How Bernie Sanders could win it all: What it would take for a democratic socialist to become president

Despite what many on both the left and right believe, Sanders has a real shot. But is the risk worth the reward?

By Bob Cesca
Published January 20, 2016 7:55PM (EST)
Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Mary Schwalm)
Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Mary Schwalm)

On Friday night's season premiere of "Real Time With Bill Maher," Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed made it perfectly clear which Democrat he'd prefer as the presidential nominee: Bernie Sanders. Not because Sanders' policies align with Reed's, of course. Simply put: The GOP thinks it can more easily triumph over a crumpled democratic-socialist candidate in the general election.

Indeed, it's not difficult to find Republicans floating this theory. As early as May 2015, the GOP was actively nosing its way into Democratic social media, trolling for a matchup against the senator from Vermont.

Following Sunday night's Democratic debate, Bloomberg's Sahil Kapur reported that GOP operatives were spinning for Bernie Sanders.

After the debate, the Republican political action committee America Rising promoted the narrative that Sanders won the debate. [...]

Meanwhile, American Crossroads, a group co-founded by Karl Rove, is airing an ad in Iowa bolstering a core tenet of Sanders’ case against Clinton: that she has received large sums of campaign contributions from Wall Street, and therefore can’t be trusted to crack down on big banks.

“Hillary rewarded Wall Street with a $700 billion bailout, then Wall Street made her a multi-millionaire,” a narrator in the ad says. “Does Iowa really want Wall Street in the White House?”

Right. Meanwhile, Ted Cruz, who's leading the GOP field in Iowa, is loaded with Wall Street money, and Donald Trump's face is practically a map of lower Manhattan. The New York Times pointed out last year that America Rising, a decidedly conservative PAC, has been attacking Hillary from the left for the better part of a year now, with a "steady stream of posts on social media ... designed to be spotted, and shared, by liberals."

Clearly, this is a classic political "ratfucking" gambit: cleverly infiltrating opposition strongholds and pushing for the primary candidate who's easier to defeat in the general election. As Steve Benen pointed out, Claire McAskill desperately wanted to run against the "legitimate rape" gaffe-machine Todd Akin in the 2012 Senate race in Missouri because he'd make for an easier victory. Her strategy paid off, having defeated Akin by 15 points.

The salient question as Iowa and New Hampshire approach, and especially as Sanders continues to build momentum, is this: Are the Republicans wise to push for Sanders or are they tempting fate? And what would really happen if Bernie Sanders shocks the political world by winning the nomination?

Admittedly, it's been difficult to envision Sanders as a successful general election candidate. The reality of such a course of events runs the entire spectrum of emotions for progressives, from hopeful to terrifying. In terms of Sanders' electability in the general, there are several major hurdles he'll be forced to overcome.

1) Fundraising

As we're all aware by now, Sanders is perhaps the first major presidential contender in the modern era to abandon traditional fundraising, eschewing PACs and large corporate donors, while completely refusing to associate with a super PAC. So far, he's not hurting for cash, but he's only managed to raise half as much money as Clinton. As of this writing, Sanders has accumulated $41 million, while Clinton has raised $97 million. Naturally, there's significant virtue to Sanders' self-policing on campaign finance. But reality, especially in the post-Citizens United era, dictates that money wins elections. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Jeb Bush has raised the most money on the Republican side, and yet his campaign is flailing in the polls. Sanders is achieving the opposite effect: less money, better polls.

Contra-Sanders, we know that Barack Obama raised nearly $1.1 billion to defeat Mitt Romney in 2012. Two questions. 1) Can Sanders raise enough money with small individual donors to compete against the Republican nominee? 2) If Sanders can't compete and begins to fall behind, will he renege on his campaign finance pledge in order to win, thus betraying his grass-roots supporters? And, as a corollary to question No. 2, will those supporters turn against Sanders because of it? Because it's frankly difficult to see Sanders raising more than Obama without backpedaling on his pledge.

Put another way: If every Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, roughly 65 million voters, donated around $17 to Sanders in the 2016 general, he could raise $1.1 billion. And it still might not be enough to win.

2) Democratic socialism

Like it or not, elections are won or lost based on undecided swing voters in purple states. Will those voters break for a 74-year-old (75 by Election Day) Jewish democratic socialist from Vermont? Maybe. After all, voters elected a young African-American unknown whose middle name is "Hussein." Twice. But Obama not only enjoyed enthusiastic support from minority voters (unlike Sanders), but he's also a center-left pragmatist with once-in-a-generation oratory skills. Obama also had the advantage of running with George W. Bush still in office. The direct contrast and the existence of a high-profile villain certainly helped Obama.

Sanders isn't literally a socialist, but he's enough of a socialist to potentially give swing voters the heebie-jeebies. And this is where the Republicans will strike hardest.

One thing we can predict with 100 percent certainty: In addition to other lines of attack, the GOP will deploy every red-baiting hellfire missile in its arsenal against Sanders, and it'll be relentless about it. If the modern Republican Party was able to define a political moderate and decorated Vietnam War veteran, John Kerry, as effete, patrician and a traitor to the United States, imagine what they'll do to Sanders. This is a GOP in which 43 percent of voters still believe Obama is a secret Muslim. Should the Democrats fear this? Hell yes. While the Republicans will attack Clinton with gusto, she's a known quantity. Most voters made up their minds about Clinton years ago. Sanders, on the other hand, is more vulnerable to swift-boating because voters don't know who he is, at least compared to Clinton.

3) Polling and unpredictable news cycles

Sanders and Clinton are currently polling equally as well, give or take, against two of the potential GOP nominees, Trump and Cruz. But it's unclear whether the polls are a reaction in support of the Democrats or against the Republicans. Furthermore, it's unclear whether voters know Sanders well enough to make an educated choice on a vote that isn't scheduled for another 10 months. Polling aside, history has illustrated that transformational candidates like Sanders are usually elected while riding the wave of a major news event and circumstances that coalesce into a perfect political storm. Traditional candidates like Clinton don't often require the same. This makes a Sanders victory more dependent on unpredictable events in order to overcome elements of his candidacy that are really difficult to sell to moderates and undecideds.

All told, there's absolutely a path to victory for Sanders against the Republicans, and his supporters should be encouraged by his recent momentum. The most critical question remains whether Democratic voters are willing to toss a huge roll of the dice on a nontraditional candidate with nontraditional ideas against the Republican machine, especially knowing what's at stake. And, to put it bluntly: Everything is at stake.

This isn't to say Clinton is invincible. As we've witnessed for 25 years, Clinton comes with her own baggage and vulnerabilities, both in terms of scandals and her routine dabbling in questionable political choices. But on the scale of reliability, Hillary Clinton is more electable than Sanders based on historic factors: fundraising, moderate politics and relative polling stability in the face of unfavorable news cycles. A Sanders nomination is high-stakes politics for the Democrats -- super-colossal risks, but potentially big rewards should the stars align. Again, given the harrowing downsides, is the gamble on Sanders wise? I'm personally leaning "no," but we'll learn more in the coming months. Word of caution in the meantime: Beware of Republicans bearing "Feel the Bern" hashtags.

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Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.


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