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Can Bernie Beat Trump?

Just as in 2016, the unthinkable is not impossible.
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Democrats and liberal pundits are starting to sound the alarm about the risks associated with nominating Bernie Sanders for president. The septuagenarian socialist senator from Vermont is ahead in the RealClearPolitics polling averages for both Iowa and New Hampshire. If Sanders threatens to take the nomination, there have been persistent rumors that Barack Obama will intervene to stop him. We know how Hillary Clinton feels.

It would be undeniably risky to nominate Sanders. Ideology aside, he is almost 80, recently had a heart attack, is from a small state and has never appeared on a general election ballot as a Democrat before. And you can’t discount ideology—President Donald Trump can credibly run against Sanders as a radical who would threaten the country’s economic gains, massively increase taxes and spending, and abolish private health insurance. It could stop the bleeding in the suburbs that proved so costly to the GOP in the midterm elections and expand Trump’s Electoral College map beyond red states and the Rust Belt.

But I don’t necessarily think it’s a foregone conclusion Sanders would lose. I argued in The National Interest:

There are two paths for the Democrats to win back the White House (assuming, as presently seems reasonable, that President Donald Trump is acquitted by the Senate and remains a candidate for reelection). One is to win back the voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin who cast their ballots for Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012 and then for Trump in 2016. The other is to turn out Democratic voters in those states who did not vote at all in 2016, or who cast their lot with lefty third-party candidates like the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

Sanders might actually be able to do a little of both: turn out Democrats who didn’t vote in the pivotal states in 2016 while also competing for Obama-Trump voters. Sanders could more effectively run on Trump’s failure to fully keep his campaign promises on foreign policy and trade (though he’s had to capitulate on immigration) than Joe Biden or most of the other Democrats running. This populist pitch could win over some Trump 2016 voters while at the same time heightening progressive enthusiasm. And Trump’s fundamentals outside of managing the economy are shaky enough he is not invincible head-to-head.

Does that mean Democrats are wrong to worry about what would happen after the Sanders platform is exposed to a barrage of Trump campaign ads? Barring a recession, of course not. Sanders could have a higher ceiling than Biden, but he also almost certainly has a lower floor. Nevertheless, the political conditions that made Trump’s election possible could do the same for Bernie.

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