Forget conventional wisdom — Bernie Sanders is electable

Forget conventional wisdom — Bernie Sanders is electable
© Getty Images

If you watch cable TV news, you no doubt are familiar with one of the bedrock principles that is taken as gospel among the conventional-wisdom faithful: Bernie SandersBernie SandersHow can top Democrats run the economy with no business skill? Biden rallies with John Kerry in early primary states Buttigieg campaign says 2000 people attended Iowa rally MORE is unelectable. This theory requires no questioning or interrogation. It just is — because he’s a democratic socialist or because he talks too loud or because he eats his corndog in a grumpy way

This has been a major theme of attacks on Sanders (I-Vt.) from his Democratic opponents as well. Essentially the argument is: “Well, sure, we’d all love for people not to die for lack of insulin, but voters hate that stuff! You’ll lose for sure if you go around offering up quality education and a livable planet to all who want it.” For example, at the last debate, former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Impeachment enters new crucial phase Bullock drops White House bid, won't run for Senate 2020 hopes rise for gun control groups after Virginia elections MORE, who is so electable he has been polling somewhere around 0 percent, informed viewers that Sanders’ policies are “a disaster at the ballot box” and that we “might as well FedEx the election to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE.” 

This assumption is completely impervious to any data that might contradict it. Glutton for punishment that I am, allow me to introduce additional data that I’m certain everyone will ignore. A recent SurveyUSA poll testing theoretical matchups of Democratic candidates against Trump found two candidates who beat the president — the widely-perceived-as-electable former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden: Buttigieg 'doesn't have significant black support even in his own city' Biden: 'I'd add' Warren to my list of potential VP picks How can top Democrats run the economy with no business skill? MORE and the widely-perceived-as-unelectable Sanders. Biden and Sanders both earned 50 percent to Trump’s 42 percent. No other candidate beat Trump by more than the survey’s margin of error, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBiden: Buttigieg 'doesn't have significant black support even in his own city' Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades Biden rallies with John Kerry in early primary states MORE actually would lose to Trump by a couple of points. Perhaps we should start talking about Buttigieg’s electability problem. 


This survey is unremarkable because it is like nearly every other poll showing Sanders and Biden both could beat Trump. Even an Emerson Poll recently out of Texas — a place where people generally despise socialism, I’m told — showed Biden and Bernie as the two candidates defeating Trump. Now, it’s early and obviously a lot can happen. Biden can continue forgetting his campaign website address and insisting that his campaign is about choosing truth over facts. Many people also are confident that once the masses really get to know Sanders he’s going to drop in the polls. After all, he’s been in public life for only 38 years — has served in the Senate for 12 years and made two runs for President. We barely know him! 

But why is it taken as such an article of faith that Biden is “safe” and Sanders is a guaranteed four more years of Trump? 

In reality, there is quite a bit of evidence suggesting that Sanders is more electable than Biden. First, look at the voters who actually voted for Sanders. His appeal seems to be particularly strong in “blue wall” states that the party must win back. In the 2016 presidential primary, Sanders won Michigan and Wisconsin. Out of 83 counties in Michigan, Sanders won 73. In Wisconsin, he won all but one county. He dominated in Minnesota, the state that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWill the Horowitz report split the baby? Gabbard commemorates John Lennon's passing by singing 'Imagine' Bannon: Clinton waiting to enter 2020 race and 'save the Democratic Party from Michael Bloomberg' MORE narrowly won and one on which the Trump campaign has set its sights. For what it’s worth, in Biden’s 2008 run, he withdrew before getting to these contests. 

Second, Sanders has massive grassroots enthusiasm that outstrips any other campaign. The New York Times recently compiled amazing maps showing where each candidate gets donations. The entire U.S. is saturated with Sanders’ small-dollar donors, so the newspaper produced another map without Sanders just so readers could get some sense of the other candidates’ donations. No amount of fundraiser dollars from the Hamptons can buy this kind of enthusiasm. You either have it or you don’t. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump keeps Obama immigration program, and Democrats blast him The House Judiciary Committee's fundamental choice Teaching black children to read is an act of social justice MORE had it. Donald Trump had it. Bernie Sanders has it. Joe Biden does not. He should discuss with President Hillary Clinton her theory that crowd size doesn’t matter. 

Finally, we’ve got common sense. Many in the media are fixated on who might be able to win back Trump voters. An imaginary factory worker in Michigan drives a lot of the electability conversation. Honestly, even if this were the target voter, Sanders would look pretty good. He consistently outperforms with independents and working-class voters. 


But honestly, think about who Democrats have a better chance at capturing on Election Day: a Trump voter or a young person who leans Democratic but doesn’t often vote. There is no doubt that exciting that young person to go to the polls is the better strategy to pursue. If Democrats want to win, they should engage and turn out their base — exactly the strategy that Trump successfully deployed. 

Incrementalism and aging Obama-nostalgia isn’t going to get a Democrat to the White House in 2020. Political revolution just might. 

Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of “Rising,” Hill.TV’s bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.