anti-Washington”. Do you really think these anti-establishment voters would instead have voted for a long-term congressman who calls himself a “socialist”, who is Jewish and whose signature policy is to make it cheaper for rich Bostonians and Californians to attend Harvard or Yale to study sociology or gender studies? Heck, you really ain’t know nothing about the people who get their news from Breitbart, do you?
Facing a tough campaign
Bernie Sanders was doing well in the primaries because he faced no opposition. Clinton didn’t even run against Sanders. She didn’t attack him because she couldn’t and didn’t need to. She was sure that she’d win the nomination anyway and she wanted to have his voters. So she had to play nice. Ignoring him like the annoying grandfather who talks to much was as far as she could go.
How would that have worked in a general election against Donald Trump? 100% different. Trump would have attacked Sanders head-on. And the press would have started to investigate him, too. Sanders was the most un-checked candidate in the primaries of both parties. First, he was ignored, then people found him cute, and ultimately he was annoying in his fight against mathematics. But at no point was he taken seriously enough for reporters to go back 30 or 40 years and dig out old interviews. He was not even pressed on his random economic numbers which he made up of thin air (which apparently wasn’t a problem with the electorate in this year, I will grant you that).
Sanders would have been so vulnerable like none of the Sanders supporters would want to believe. First, he has a voting record on the local and the national level. There are hundreds of decisions to attack. Trump has zero. Of course Sanders would fight back with all the attacks that Clinton made, but why would they stick this time?
Second, there are all the dirty secrets about Bernie Sanders. Some of them true, some of them not, many in the grey area. You have no idea what I am talking about? Of course not, and that illustrates my point: Bernie Sanders never had to face a candidate who would go low. But you can be sure that Donald Trump would.
For a first idea, here’s an excerpt from a Newsweek article by Kurt Eichenwald, who had a chance to glimpse some of the opposition research compiled on Bernie Sanders by the Trump team:
I have seen the opposition book assembled by Republicans for Sanders, and it was brutal. The Republicans would have torn him apart.
Here are a few tastes of what was in store for Sanders, straight out of the Republican playbook: He thinks rape is A-OK. In 1972, when he was 31, Sanders wrote a fictitious essay in which he described a woman enjoying being raped by three men. Yes, there is an explanation for it—a long, complicated one, just like the one that would make clear why the Clinton emails story was nonsense. And we all know how well that worked out.
Then there’s the fact that Sanders was on unemployment until his mid-30s, and that he stole electricity from a neighbor after failing to pay his bills, and that he co-sponsored a bill to ship Vermont’s nuclear waste to a poor Hispanic community in Texas, where it could be dumped. You can just see the words “environmental racist” on Republican billboards. And if you can’t, I already did. They were in the Republican opposition research book as a proposal on how to frame the nuclear waste issue.
Also on the list: Sanders violated campaign finance laws, criticized Clinton for supporting the 1994 crime bill that he voted for, and he voted against the Amber Alert system. His pitch for universal health care would have been used against him too, since it was tried in his home state of Vermont and collapsed due to excessive costs. Worst of all, the Republicans also had video of Sanders at a 1985 rally thrown by the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua where half a million people chanted, “Here, there, everywhere/the Yankee will die,’’ while President Daniel Ortega condemned “state terrorism” by America. Sanders said, on camera, supporting the Sandinistas was “patriotic.”
The Republicans had at least four other damning Sanders videos (I don’t know what they showed), and the opposition research folder was almost 2-feet thick. (The section calling him a communist with connections to Castro alone would have cost him Florida.) In other words, the belief that Sanders would have walked into the White House based on polls taken before anyone really attacked him is a delusion built on a scaffolding of political ignorance.
And that is only what Republicans gathered until they knew that Sanders wasn’t going to be their opponent. Imagine what else would have come out in the ensuing months, just like old Trump videos and tapes surfaced week after week.
Some people point to the lower turnout among Democrats in 2016 and attribute it to the voters who were allegedly super-hyped about Bernie Sanders, but didn’t want to elect Hillary Clinton.
If you are a Democrat and can’t be bothered to vote in a close election in which the opposing candidate is dangerous and vile, then I doubt that you would stand behind a candidate whose image would be severely tarnished by what I described above all the way through election day.
Talking about election day, I wouldn’t recommend building a political strategy on so-called millennials. I know these people and they are lazy and ineffective. They may be strong on facebooking and instagramming, but they don’t know how to register to vote, they don’t know how, where or when to vote, they will forget it, they will play X-Box too late the night before and they will oversleep. I am not making this up. I am currently in South America where I constantly bump into young Americans, many of them Bernie fans who are now shocked, dismayed and angry. Did they vote? Of course not. Why not? “Can you vote when you are in another country?” Yes, duh. “I don’t know how that works.” “But I told my mom to vote for me.” “I thought I could vote when I get back after the election if it was close.” “But I am very active on Facebook.” And then they roll their next joint or puke over a cup of ayahuasca.
The die-hard Bernie fans also forget that just as the Secretary Clinton of the general election was not the Hillary of the primaries because she had to accommodate Bernie voters, Senator Sanders wouldn’t have been the Bernie of the primaries, but would have needed to accommodate Clinton voters. Just promising guns and drugs and free college wouldn’t have worked all the way to November 8th.
And why should women be excited to vote for Bernie Sanders? If a female candidate cannot win a landslide among women against someone bragging about acts of sexual assault, another old white dude wouldn’t have pulled that off either.
And let’s not forget the Republicans who voted for Hillary Clinton this time. They did so because she was a moderate and respected candidate with experience in government. No big risk there. But do you really believe that Republican ex-Presidents and Secretaries of State – and beyond them the group of like-minded Republican voters – would vote for a “socialist” whose only program is “we need a political revoluuuuution”? I doubt that.
Obviously, Hillary Clinton was not the perfect candidate. But neither was Bernie Sanders.
Maybe people on the left should be realistic and admit that none of them would have had an easy ride against any Republican this year. After all, the only two Democratic presidents in the past 36 years, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, are both exceptionally well-gifted campaigners and orators. Neither Hillary nor Bernie are in that league.
Now, if you want to make the case that Joe Biden could have won, that’s a different story…
(This article also appeared on Medium.)