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Would Bernie Sanders have done better against Donald Trump?

The limitations of the Third Way have been further exposed. The strengths of the alternative are less clear. 

For some time – not just in the United Kingdom and the United States, but in Europe too – advocates of what you might call the Third Way, or Blairism, or redistributive neoliberalism or centrism have argued that, while they have an activist problem, they do not have an electorate problem. Hillary Clinton was defeated by Barack Obama, but she would have beaten John McCain just as he did, possibly by a bigger margin. David Miliband was unable to make his way through Labour’s electoral college, but he would have prevailed over David Cameron where his brother failed. Manuel Valls, France’s interior minister, might be dead on arrival with activists in the French Socialist Party, but if he could only make it to the contest proper, he would surely defeat Marine Le Pen, Alain Juppe, and the rest.

And so on. Then Hillary Clinton did make it past the activists – and it turned out that the Third Way did have an electorate problem after all. Now some supporters of the candidate she defeated to get there, Bernie Sanders, are arguing that while he may have an activist problem, he would not have an electorate problem and would have beaten Donald Trump. Are they right?

Well, one of Clinton’s problems was that African-American turnout fell, though it is hard to disentangle the extent of that from voter suppression efforts and the unpicking of the Voting Rights Act after 2013. It’s worth noting, too, that Clinton’s dire approval ratings didn’t extend to African-Americans.

Sanders’ big problem in securing the nomination was that he struggled among African-American voters, particularly those over 30. (He did better among younger African-Americans.)  It seems…bold…to put it mildly to suggest he would have been able to do a better job of turning them out than the woman who defeated him among them. A lot of the commentary around this, I think, comes because most white liberal commentators know people who struggled to vote for Clinton and instead went for a leftwing third-party or wrote in Sanders – but don’t have older black relatives who would have struggled to vote for a candidate who had called on Obama to face a primary challenge in 2012.  

Just as Clinton struggled with the young in the primaries and to turn them out in the general, it seems highly unlikely that Sanders would not have struggle with minority turnout. Not least as part of Clinton’s problem was that turnout among those groups was not high enough to compensate for the fact that, thanks to the Trump message, white voters are beginning to vote on “ethno-political” lines, favouring the Republicans, switching a problem with the young for a problem with African-Americans would have ended up with the Democrats in the same place, by a different margin.

Before the result, I worried that Clinton – who due in part to her lack of popularity and the demands of winning the Democratic nomination had cause to tie herself to Barack Obama – was talking too explicitly about race to secure the necessary votes of white Americans. I dismissed that as nerves but as it is now clear that one of the significant shifts in this election was that the white vote behaved in a more ethno-political manner, my instinct is that this probably didn’t help.

And Sanders’ difficulty is that to win, he would have had to find some way to win over more African-American voters in the primaries. He lost African-Americans by 50+ points in most contests, and if he’d halved that gap, he would have become the nominee. But in doing so, he’d have had to talk even more explicitly and frequently about racial justice, which would, I think, have helped Trump in the general election.  

(It’s also worth remembering that Clinton still has votes to come in – so the “six million lost votes from Obama” narrative is somewhat overplayed.)

Don’t forget, either, that Colorado – which the Democrats won narrowly in the Senate and Clinton won in the Electoral College – a referendum on single-payer, one of Sanders’ key issues, was defeated in a landslide. In Wisconsin, where Clinton lost narrowly, Russ Feingold, an ally of Sanders, who Sanders fundraised for, was defeated by a larger margin than Clinton was.

Sanders would also have faced a well-funded, well-organised and favourably-covered third-party candidacy in the shape of Michael Bloomberg, further denting his chances. He would have exchanged the loss of voters to Jill Stein – though she would likely have still stood anyhow – for a loss of voters to his right flank, and Bloomberg would have received a lot more airtime than Stein or Gary Johnson, who finished third, did.

(This speaks to a particular worry for the left: that the political argument for the Third Way, that capital must be appeased or it will destroy the left, still applies, even though the political appeal of the Third Way has dissipated.) 

I am also highly sceptical of the idea that a campaign that nodded to almost every anti-black trope there was wouldn’t have relished going up against a Jewish candidate. (My suspicion is that is at least part of the explanation for the Clinton-Feingold gap)

To look over to Europe, the politics closest to Sanders – mainstream moderate social democracy – are doing an even worse job of holding the tide against the nativist right than Clinton, who at least won the popular vote, did.

There is a case that a significantly more leftwing policy platform – ala Corbyn, Podemos, Syriza – than Sanders might hold back the tide, or that, in the manner of the SNP, social democrats can win if they have a strong patriotic identity. Don’t forget that Scottish voters evince the same anti-immigrant sentiments as English voters, but they have not found a political expression at the ballot box in the same way. Spanish football crowds still make monkey noises at black footballers, but that, again, has not found expression at the voting booth. And in Greece, despite national humiliation and near-economic ruin, Golden Dawn is running at around seven per cent of the vote in the polls – a remarkable feat given the circumstances.

There is a good counter-argument that some will make that Sanders is actually closer to Corbyn because of how right-wing the States are, and he should be considered relative to his peers, not his policy platform. Because I'm boringly wonkish, I don’t buy it. It just feels like putting too much importance on rhetoric and relative placement and not enough on policy solutions.

It feels to me like saying the hunger that Corbyn is speaking to could be filled if Yvette Cooper had used the word “radical” a few more times. There’s a two-word rebuttal to that one: Owen Smith. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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