If he wins the nomination, whether outright or at the Democratic Party convention this summer, Sen. Bernie Sanders will be the most left-wing politician ever nominated for president and the only self-described “socialist” to ever run on the ballot line for either of the two major parties.
Many Democrats, especially moderates, think this is a disaster in waiting. They look back to 1972, when a different left-wing senator, George McGovern of South Dakota, was crushed by Richard Nixon, losing his home state and 48 others. They see a winnable election against a vulnerable incumbent potentially squandered by a candidate with radical views. They think Sanders will not only give Trump a victory, but a decisive one.
This could happen, but it probably won’t. The persistent belief that Sanders is unelectable is unfounded. The evidence says he can win.
The first step to winning is unifying the party, and Sanders can do that. He has a higher favorability rating among Democratic voters than any other candidate. A recent Monmouth University poll gives him a net rating of 53 points (72% favorable to 19% unfavorable) compared with 48 points for Elizabeth Warren and 38 points for former Vice President Joe Biden.
Quinnipiac shows a similar spread, as well as strong ratings from moderate and conservative Democrats. And the vast majority of Democrats, 93%, say they would back Sanders against Trump. As a point of comparison, 88% say the same for Pete Buttigieg.
Sanders also fares well against the president in preliminary matchups. He has led Trump in nearly every poll since the start of 2019 and does better than most other candidates in the crucial swing states, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that delivered Trump the White House. Yes, head-to-head polls aren’t as reliable now as they’ll be in the summer, after the conventions, or in the fall, when the general election starts in earnest. But if, on the strength of the polls, you believe a candidate like Biden can beat Trump, then you should think the same of Sanders.
As for the fear that Sanders would be another McGovern? Hyperpolarization makes that highly unlikely. In today’s political environment, winning either party’s nomination gives you a high electoral floor. If Sanders does lose, he won’t lose big.
The easiest objection to all of this is that Sanders has never been scrutinized like a presidential nominee. What will voters think when they learn he’s a socialist, “democratic” or otherwise? How will they react to footage of Sanders praising Cuba or singing “This Land Is Your Land” while on a honeymoon in the Soviet Union? Sanders has strong personal appeal, but can it survive an onslaught of Republican attacks? Will voters punish him for flying too far from the mainstream?
Again, it’s possible. But it’s also true that the mainstream isn’t as conservative as many believe. Lots of progressive ideas are popular with the public, sometimes incredibly so. And while voters are skeptical of the most expansive proposals, they aren’t reflexively hostile.
There’s something else to consider. In a world where Democrats as moderate as Bill Clinton have been accused of “socialism,” the word has simply lost its punch. Republicans can say it and voters will hear it, but they may not care.
At the end of the day, Sanders is the only candidate who can plausibly unite the anti-Trump majority of the electorate. He’s as popular with people who dislike partisan politics as he is with rank-and-file Democrats. With his forceful attacks on corruption and bigotry, he can speak directly to the concerns about Trump’s character and personality that have alienated moderate suburban whites and helped give Democrats the House of Representatives.
His “independent” persona might alienate people in the Democratic establishment, but it’s a powerful asset for the general election. It makes him a different kind of Democrat, removed from Washington in a way that appeals to much of the public.
That is why Sanders is uniquely electable. Despite his age, he promises a true break with the past.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.