Democrats' destructive Bernie Sanders myth: Stop saying he can't win!

Polls show Dems don't think Sanders can win the nomination -- or the general. That's a mistake

By Sean Illing

Published October 21, 2015 4:07PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Joshua Roberts/AP/Jae C. Hong/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Joshua Roberts/AP/Jae C. Hong/Photo montage by Salon)

As the Democratic presidential race heats up, we’re going to hear more and more about how unelectable Bernie Sanders is. And that’s not entirely unfair. It’s true that Sanders has exceeded expectations so far, particularly in terms of fundraising. And in places like New Hampshire, Sanders is either leading Clinton or it’s a virtual tie.

But even Democrats remain skeptical of Bernie’s chances. The latest Washington Post-ABC poll shows that Democrats, including those who support Sanders, don’t believe he can win the party’s nomination, much less a general election. Chris Cillizza summarized the results well yesterday:

Asked who they thought would win – no matter which candidate they supported – only one in 10 Democrats (11 percent) named Sanders. By contrast, 65 percent chose Clinton and 14 percent opted for Joe Biden – even though he’s not actually running just yet. Isolate just self-described liberals – who comprise Sanders’s base – in that same poll and the result doesn’t change much; 67 percent name Clinton as the party’s most likely nominee while 13 percent chose Sanders and 12 percent Biden. Take Biden out of the equation and the numbers are even more stark: nearly three in four (73 percent) of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say that Clinton will be their nominee while just 21 percent choose Sanders.

These are not encouraging numbers if you’re a Sanders supporter. It seems that many of the liberals and progressives campaigning for Sanders are doing so out of protest, a kind of symbolic rejection of Clinton’s inevitability. But if these numbers are even remotely true, then most of these people know – or perhaps believe – that the Sanders experiment is destined for failure.

If this is the case, that’s unfortunate. If Sanders doesn’t win the Democratic nomination, it will be because Democratic voters decided he couldn’t. Clinton is only inevitable if Democrats believe she is. No matter what the talking heads say, in the end it’s the votes – and the voters – that matter.

It will be interesting to see how many Democrats vote for Clinton only because they don’t think Sanders can win. As Cilliza notes, it’s clear that many Democrats like Sanders and would be happy if he won; they simply don’t believe he can. That belief may be enough to gift Clinton the Democratic nomination.

Clinton will probably make a stronger general election candidate than many believe, especially in light of her competition. However, a Sanders general election campaign would be a fascinating test of the proposition that Democrats would do much better if they owned their progressivism, something Clinton is unlikely to do.

I’ve long believed that Democrats have a branding problem, not an issue problem. On practically every issue that really matters to the middle class – from income inequality to health care to student debt to wage increases to campaign finance – the Democrats are on the right side. Republicans are more skilled at politics and rhetorical diversions, and so they manage to obscure the differences between the parties. Sanders, however, cuts through that like no other candidate I’ve seen in recent years, including Clinton and Obama and every other prominent Democrat.

Sanders is making a big mistake when he self-identifies as a “socialist” because that’s not really what he is – at least not in the classical sense. He’s a populist supporting a social democratic system grounded in capitalism, as a recent New York Times piece argues. While there’s no doubt Republicans would have a field day in a general election labeling Sanders a “socialist,” the fact is that Sanders would still speak directly to the issues progressives and liberals most care about.

It would be extraordinarily difficult for Sanders to win the presidency - there's no way to avoid that conclusion. But it's not as preposterous as many assume. There’s no way to know how the rest of the country would respond to Sanders’ message, but, according to the latest Real Clear Politics poll averages, Sanders performs about the same (or even better) against Republican candidates like Trump and Bush than Clinton does - although it's worth noting that this is before Republicans have had time to pummel Sanders with malicious ads. Do these very early polls mean Sanders is more likely to win a general election than Clinton? No. But it ought to undercut the narrative that Sanders can’t win a general election.

Democrats would do well to at least consider this before voting one way or the other. If you support Clinton, vote for Clinton. If you support Sanders, however, don’t vote for someone else because you think he can’t win. We don’t know if that’s true or not, but believing it is will make it all the more likely.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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2016 Democratic Primary 2016 Elections Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton