A common criticism of Bernie Sanders is that he is unelectable. Many fear that if he is chosen as the party nominee, then the Democrats will suffer a heavy defeat in the general election. Comparisons are made with 1972 when George McGovern suffered one of the worst defeats in Electoral College history, winning only the state of Massachusetts. It is often said that this was because he was too liberal and too far from the middle ground. The landslide defeat of Walter Mondale in 1984 is explained in a similar way, if you go too far from the middle ground you are out of touch with the voters. On the Republican side, the 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater is also portrayed as the dangers of extremism. Elections are won in the centre, it is said.
However, there are several problems with this narrative. Firstly, voters are nowhere near as ideological as political scientists think or perhaps even wish. While pundits examine candidate’s policies and views in detail, the average voter gives this surprisingly little thought. Superficial aspects count for just as much if not more. So how a candidate presents their education policies counts for more than the actual contents of the policy. A catchy slogan, an attention grabbing quote or a moving anecdote is more decisive than the details. Many candidates with a lot of potential never succeeded because they lacked charisma. After all, voters don’t for policies, they vote for people. Being seen as competent, honest, hard-working etc are just as important to voters as their views, if not more.
Second of all, terms like moderate and extreme are relative and vary hugely by person. For example, in Europe, George Bush is a far right extremist and Barack Obama is a centrist moderate, but Americans don’t see it that way. Most people consider themselves as moderates and the opposite sides as extremists. To some people, gun ownership is completely normal and a moderate position, yet to others it is an extreme stance and tight control is a normal and moderate stance. Most of the time labels like “moderate” and “extreme” are little more than partisan spin. Each party presents their candidate as moderate and their opponent as extreme regardless of what their stance is. Pundits only seem to figure where the political middle ground is after the election, only then does it become clear that the loser lost because they were out of touch.
The scale of these elections is often over represented. If you look at a map of 72 or 84, you could easily conclude that the Democrats suffered absolute annihilation and it seems that no one voted for them. It is easy to think that whatever policies were adopted let to complete desertion. Yet this is an optical illusion. While the Electoral College was split 95-5 (complete destruction), the actual vote was closer to 60-40 (still a bad defeat, but far closer).
The narrative of 1972 misses several important points and it’s not enough to say McGovern lost because he was a liberal. Many people forget that Richard Nixon was doing everything he could to sabotage McGovern’s campaign. The Democratic Party was deeply divided and many of the harshest critics of McGovern actually came from Democrats. Hubert Humphrey ran an incredibly negative primary campaign that seemed to want McGovern to lose more than anything else. McGovern was smeared as the candidate of “Acid, Amnesty and Abortion” by a fellow Democrat. Even the unions refused to support him. He picked and then dropped his Vice-President nominee. The campaign gave an overall impression of incompetence. Many voters figured that if even his own party wouldn’t support him, why should they?
Most importantly of all, the economy was booming. In fact, studies show that whenever the economy is doing well, the incumbent usually wins. The state of the economy is a major determinant of the election results, as the chart below shows. There are exceptions when an incumbent lost despite having a strong economy, but these are usually due to war (like Vietnam and Korea). It is very interesting that the years when the economy was strongest, 64, 72 and 84, were also the years of the largest landslides. It is likely that no matter who ran or what their policies were, they probably still would have lost.
On the Republican side, the election of 1964 resembles 1972. In this case also, a strongly ideological candidate, Barry Goldwater, was chosen in a year of economic boom. The Republican Party was split over the choice and there are few things that damage a party as much as being divided. This makes the candidate look weak, incompetent and unpopular. The country was still in mourning after the assassination of President Kennedy and it is highly unlikely that any Republican could have won. The landslide election of 1984 is similar. The economy was recovering and Reagan was able to take credit for it. Far from being too liberal, Mondale was an establishment Democrat, who if anything, was too conservative. His main policy was a promise to reduce the budget deficit, a traditional conservative stance, while Reagan took the liberal position of using deficits to create growth. 84 shows that even a moderate, establishment candidate has little chance when the economy is growing.
There are major exceptions to the “elections are won in the centre” rule that should be considered. In fact there are candidates who differ so much from the norms that they completely reshaped their party and politics generally. Ronald Reagan was dismissed as an outrageous lunatic for most of his career until elected President. Most pundits dismissed him as being far too extreme and bound to lose in a landslide if chosen as the party nominee. He was frequently called a second Goldwater running against a centrist who would presumably dominate the middle ground. Yet not only did he win big, but he managed to reshape American politics. The Republican Party is largely a Reaganite Party and Presidential candidates often sound like Reagan impersonators. His policies of tax cuts, deregulation and aggressive foreign policy are still the pillars of the Republican Party. Even the Democrats moved to the right in response and became embarrassed to call themselves liberals or support big government.
How did he do it? For Reagan, ideas weren’t important, but their presentation was. Many times massive holes were found in his proposals that made them unworkable and he dodged it with a funny joke. His anecdotes and claims were often exaggerated or plain lies but while this drove pundits mad, voters found it entertaining. While Carter offered tough choices and warned that America was no longer the most powerful nation in the world, Reagan offered simple solutions and reassured people that America was the greatest country in the world and nothing needed to change. He also got lucky. The economy was in a bad state and the combination of unemployment and inflation would have given any non-incumbent a huge advantage. The Iranian hostage situation made people wish for a tough hero like they saw on TV who would destroy the baddies and solve the problem.
What about Trump? Surely he is so extreme that he will lose a landslide? I wouldn’t jump to conclusions, after all, the people who say he can’t win the general election, are the same who said he couldn’t win the primary (which he probably will). In fact, ideology is relatively unimportant to Trump, he’s not running on his policies, but on his personality. Bar immigration, he has been vague and inconsistent on most of his policies with some doubting how conservative he actually is. Yet he has been able to overcome these doubts through he personality and the fact that some think he “tells it like it is”. Exit polls show that he does just as strongly among self-described moderates as conservatives, suggesting ideology may not work in a simple line.
So is Sanders a McGovern or a Reagan? The honest answer is I don’t know. His campaign has none of the ineptness and amateurism of the McGovern campaign, though it is unsure whether the Democratic Party would rally behind him if he won. Polls show him doing better than Clinton in head-to-head comparisons with Republicans which seems to suggest he is more electable than Clinton. However, others claim that this is because Clinton has been the target of Republican attacks years, whereas Sanders is relatively fresh (although calling himself a socialist should tell Republicans enough). His views are outside the mainstream, but considering the dissatisfaction in America with the system, that might be an advantage. He is seen as honest and trustworthy, and many voters respect him for having principles, even if they don’t share them. He has been able to mobilise an enthusiastic movement and we will have to wait until the votes are cast before we will know how effect it is.
But Sanders greatest impact will not be on the White House or dependent on him winning the Democratic nomination (which was always a huge outside bet). Sanders isn’t fighting to become President, he is fighting to change the Democratic Party. His campaign aims to wrestle control out of the hands of establishment which follows a moderate line and is eager to maintain links with corporations. Sanders is fighting to put issues like inequality, universal healthcare and free public education centre stage. He is showing that passionate policies can tap into a well of dissatisfaction and use it as a fuel for radical change. Just as Goldwater changed the narrative of the Republican Party despite losing, so too is Sanders pulling the Democrats against inequality despite his long shot campaign. It remains to be seen whether Sanders is the Reagan of the left, radically realigning the political spectrum, but he is certainly paving the way for one.