Bernie Sanders tries threading the needle: Can he win white working class voters and boost his appeal to minorities?

Sanders is making a risky bet. But a candidate who's confounded expectations already may yet do so again

Published October 6, 2015 4:15PM (EDT)

Dave Weigel had an interesting piece at the Washington Post on Monday examining the opportunity Bernie Sanders has to win white working-class voters over Hillary Clinton in the upcoming Democratic primaries.  Weigel reported from West Virginia, where in 2008, 69 percent of the white Democratic voters chose Clinton over Barack Obama. (Weigel’s piece doesn’t touch on one obvious possible reason for such a large victory margin, but it still might be an issue in 2016 for reasons we’ll get into.)

Basically, the theory goes like this: Sanders’s argument for economic justice and equality might just resonate loudly enough with rural working-class whites that they will be willing to overlook areas where they disagree with the Vermont socialist, such as on climate change and gay marriage. That West Virginia voters might go for such a leftist message is especially surprising in a state that elected Democrat Joe Manchin to the Senate in 2010 largely on the basis of his conservative positions on gun rights, Obamacare, and promising to (literally) put a bullet in the cap-and-trade legislation then being debated in Congress, a particularly popular message in the coal-happy state.

The reasons for this shift are varied. For one, Sanders is strongly pro-union, an important benchmark for West Virginia’s numerous coal miners. For another, they are receptive to his calls for a living wage, for protecting Social Security and miners’ pensions, and for restricting the size of the big banks. His position on gun rights, meanwhile, is much more moderate to conservative than Clinton and could help him in rural states.

At least one voter Weigel spoke to made clear that Clinton hurt herself with voters with “all that secretive stuff,” i.e. the ongoing controversy over her emails. And given the antipathy towards Barack Obama, particularly over his environmental regulations that have given Republicans a handy “War on Coal” talking point, her close association with his administration probably hurts Clinton as well.

Finally, there is this: the Democratic Party of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is a more diverse, non-white party than it was eight years ago. African-Americans voted for Obama at a rate of around 95 percent in 2008 and 2012. Latinos have more political power than ten years ago, particularly with the issue of illegal immigration looming large with the electorate. With some of the fearmongering conservatives have done around the issue of police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a significant number of white voters who will stay away from any candidate associated closely with the Democratic Party over the same old bogeyman of race and law and order. And a significant number of non-white voters looking for a candidate who will be a vocal champion for more fairness in policing and racial equality, among other issues.

In a way, Sanders is trying to appeal to the descendants of the Reagan Democrats, that fabled coterie that helped Ronald Reagan defeat Jimmy Carter in 1980. Like today’s coal miners, Reagan Democrats were blue-collar, hardhat-wearing, working class white people who responded to the Great Communicator’s message of economic optimism, even while they remained wary or even downright hostile to immigrants and minorities. Sanders seems to be betting that these folks have recognized that Reagan’s trickle-down economics were a gold-plated Buddha that, forty years later, have left America’s middle and working classes worse off economically. His campaign is aimed at getting them to set aside their conservatism on social issues to embrace a more liberal economics.

Interestingly, Ted Cruz has also based part of his campaign on appealing to the Reagan Democrats he believes have disappeared from the last two elections. (Weigel mentions Cruz’s courting of evangelicals, and there is likely a fair amount of overlap.) But Cruz is emphasizing social issues and speaks in more nebulous terms about economics that repeal everything Obama has ever passed and unlock freedom or whatever. Sanders is much more specific and has shown he understands well the economic fears gnawing at these voters.

I have written before that I think Sanders needs to do a stronger job speaking about reproductive justice, and Weigel cites a BLM activist’s dismissal of his tendency to bring every issue back to the “sediment of economics and class.” It will be interesting to see if he can walk what right now looks like a very narrow line, pushing his solutions for economic inequality while also holding together a coalition of voters that could easily fracture over social issues. And if he can do that, how long can he hold that coalition together while smoothing over its polarized differences.

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By Gary Legum

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