Saturday, November 12, 2016

What if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee?

As the Democrats form their circular firing squad, here come the inevitable Sanders-would-have-won arguments.  They are based on weak to no evidence, and frequently logically inconsistent.

Let's start with the logical inconsistency.  The standard first argument about Sanders is as follows.  Clinton entered the race as a weak nominee on the basis of her high unfavorable ratings.  It varied over time, but by the end, RCP put her average unfavorable rating 12.6 points higher than her average favorable rating.  Sanders, throughout the primaries, had better net favorables.  So, the argument goes, he would have been a better candidate.

There's a big, glaring logical hole in this argument.  Clinton lost to a candidate with worse ratings.  Trump's unfavorables were 21 points higher than his favorables at the end!  So, why do we think that the candidate with the higher favorable rating will do better?  We shouldn't.  It's just nonsense.

Say it with me again, folks.  Alan Abramowitz was right.  The "Time for a change" predictive model works.

Next, what everyone forgets about Clinton's supposed weakness is that, from around 2009 through 2012, she was more popular than Obama.  By far.  Why?  Once it became clear that Obama had won the nomination in 2008, Republican leaders started speaking nicely about Clinton, hoping to peel off some of her disaffected supporters.  Then, she had a relatively non-partisan role as Secretary of State.  She was widely lauded as Secretary of State, and held in high public regard as a result.  Observe.

That didn't start to change until, say it with me, "Benghazi!!!!!!!"  Remember, you have to pronounce all of those exclamation points.

If unlikability were an intrinsic quality of Clinton, her numbers wouldn't have been so high in 2011.  Rather, this shows that a figure's favorable/unfavorable numbers can be brought higher or lower depending on the level of attack.

Which brings me to Bernie Sanders.  Since this blog hasn't been around that long, I don't have long-time readers, but short-time readers know that I really don't have a shred of respect for Bernie Sanders, and never did.  Let's ignore his favorability numbers throughout the primary since Clinton lost with higher favorability numbers than Trump.  The simple question is this.  Sanders supporters insist, without evidence, that he had some magic juju to withstand negative campaigning.

What would an anti-Sanders campaign look like?

There is one valid point, but it is pure hindsight.  No Comey.  James Comey fucked Hillary Clinton in direct violation of DoJ policy.  There were a lot of other things going on in that campaign, but let's not overlook James Comey.  With Sanders as the nominee, that wouldn't have happened.  However, if you bet against your opponent drawing an inside straight, that's a smart bet, even if it does happen, causing you to lose.  Comey fucked Clinton in violation of DoJ policy, but that's hindsight.

What we do know about campaigns, though, is that ideological extremists are at an electoral disadvantage.  This has been measured over and over and over again.  Basic cite:  Ansolabehere, Snyder & Stewart, American Journal of Political Science 2001.  That's the obvious one, off the top of my head about Congress, but there are too many to list.  If anyone actually requests, I'll put up a full bibliography.  But, it's Saturday morning, and I'm typing off the top of my head.  Sanders is more extreme than Clinton.  Period.  That's measurable and known.

Next, Sanders calls himself a socialist.  Do I really have to explain how that would play in a general election?

And here's the final thing.  Sanders is completely untested as a candidate.  Nobody has ever run a serious, negative campaign against him.  Clinton treated him with the most gentle, kid gloves imaginable.  Why?  Because apparently, she had to treat his supporters as skittish, little woodland animals who could be scared away at the slightest movement.  And if the convention was any indication, she was right.  I'm sure Sanders supporters felt mortally wounded by any marginally negative comment Clinton ever made during the course of the primary, but compare whatever such comments may have been to what Trump said about Clinton.  Be serious.  Sanders has never been subjected to a real, negative campaign.  And yet, Sanders supporters somehow insist that he possesses some magic juju that makes him immune to negative campaigning, and whatever Trump would have said about him would have bounced off of his magic hippy armor in a puff of flowery pot smoke and spread love and peace to the world.

So, I've got this pile of dry tinder.  It cannot bern.  I mean, burn.  No matter how hard you try, it will never be set aflame.  How can you tell?  Well, look!  It's not on fire!  Observe the total lack of flaminess!  What?  Have I ever tried to light it on fire?  NOOOOO!  Don't you DAAARE threaten my precious pile of dry tinder!!!!  But it's immune to fire!  So, when walking into a burning building, spread it all over yourself, and you'll be safe!  See, cuz it's magic and immune to fire, which you can tell, cuz it's not on fire!

So, to sum up:  Sanders' favorability ratings meant very little because a) favorability ratings are fleeting and subject to political pressure, b) the candidate with the higher favorability ratings lost, c) Sanders had never been tested in a campaign, d) he was more ideologically extreme, making him weaker, e) the "socialist" label is plenty of ammunition outside the context of a Democratic primary, and f) the inability of the Sanders supporters to handle criticism of Sanders might undo the candidacy anyway.

Is there historical precedence for a Trump candidacy?  Nope.  What about Sanders?  Yup.  McGovern.  Dude lost to Nixon, who is probably the closest analog to Trump, in a landslide.


  1. To be fair to their argument, they argue that he did better precisely among the types of people Clinton lost.

    To be fair to logic generally, they ignore the fact that Clinton got lower turnout from urban centers and minorities...and those groups had FAVORED her in the primaries, so thinking they would have shown up for Sanders is....interesting.

    1. And to be fair to political science, we're talking about primary voters, who are Democrats, or at least leaners, and that's the same thing. To say that Clinton lost a group of voters to Sanders is not to say that only Sanders could retain them in the general. Clinton actually tried that same nonsense in 2008 against Obama, as I'm sure you recall, though...