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Hillary’s more electable than Bernie — or is she?

The conventional wisdom is that Hillary Clinton is electable and Bernie Sanders is not, but there’s a lack of hard evidence to make the case.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking during the Jan. 17 debate in Charleston, S.C.
REUTERS/Randall Hill

If you are a Democrat, have you made your mind up whether you would rather see Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders as the Dem nominee for president?

I haven’t. Of course, I’m a mere Minnesotan, not a mighty Iowan or New Hampshirite. So what I think might not matter much. But I try to be a thoughtful voter. So I think about it often. Lately, every day.

My dilemma is the electability riddle. A lot of people apparently don’t think it’s a riddle. They think Clinton is the more electable one. And I sort of understand why they think so. But I’m troubled by the lack of hard evidence.

Right now, in the latest trial-heat polls I can find matching the top Dem contenders against the top Repubs, Sanders does a little better than Clinton. You certainly can’t take that to the bank, and the difference isn’t much.

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Personally, on almost every policy issue where Clinton and Sanders disagree, I favor Sanders’ position (which, in almost every instance, is the more progressive). Single-payer health care. Robin Hood tax policies. Free tuition at public colleges and universities. I also appreciate that, on foreign and especially Mideast issues, Sanders’ approach seems to be less likely to get us into another war.

But to state the obvious: At least in the current situation in Congress, none of Sanders’ ideas that would require congressional action have much chance of being adopted. The same could be said for most of Clinton’s policy proposals.

As long as the Republicans control either house of Congress and perhaps even if they controlled only enough of the Senate to sustain a filibuster, Bernie’s $15-an-hour minimum-wage plan and Hillary’s $12-an-hour proposal are non-starters. So are most of their other ideas that would require legislation. The United States will not adopt Bernie’s single-payer health care system, nor will many of Hillary’s ideas for expanding the reach of the Affordable Care Act be enacted by a Republican-controlled Congress that is sworn to repeal Obamacare.

If there are any vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court, either of the Democrats will nominate justices who will uphold the Affordable Care Act, will vote against the continuation of the Citizens United regime and will protect the basic ruling in Roe v. Wade. (The question in my mind in the future-Supremes-area is whether one or both parties will soon adopt a strategy of filibusters so that new justices with the “wrong” leanings will simply not be confirmed and we will experience some long vacancies until one party controls both the Oval Office and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.)

As you are perhaps aware, the great future-knowers of the punditocracy believe that the Dems have a chance of regaining a Senate majority this year, but no chance of taking over the House. If the Repubs still control both houses next year, the top priority for any voter with a liberal Democratic bone in his body should be to retain Democratic control of the veto pen. And that, of course, is why the electability of the Dem presidential nominee should count more heavily in one’s thinking than single-payer-versus-expanded-Obamacare and most other differences in policy preferences between Sanders and Clinton.

Conventional wisdom

So who’s the more electable candidate? The conventional wisdom is — and always has been — that Clinton is electable and Sanders is not.

But, as I mentioned above, the most recent polling points the other way. Looking at a few recent polls is in no way a reliable guide to this question. The polls have bounced around and will continue to do so. Polls do not predict the future. They don’t even always predict the present accurately. But if you are trying to figure out the electability question, how can they be ignored? And the comparisons are generally good for Sanders.

Real Clear Politics aggregates a lot of polls and then for each matchup, averages the three most recent ones. I’ll rely on that for a relatively recent comparison, but many of the head-to-head matchup polls are pretty old. I can’t find more recent ones. (Click the links embedded in the section below and you will get the most up-to-date three-poll averages.) According to RCP’s averages at the time I’m writing:

Clinton vs. Donald Trump shows Clinton ahead by 2.7 percentage points, but her lead over Trump has shrunk fairly steadily since she led by huge margins earlier.

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Sanders vs. Trump shows Sanders ahead by 5.3 percentage points, but the two most recent polls show him ahead by double digits.

Clinton vs. Marco Rubio shows Rubio ahead by 2.5. Sanders vs. Rubio shows Rubio ahead by 1.0.

Real Clear Politics doesn’t have any Ted Cruz vs. Sanders matchups. For Clinton vs. Cruz, they show Clinton slightly ahead in the most recent poll but Cruz slightly ahead in the three-poll average.

And yet, on the Jan. 24 edition of “Face the Nation,” CBS Elections Director Anthony Salvanto, describing their latest polling, said Democrats see Sanders as the guy who will “shake up the system” and “get progressive things done,” but “when you look at the people who want, most of all, to win in November, they are overwhelmingly with her [Clinton]. Like 75 percent, OK?”

Safer choice

That reflects the belief among pragmatic “electability” minded Democrats that they believe Clinton is the safer choice, which is slightly different from proving that their assumption is correct. But it’s widely shared.

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who shares my admiration for Sanders’ position on the issues, recently wrote:

I adore Bernie Sanders. I agree with his message of fairness, and I share his outrage over inequality and corporate abuses. I think his righteous populism has captured the moment perfectly. I respect the uplifting campaign he has run. I admire his authenticity. And I am convinced Democrats would be insane to nominate him.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is a dreary candidate. She has, again, failed to connect with voters. Her policy positions are cautious and uninspiring. Her reflexive secrecy causes a whiff of scandal to follow her everywhere. She seems calculating and phony. And yet if Democrats hope to hold the presidency in November, they’ll need to hold their noses and nominate Clinton.

In his New York Times column, Charles M. Blow wrote:

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Sanders likes to tout that he doesn’t have a “super PAC” and doesn’t want one. That is a principled position. But the Republican candidate will have the support of many super PACs, awash in hundreds of millions of dollars in dark money, and the Republican nominee himself might even be a billionaire. They are going to beat Sanders like he is a nail with the “socialist” label and his proposal on new taxation. Middle of the spectrum Middle America is likely to be very susceptible to this negative messaging.

But wherefrom comes this certainty that Sanders is unelectable?

Part of it is from people who, as soon as they realized that Sanders, who has long called himself a Democratic Socialist, was going to seek the presidency without repudiating the S-word just assumed that no one who embraced that term could be elected in America. Maybe they’re right. I thought the same when Sanders’ campaign started, and I still believe it might be so. But as the weeks have gone by and Sanders has maintained a poll lead over Clinton in New Hampshire and about caught up with her Iowa, I have wondered whether the word is so toxic. Still, the label will be a barrier when it’s time to recruit moderate independents or even Republicans in the fall.

Blow, in the excerpt above, suggests that the Sanders-is-a-socialist attack line will be effective once the Repubs start hammering on it. He doesn’t say, but perhaps implies, that the Repubs (who trash Clinton constantly) haven’t started “negative messaging” on Sanders because they really hope to face him in the fall because they, too, believe he is unelectable.

I do not dismiss this argument at all. Most of the country had barely heard of Sanders before this year. Since his emergence as a serious presidential contender, his exchanges with Clinton have been models of civility by the standards of modern American politics. How his appeal would survive the kind of attack that would be directed at him by the Republicans is unknown, and perhaps unknowable, unless and until we see it play out.

Unrelenting attack

Clinton, by contrast, has been under permanent, unrelenting attack by Republicans since she became a candidate, and really for years before that. A great deal of “negative messaging” by Republicans is built into her current standing with the wider electorate.

On the third hand, or whatever hand I’m up to by now, just this past weekend the news brought a reminder that there may be ticking time bombs ready to explode Clinton’s electability quotient, like the sudden announcement of “top secret” information in her emails, coming this time not from a Republican committee of Clinton haters, but from the Obama State Department’s investigation.

Sanders is also old, Jewish, speaks with a Brooklyn accent and it’s better if we don’t try to describe his hairdo. He connects really well with young liberal Democrats, but Clinton does better among older voters, whom the experts believe are much more reliable in terms of turning out.

In Vermont, after a much more mixed record in elections before 1990, Sanders has won 10 consecutive statewide races for congressman (which, in Vermont, is a statewide race) and senator. His most recent Senate reelection, in 2012, was by an impressive 65-32 percent. But, c’mon. We’re talking about a very small, very liberal state. How his appeal will play out nationally is at best an open question. In general, Clinton crushes Sanders among voters of color, who will become especially key members of the Dem electorate after the two mostly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire are out of the way.

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Even in his remarkable surge this year to a top contender for the Dem presidential nomination, Sanders has always trailed Clinton badly in national polls. (In the most recent RCP three-poll average, it’s Clinton 52; Sanders 38.) As much as I admire his policy positions and his straight talk, I have little more than hunches about how he will play in Peoria, and especially in Ohio and Florida, the two states that really matter in November. (Sorry, Minnesota.)

The Sanders argument

The Sanders campaign has an electability argument that purports to deal with these possible weaknesses. It’s this: Bernie is motivating young people (there’s little doubt about that), a group that doesn’t always vote, and will make up for some of his electability weaknesses if they do.

Sanders takes that argument one step further, and even disputes the idea that his tax-the-rich-and-give-everyone-else-a-raise cannot be adopted. He says that his movement represents a potential “political revolution.” The first time I heard him call for “revolution,” I thought this would turn into another politically suicidal word choice. And maybe if the Republican attack machine gets hold of it, it will turn Sanders into Lenin.

But as I’ve heard Sanders go back to “democratic socialism” and “political revolution” —  and explain both terms — it seems that he has a vision that extends well beyond the 2016 presidential election. It envisions an enduring belief that an enduring majority coalesces around an enduring conviction that the government should be used to help the people, “not just the 1 percent.” (I stole that from a line he delivered in Dubuque, Iowa: “Are you ready for a radical idea? Together we are going to create an economy that works for working families, not just the 1 percent.”)

So now he’s embracing a third politically hazardous two-word phrase: “radical idea.”

For fear that I’ve been too hard on Clinton and too dewy-eyed about Sanders, I’ll close with the news from the Sunday New York Times that the editorial board, a bastion of liberalism, has decided to endorse Clinton for the Dem nomination.

Read the editorial for a lot of kind words about Clinton’s readiness for the job. The Times summarized Sanders thus:

Mrs. Clinton’s main opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist, has proved to be more formidable than most people, including Mrs. Clinton, anticipated. He has brought income inequality and the lingering pain of the middle class to center stage and pushed Mrs. Clinton a bit more to the left than she might have gone on economic issues. Mr. Sanders has also surfaced important foreign policy questions, including the need for greater restraint in the use of military force.

Good luck deciding whom to support, if the race goes as far as the Minnesota caucuses on March 1.