Can Bernie win? Absolutely — and I don't even support him

Cable news has gone full Debbie Downer on Bernie's prospects in November. That's utter nonsense, and here's why

Published February 25, 2020 8:00AM (EST)

Bernie Sanders VS Chris Matthews and Jonathan Chait (Getty Images/Salon)
Bernie Sanders VS Chris Matthews and Jonathan Chait (Getty Images/Salon)

I'm definitely going to catch hell in buckets on social media, but here it is: Bernie Sanders can absolutely defeat Donald Trump in November. I might be the only non-Bernie supporter saying it, but there it is. 

There's no doubt Bernie is now the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and poll averages are showing additional victories in the coming weeks. Consequently, the shovel fights online and on cable news now revolve around whether Bernie can beat Trump, with an emerging conventional wisdom indicating that Bernie would mean suicide for the Democrats and an easily winnable second term for Trump. I believe, with some exceptions, that this embryonic Debbie Downer conventional wisdom is wrong.

Before we dig in, here are several caveats, given the emotional intensity of the primary season.

First, I'm not a Bernie supporter. In fact, I've been openly critical of his campaign when deserved. Same goes for the entire field. In fact, I've deliberately refused to endorse any of the Democrats in this Thunderdome competition for a variety of personal and professional reasons. So, no, my analysis at this very early stage has nothing to do with any (nonexistent) loyalty to Bernie, nor is this indicative of any perceived disloyalty to his primary opponents.

Second, "Don't get happy" is my mandatory rule for yet another election cycle, and there's a very real chance that Trump will be re-elected, irrespective of who the Democratic nominee ends up being. So the question of "will Bernie win?" remains a colossal and terrifying unknown. But can he? Yes, and here's why.

The Bitecofer model

My argument for Bernie's electability begins with political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and a professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. (Paul Rosenberg interviewed her last year for Salon.) Her model for the 2018 election accurately predicted the Democratic Party's House-capturing 41-seat wave with greater precision than the other forecasters, including Nate Silver. (She forecasted a net 42-seat pick-up.)

Essentially, Bitecofer says the candidate isn't nearly as important as voter turnout and the strength of "negative partisanship." Simply put, national elections aren't decided by issues, legislative records or many of the old school measures of electoral success. In the post-2016 era, elections are won or lost based on energy — the determination of voters to punish (or "own") the other side. Turnout and the will to inflict pain on the enemy at the ballot box is how elections are decided now. I don't love the sentiment, but I don't disagree that it exists. 

In this respect, Bitecofer's 2020 model says the Democratic Party, including its presidential nominee, is poised to defeat the Trump-Republican machine in November, including pickups in the House, and perhaps even a Democratic majority in the Senate. (The Senate map is favorable to the Democrats anyway, given that they only have to defend a handful of seats compared with a couple dozen seats for the Republicans to retain.)

Bitecofer told Politico that the old models too heavily rely upon the "swing voters" theory — the idea that elections are won or lost based on those insufferably fickle undecideds, around 15 percent of likely voters. She calls this the "Chuck Todd theory of American politics." In 2016, for instance, Hillary Clinton built her campaign around those old models, the old assumptions, while the Red Hat cult was gathering energy on its own (with outside help, of course). 

Today, the winning bet is on the side that's motivated to punish Donald Trump and his disciples. But I repeat: Don't get happy. Bitecofer also warns that a major event, a "shock to the system," could change those fortunes, but all things being as they are today, and if Bitecofer is right, it looks like we could have a new president a year from now.

Bernie has big-crowd energy

Bernie Sanders seems to possess the greatest amount of movement-level energy in the field. That's not to say Pete Buttigieg's or Elizabeth Warren's supporters aren't energized, it's just that Bernie's people are notoriously turbocharged, and have been since enduring crushing disappointment in the final days of the 2016 primaries. I'll say this: Bernie's campaign energy far exceeds Joe Biden's or Mike Bloomberg's, and in this new paradigm, that distinction matters.

I used to believe that yard signs and crowd sizes weren't strong indicators of electoral success. In the social media age, however, crowd sizes generate a "fear of missing out" energy that tends to be contagious. People want to be part of that energy, and it can build into actual electoral momentum.

Suffice it to say, if Sanders ends up being the nominee, Democrats won't have to worry about small, intimate crowds contrasted against Trump's psychotic cult-and-cosplay rallies. On the contrary, Bernie will be filling arenas and generating enthusiasm wherever he goes. Again, other Democrats have that potential, too, but we've seen Bernie do it before, a lot, and he'll do it again.

He can win the notorious three

As for Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, remember that around 70,000 votes separated Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump across those three states last time. Not only does Bitecofer's model show the Democratic nominee recapturing those states for the blue column this year, regardless of the nominee, but Bernie's voters won't flock to third-party spoilers like Jill Stein if he's the nominee, and they certainly won't vote for Trump. Duh. 

But let's put aside Bitecofer's model and look strictly at the numbers. In 2016, Trump won that Rust Belt trifecta by less than 1 percent of the popular vote: a 10,000-vote margin in Michigan, 22,000 votes in Wisconsin and about 44,000 in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, around 51,000 Bernie Sanders primary supporters flipped and voted for Trump in Wisconsin; around 47,000 Sanders voters went for Trump in Michigan; and a whopping 116,000 more in Pennsylvania. We're talking about election-altering margins. That won't happen this time. I would caution Democrats not to decide based exclusively on the Bernie-or-bust threat, but that doesn't make it less real.

Socialism shmocialism

The basis for the emerging neener-neener "Bernie's-gonna-lose" conventional wisdom is based on his admitted democratic socialist ideology — and the idea that Bernie will scare the piss out of white rural voters. 

To be clear: Bernie won't scare them. Republicans will scare them by lying about what Bernie believes. 

The socialism thing, at the end of the day, has less to do with Sanders' platform and more to do with ratf**ker Republicans, especially Trump and his fanboys on Fox News, making up stupid crap. Bernie's brand of democratic socialism is no worse than progressive taxation and Medicare, both of which we already have, along with a robust social safety net not unlike the one that pulled us out of the Great Depression and helped build the middle class during the postwar baby boom.

Besides, remember the months after Barack Obama's inauguration? Glenn Beck and the entire conservative entertainment complex lost its bug-eyed shpadoinkle, accusing Obama of being the new Stalin-meets-Hitler (somehow). It was a mini-Red Scare, with Obama and his economic team being labeled with all varieties of Cold War-era nicknames and awkward portmanteaus, none of which actually made sense. 

Why? Because Obama wanted to pass a stimulus package as the economy melted down around him — a stimulus, by the way, that included the largest middle-class tax cut in history. Deficits were too high for that kind of spending, they screamed as they scribbled like maniacs on their chalkboards of doom. (Obama cut the deficit from $1.4 trillion to $500 billion. Trump has driven the deficit back up to $1 trillion.) Yet the Obama stimulus launched the current 10-year recovery, a fact the Republicans still won't concede, even while they falsely credit Trump for creating it.

The point, which is also being made by former Reagan-era Treasury official Bruce Bartlett, is that no matter who the Democratic nominee is, he or she will be framed as a commie pinko fascist, as if something like that could even exist. Avoiding Bernie like the coronavirus because his policy platform is slightly to the left of the other candidates is a pointless exercise, given how dishonestly the Republicans will play the socialism card. 

Bernie, though, has a solid and well-rehearsed defense of his position, which we observed during last week's Nevada debate when he flame-throwered Mike Bloomberg's face about how we have socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else. And he was right. Bernie says he wants to reverse all that for a change, and while I don't necessarily buy into his plans for doing it, I agree that the super-wealthy are, in fact, the largest beneficiaries of socialism in America, and a course correction is inevitable. (Also worth mentioning: Every economics textbook will tell you that the United States isn't exclusively a capitalist economy. We're what's known as a mixed economy, with elements of capitalism and obvious socialism in there, too.)

The Authenticity Factor

I've also observed Bernie, during a Chris Hayes town hall back in 2017, explain health care, the climate crisis and income equality to a Trump supporter — a West Virginia Trump supporter. And it worked. 

In the new paradigm, authenticity rules the day, and Bernie, more than most, comes off as authentic, complete with crumpled suits and freeform hair. We might not agree with everything he says, and we might be turned off by his "bro" supporters, but one thing we can't say is that he's bullshitting people. Well, on some level, all politicians are bullshitters, but compared with many of them, Bernie doesn't seem like one, and that's important, especially in those aforementioned states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. 

Fence-sitters swung over to Trump in part because they believed (falsely) that Trump says what he means and that Hillary Clinton was inauthentic. Trump's not genuinely authentic, of course, but for all his faults, he's good at adopting the mannerisms of his misinformed, bigoted and aggrieved Fox News-viewing fanboys. 

Bernie Sanders, likewise, can walk into Midwestern diners and factories and believably speak to the economic anxiety of American workers and make it stick, especially in those areas where Trump's inexplicable trade war has hurled manufacturing into a recession, while farmers are filing bankruptcies with greater frequency.

How Bernie could lose it anyway

The point here isn't to contradict my entire electability argument, but I will say that Bernie could lose. And the best way for him to lose is to refuse to be inclusive, to refuse to reach out to the center and center-left. 

It's an understatement that Bernie can be excessively prickly toward party leadership, "the establishment," and more than a little stubborn when faced with compromise. Demographically speaking, Bernie has a serious problem with white college-educated women, many of whom are former Hillary Clinton supporters who were routinely accosted online by sexist "bros" during the 2016 election and following it. Women and center-left liberals are two groups that he'll have to welcome into his coalition. If he doesn't, it's going to be a painful summer and a nightmarish autumn.

Bernie also has a Russia problem, as well as a transparency problem, collectively forming a minor Trumpism problem. In order to erase the Russia linkage from his ledger, he'll need to continue to emphasize a tough-on-Putin posture; he'll need to emphasize a strong policy toward Moscow, specifically how he'll fight back against the Kremlin's attacks here and elsewhere; and he'll have to lay it all out in writing. It can't just be a throwaway parenthetical, either, before pivoting back to taxes or health care. Likewise, he'll have to release his medical records, not just doctor's letters. 

And it couldn't hurt for him to make a pledge of non-interference should his would-be attorney general choose to prosecute former President Donald Trump. 

A double somersault

Esquire's Charlie Pierce had some good advice the other day on MSNBC, directed at anyone who's crapping their cage over the prospect of Bernie losing to Trump. 

Pierce's pep talk was pegged off Ulysses S. Grant's famous rant to his generals prior to his 1864 "Overland" campaign, facing Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. After hearing all kinds of panicked scaremongering about Lee's next move, Grant lost his temper with his commanders and barked: Bobby Lee this, Bobby Lee that, you'd think he's about to do a double somersault and land in our rear and on both our flanks at the same time. Stop worrying about what Bobby Lee's going to do to us, and start worrying about what we're going to do to him. (I'm paraphrasing slightly.)

Replace "Bobby Lee" with "Donald Trump" and the advice is perfect. Trump's been impeached for trying to cheat in the election. He's told nearly 17,000 lies since inauguration day. He's engaged in — gasp! — socialism himself by subsidizing factory farms to make up for his trade war of choice, and by (dubiously) defending both Social Security and Medicare during his State of the Union remarks. He's exploiting the federal government, especially the Justice Department, to serve as political operatives and to help cover up his crimes. He signed hush-money checks to a porn star while sitting in the White House. He defended the Nazi protesters in Charlottesville. He's caged children after ripping them away from their parents. And he's easily the least presidential president ever, a laughing stock here and elsewhere. The list goes on and on. If we can't electorally humiliate this small, whiny tyrant, there's something far more grotesquely wrong with America than a possible nominee who thinks we should try to fix the climate crisis.

The best way for Trump to win is through defeatism metastasizing into an actual defeat. Defeatism leads to reduced energy which will lead to a second Trump term. Rachel Bitecofer's model directly addresses this: "If the nominee hails from the progressive wing of the party, it will provoke massive hand-wringing both within the party and the media that if not controlled could become self-reinforcing." She added, however, "We will not see a divided Democratic Party in 2020."

I hope she's right, and so say us all. There are still dozens of primaries and caucuses ahead of us, and myriad unpredictable events, good and bad, that will impact the election. This isn't an endorsement of Bernie Sanders by any stretch, but it's definitely a let's-all-calm-down-and-think moment. At this stage in the contest, any one of the top-tier candidates has a solid shot at defeating Trump, but Bernie's closer to being the one who has to do it. I believe he can. 

That being the case, don't get happy. War faces, Democrats.

By 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.