Is Sanders A McGovern Or A Reagan?

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.

11 thoughts on “Is Sanders A McGovern Or A Reagan?”

  1. The “unelectable” tag is the dumbest thing anyone can say in politics. People who say this are touting their own handicapping abilities against reality. Just what are the attributes of someone who is unelectable. John Kennedy was unelectable because he was a papist. Barrack Obama was unelectable because he was inexperienced and black, for Pete’s sake! What was he thinking?

    I have an idea. When someone offers themselves up for election, let’s let the voters decide. It is a simple process, you just shut the fuck up. (Not you, the morons who use the unelectable argument.)

    As to whether Bernie Sanders is a McGovern or a Reagan, again, the vacuousness of the electability argument is showing. I suggest that Senator Sanders … is a Sanders.

  2. Well, a couple thoughts…

    First- there is much the same fear among the right with both Trump And Cruz. And, based in no small part, on the assumption of facing Hillary- a more middle of the road democrat.

    And on a larger scale, I’d say a core failing of the american electoral process. If you look at the numbers voting – to choose the eventual candidate…well, there’s no way you can argue this is representative democaracy at work. It’s a combination of a small core of hardcore voters- augmented by the pissed off.

    And I would argue- the republican race in particular- highlights the need for some form of instant runoff voting…

    Further- I would say, elections need to be a national holiday. One or two days- for both the primaries and the general election a national holiday. And both need to run for a week to ten days- giving everyone who wants to vote a chance to vote. And primaries should be like the general election- a single day (with voting a week-10 days prior). The primary system as it currently stands largely favors conservative or at best, moderate states.

    The system as it is does not favor representative democracy. It favors at best at best constervative democrats and consverative to far right republicans.

    1. “And on a larger scale, I’d say a core failing of the American electoral system”. On target!

      “Further,…” Excellent suggestions. I would add free transportation to the polling places and assistance at them for disabled and indigent members of the electorate, remove identification requirements for all registered voters and make it possible to register on election day at the polling place.

  3. “while Reagan took the liberal position of using deficits to create growth”

    -Not exactly.

    “Carter offered tough choices and warned that America was no longer the most powerful nation in the world”

    -Actually, it was and is. The Soviet Union wasn’t that powerful.

    “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.”

    -Only if only White people were allowed to vote.

    Trump may have been the only candidate since…???? to ride to the nomination without establishment roots on the sheer force of his personality and unique policy proposals. W. J. Bryan?

    1. “Only if white people were allowed to vote.” – The same could be said about Reagan, Bush and Bush.

      “not exactly” – agreed, but, pretty close. He had to do something to offset the fed’s campaign against inflation, unnecessary as it was (but that’s another story for another place), so he increased spending and cut taxes, which ballooned the deficit and, hence, the debt. Unbeknownst to Reagan and his advisors (except one, David Stockman), to do both, he had to borrow/print the money. Meanwhile, the prime commercial lending rate reached a peak of about 23% and LIBOR topped 25%. Ouch! Imagine how long that recession would have lasted…

      “Actually, it was and is. The Soviet Union wasn’t that powerful.” – agreed, but beside the point. Anyway, at the time, the SU appeared powerful.

      1. The campaign against inflation was partially necessary, as the economy had shifted to a permanently slower trend real growth rate from 1948-1973. The deficit during the 1981-2 recession was surprisingly small for the rate of unemployment existing at the time and was unintentional; a result of rising unemployment-related expenditures and falling tax revenue. Later deficits were more intentional results of a decision to ramp up military spending.

        Non-Whites were allowed to vote during the 1980s.

        1. 1) We agree, just for different reasons, it seems. Btw, as an American, I must say that “using deficits to fund growth” isn’t the “liberal” position (which you may know; I just don’t know that you know). That may be true in the UK, where the term “liberal” is used the way Americans use “conservative” or “Republican”. Although patently false, American conservatives repeat the dogma that conservative ideology results in “sound” fiscal policy – “no deficits” is their professed ideal.

          2) re the campaign against inflation: I don’t understand the phrase, “partially necessary”; a thing/object/act/implication is a necessary condition or it isn’t. The rate of inflation was higher in 1982 than it was in 1972, but it was lower than it was in at its peak in 1975 (roughly 8% vs. roughly 10%). I agree that growth after 1973 was slower than it was from 1948 to 1973 (but, why?). At the time (1980), nobody in political positions believed (or admitted that they believed) that this reduction was permanent (or, at least, long term); policy did not result from that insight. In fact, many economists, it seems to me, still don’t see lower growth rates as permanent or, at least, v-e-r-y long term. In macroeconomics (and the other social sciences), hindsight has never been 20-20 nor consensus complete (even about the data!).

          As to the deficit being “surprisingly small” – in what universe and surprising to whom? It was larger (by a multiple of 2 or greater, depending on the deficits to which they were compared) than every previous deficit not related directly to wars.

          As to the deficit being the result of rising unemployment expenditures and falling tax revenue – isn’t that what, “so he increased spending and cut taxes,” means? Of course, deficits result from decreased revenues and increased expenditures; the unemployment component is automatic, given law at the time, but decreased revenues and increased defense expenditures were not. I understand the pattern of expenditure increases, too (love FRED). To me, the better questions are why did revenues decrease and expenditures increase, and why did this pattern accelerate during Republican administrations, yet, decelerate during Democratic administrations? In my view, they were “intentional” (your word choice), i. e., the result of policy decisions made by the administration: allowing interest rates to float (thereby deepening, if not creating the recession), reductions in the highest incremental tax rates and expansions of deductions and exemptions (investment tax credits and reclassification of software as eligible for such credits along with M & E, special rules for oil-and-gas and research-and-development limited partnerships), allegedly to pull us out of the recession that policy had created, which, when combined with the rapid growth of defense expenditures under the narrative of the science-fiction fable called Star Wars technology, ballooned the deficits to sizes never encountered during “peacetime,” before 1980.

          I maintain that those outcomes (decreased revenues, increased expenditure, increased deficits, increased debt) were the result of policy decisions by the Reagan administration, ultimately by the Gipper, himself, that were driven by faulty economics, a flawed theory of economic behavior (in this case the ideas that markets are efficient because investors are rational economic decision makers and that rational preference theory drives economic decisions for almost everybody) together with a political ideology that is, again, driven by a fatally flawed (simplistic, naive even) theory of human behavior (again, rational preference theory driven by narrow self interest) and their tit-for-tat approach to the “game” of international relations.

          2) “non-whites were allowed to vote during the 1980” – thanks; I must have missed that in school…) Now that you remind me, there was something about an Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and a Voting Rights Act in 1965.

          1. “I agree that growth after 1973 was slower than it was from 1948 to 1973 (but, why?).”

            -The fossil fuel-related tech boom wore out around that time throughout the world, from the USSR to Spain to South Africa.

            “It was larger (by a multiple of 2 or greater, depending on the deficits to which they were compared) than every previous deficit not related directly to wars.”

            -Only in nominal dollars. As a percentage of GDP, that of 1975 was larger than any of the deficits under Reagan. If Reagan ran as loose a fiscal policy during the dark days of the recession as the Obama congress did, the deficit would have been nearly twice as high (as a percentage of GDP). Did you look at my chart carefully?

            “but decreased revenues and increased defense expenditures were not.”

            -Increased defense expenditures weren’t a big factor during the time of the largest deficits, though they grew in importance as the Reagan administration went on. Yes, the Reagan years had a massive and unnecessary military buildup, which did contribute to deficit increases in later years of the administration. And Reagan hiked taxes a bunch of times, so tax cuts aren’t a good explanation for the later deficits under Reagan. Decreased real revenues are a regular feature of every single recession. Capital tax revenue falls, payroll tax revenue falls, etc, as economic activity dissipates.

            “To me, the better questions are why did revenues decrease and expenditures increase, and why did this pattern accelerate during Republican administrations, yet, decelerate during Democratic administrations?”

            -Wars are the biggest contributors to the deficit other than recessions. Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, especially. Recessions do tend to be more frequent under Republican administrations (Eisenhower: three recessions, Nixon, two, Carter, one, Reagan, two, Bush, one, Bush II two); most likely this is pure coincidence.

  4. I enjoyed the history precìs. This question is just the wrong question (I agree with Mr. Ruis). Sadly, it’s the question most of the usual media ask. Let’s require the pundits to handicap the candidates and bet. That might reduce the noise level, at least, although it probably wouldn’t improve the quality of the predictions, the thoughts or the arguments.

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