Serious questions demand serious answers. To seriously answer the question of whether Bernie Sanders could win the November 2016 election, Sanders supporters must put aside our preferences and partisanship to soberly appraise the likely terrain of the 2016 Electoral College and how Sanders would fit into that context as the Democratic nominee.
Safe and Swing States and Sanders
In the past 6 consecutive presidential races, the Democratic nominee has won 18 states and the District of Colombia for a total of 242 votes in the Electoral College while the Republican nominee has won 13 states for a total of 102 electoral votes. States that vote reliably Democratic (blue states) or Republican (red states) are what’s known in American electoral jargon as “safe states” while the states that could vote in either direction are known as “swing states.”
What does this have to do with Bernie Sanders? It means that in all likelihood he will be able to take 242 electoral votes out of the 270 necessary to win the presidency largely for granted as the Democratic Party nominee.
In blue states, the GOP would have to gain (or conversely, the Democrats would have to lose) 5% or more of the electorate to make these states un-safe, to turn them into swing states. 5% may not sound like a lot in the abstract, but in practice we are talking about millions of voters shifting their political allegiances. For Sanders to lose the safety of safe Democratic states, either millions of new Republican voters would need to come out of the woodwork or millions of Democratic voters would have to defect to the GOP. Neither of these events is terribly likely given how the GOP’s radical-smearing and red-baiting of President Obama completely and utterly failed to either drive up Republican turnout or drive down Democratic turnout in either 2008 or 2012.
So it’s a safe, conservative assumption that Sanders would probably only need 28 electoral votes from swing states to get to 270 if he can win the Democratic nomination. In practice, that means — like Barack Obama before him — Sanders will be campaigning in a dozen states (or less) seeking only 28 electoral votes while the Republican would need to find 168 to get to 270.
Sanders’ Cross-Partisan Appeal
No matter who the Democratic Party standard-bearer is, he or she will enjoy a massive advantage over whomever the Republican nominee is from the start. The ironic thing is that, for all the talk about Sanders being an un-electable long-shot candidate, the fact of the matter is that he would be a much better and more competitive candidate than Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election.
- Hillary Clinton is — like it or not and perhaps through no fault of her own — a polarizing, partisan figure. 74% of Republican voters say there is “no chance” they would vote for her compared to 8% who say there is a “good chance” they would vote for her. The State Department email scandal that caused her favorability and trustworthiness ratings to dip below that of her GOP rivals among independent voters will surely be forgotten by election day 2016, but the fact that even minor bumps in the road for Clinton have a way of escalating into major blow-ups show what an inherently flawed candidate she actually is.
- By contrast, Bernie Sanders — although his democratic socialist brand may seem radical and off-putting to independents and Republicans at first sight — has a proven record of not only winning statistically significant support from people who usually vote Republican but also of beating Republican candidates, incumbents and challengers alike. In his 1996 Congressional re-election campaign, Sanders surprised himself by winning the conservative ward in Burlington’s new north end and in Rutland County, usually the most Republican county in the state. In his 1994 re-election, he gained the support of traditionally Republican small towns and rural areas. To get to Congress in the first place, he had to defeat Republican incumbent Peter Smith who ran vicious attack ads on television featuring Bernie Sanders and Fidel Castro side-by-side. More recently, polls in Vermont show Sanders beating Clinton in the state’s primary among independent and Republican voters (who can vote in the Democratic primary thanks to the state’s open primary system) and among the traditionally conservative south of the state.
Yes We Can… Maybe
None of this is to suggest that Bernie Sanders would have an easy time winning the White House as the Democratic nominee — just the opposite. All the GOP/Fox News dirty tricks that Obama faced would probably be amped up by a factor of 10 or 100 with an actual socialist with an actual chance of becoming president. But Sanders has persevered in the face of such ugly, vicious attacks before and in the end gained victory. His entire political career has been about fighting the good fight and beating what conventional political analysts considered to be insurmountable odds.
The real difficulty for Sanders won’t be the 2016 general election but the primary contest with Clinton. In that fight, Sanders’ advantage over Clinton among independents and Republicans will be all but eliminated and he will be fighting on her turf — the Democratic Party. How that fight might shape up and how it will compare to the Obama-Clinton clash in 2007-2008 will be explored in a future post.