Bernie Sanders warned Democrats he could beat Donald Trump; party sabotaged him anyway

In retrospect, it looks like the Democratic Party deliberately destroyed its best chance of defeating Donald Trump

Published November 10, 2016 8:15PM (EST)

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Lucas Jackson/Mark Kauzlarich)
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Lucas Jackson/Mark Kauzlarich)

The Democratic Party destroyed its best chance at defeating Donald Trump.

The Republican billionaire, who ran an overtly racist, extreme right-wing campaign, defeated Hillary Clinton in a massive political surprise this week, apparently losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College tally.

This upset could likely have been avoided, however. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton's insurgent left-wing opponent during the primaries, repeatedly warned voters and the Democratic establishment that he had a greater chance of defeating Trump.

"Bernie Sanders continues to be the strongest candidate in the race to keep Donald Trump out of the White House," his campaign stressed in a May press release. Polling done that month by a variety of news outlets and firms consistently found that Sanders had a double-digit percentage point lead over Trump, with Sanders' average margin over the Republican being three times larger than Clinton's average lead of 3.3 percent.

Experts said Sanders' sizable lead over Trump was largely due to his popularity among independents and young voters, two groups with whom Clinton did not do nearly as well.

Sanders pollster Ben Tulchin noted at the time that the Vermont senator's overwhelmingly "positive profile stands in stark contrast to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who are both deeply unpopular."

Of the three major-party presidential candidates who remained in the race at that time, Sanders was the only one with a net positive favorability rating. Clinton had a net favorability rating of negative 21 percent and Trump's was negative 29 percent.

In fact, Trump and Clinton were the least popular presidential candidates in the history of the United States. An August ABC News/Washington Post poll found that Trump had a 63 percent unfavorability rating among U.S. adults, with Clinton following closely behind at 56 percent — amounting to record-breaking levels of dislike and distrust.

Sanders, by contrast, is the most popular major political figure in the U.S., according to an October report. The popularity of the longtime independent Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist skyrocketed throughout his campaign, which mobilized millions of people and launched a massive grassroots movement.

A humorous July poll showed that Trump and Clinton were more disliked by millennials than Lord Voldemort, the villain from the "Harry Potter" fictional universe. Trump had a net favorability rating of a staggering negative 53 percent, with Clinton's at negative 32 percent, whereas Sanders had a positive net favorability of 34 percent. (The question about Voldemort was inspired by a previous poll, conducted by The Washington Post in June 2015, which also found that Sanders was the only major political figure with a positive net favorability rating.)

For months, poll after poll indicated that Sanders led Trump, in a hypothetical general election matchup, by wider margins than Clinton did. Whether Sanders would actually have beaten Trump is of course impossible to say for sure, but his chances were much higher than those of Clinton, who did not lose by much.

Even Trump recognized that Sanders was a bigger threat. In May, he tweeted, "I would rather run against Crooked Hillary Clinton than Bernie Sanders and that will happen because the books are cooked against Bernie!"

In a March primary debate against Clinton, Sanders said, "I would love to run against Donald Trump, and I’ll tell you why. For a start . . . almost every poll has shown that Sanders versus Trump does a lot better than Clinton versus Trump."

Polls did show that Clinton could beat Trump, "but not by so much," Sanders emphasized. "And, that’s true nationally, and in many other states," he said.

"The other reason I think we can beat Trump is that our campaign is generating an enormous amount of excitement," Sanders continued. "I think we are exciting working-class people, young people who are prepared to stand up and demand that we have a government that represents all of us."

Clinton's campaign was never able to generate anywhere near that level of  excitement. Unlike Obama, who ran on promises of "hope and change," Clinton's entire campaign was based on opposing Trump. The vast majority of people who voted for her said they did so to oppose the bigoted billionaire.

Crucially, Clinton lost in key battleground states like Wisconsin and Michigan, where Sanders won the Democratic primaries. These are areas that have been heavily hurt by neoliberal economic policies and trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement — which have led to outsourcing, deindustrialization and rising unemployment and poverty and that were strongly promoted by Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill, the former president. Winning those two states plus one other typically Democratic state that Trump carried such as Ohio or Pennsylvania, would have provided a majority in the Electoral College vote.

Yet Democratic turnout dropped in the 2016 general election: Roughly 7 million fewer Democrats voted than in 2012's. Despite all the media attention devoted to the Clinton campaign's "ground game," the Democratic Party simply failed to mobilize its base of voters and lost to the least popular presidential candidate ever.

Overall voter turnout in the election was also quite low, likely reflecting widespread dislike of the candidates. Nearly half of eligible voters, 47 percent, did not vote in the election. Clinton and Trump each attracted about 25 percent of the eligible electorate in a closely divided election.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that the Democratic Party that chose to nominate the second-least popular presidential candidate ever — a Wall Street-backed neoliberal millionaire whose foreign-policy views were even more hawkish than those of her Republican rivals — had previously systematically undermined its best chance to defeat Trump.

Internal emails from the Democratic National Committee, released by the whistleblowing journalism organization WikiLeaks, show that the Democratic Party sabotaged Sanders’ campaign on behalf of Clinton.

The DNC is supposed to be bound to impartiality, but clearly favored Clinton from the beginning. In an ensuing scandal after the leaks, four top DNC officials were pressured to resign, including chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a former co-chair for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. Mere minutes after Schultz resigned from the DNC, the 2016 Clinton campaign hired her.

An internal campaign email released by WikiLeaks also demonstrates how the Hillary Clinton campaign and DNC intentionally fueled the rise of Trump, helping to create the far-right Frankenstein monster that defeated her.

Even after the Democratic Party betrayed him and undermined his campaign, Sanders, fearing a potential Trump presidency, endorsed Clinton and campaigned for her, alienating many of his supporters.

Yet Sanders also spoke out and warned that the Democratic Party was on the path to disaster. When the U.K. surprisingly voted in June to leave the European Union, in the so-called Brexit vote, Sanders penned an op-ed in The New York Times titled "Democrats Need to Wake Up."

"Surprise, surprise," Sanders began the article. "Workers in Britain, many of whom have seen a decline in their standard of living while the very rich in their country have become much richer, have turned their backs on the European Union and a globalized economy that is failing them and their children."

He warned that the growing levels of massive inequality — in a world where the richest 62 individuals own as much wealth as the poorest half of the entire planet’s population and where the top 1 percent own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent — are fueling far-right, fascistic politics.

"The notion that Donald Trump could benefit from the same forces that gave the Leave proponents a majority in Britain should sound an alarm for the Democratic Party in the United States," Sanders wrote. "Millions of American voters, like the Leave supporters, are understandably angry and frustrated by the economic forces that are destroying the middle class.

"The global economy is not working for the majority of people in our country and the world," he warned. "We must create national and global economies that work for all, not just a handful of billionaires."

Sanders' words fell on deaf ears. Leaked emails from WikiLeaks showed that, in her private speeches to the financial sector, for which she was paid millions of dollars, Hillary Clinton said she "represented" and "had great relations" with Wall Street.

Trump exploited dissatisfaction and anger at the establishment, distracting from the root causes of problems and misdirecting that rage toward refugees, migrants, Muslims and people of color through demagogic scapegoating.

Exit polls showed that a whopping 74 percent of voters who said they were angry at the government chose Trump, with just 17 percent voting for Clinton.

USA Today found that 76 percent of voters who said their financial situation is worse off today than it was four years ago backed Trump, with just 19 percent behind Clinton. The inverse was also true; 72 percent of voters who said their financial situation is better off today supported Clinton, while 22 percent voted for Trump.

Decades of neoliberal economic policies and trade deals, started under President Ronald Reagan and continued under presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have led to job loss and immiseration, fueling the racism behind both Trump's campaign and the Brexit vote. Sanders was able to tap into this anger and responded to it with left-wing policy solutions. Trump, on the other hand, took advantage of that same outrage and diverted it toward bigotry, xenophobia and jingoism.

The media certainly helped, too. Major news outlets paid little attention to Sanders' campaign, even when he was winning primary after primary, while they gave billions of dollars of free media coverage to Trump. CBS CEO Les Moonves declared that Trump's candidacy "may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS."

But above all, it was the Democratic Party that destroyed its chances of defeating Trump. He will take office as our 45th president in January.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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