Would Bernie Sanders have performed better than Joe Biden? That was the question dominating the conversation in the progressive corners of the internet in the small hours of Wednesday 4 November. At the time, it looked as though Donald Trump was heading for victory in Florida and, quite possibly, the race overall.
“Bernie would’ve won,” said the prominent civil rights activist Shaun King. The losing congressional candidate in Florida Sakinah Lee echoed this sentiment. “I can think of many people who would have voted for Bernie but didn’t vote for Biden,” Lee wrote. “On the other hand I can’t think of many people who voted for Biden but wouldn’t have voted for Bernie.”
Had Trump secured a second electoral college victory last week, this debate would be dominating the discourse among Democrats. The party has been, and seemingly still is, see-sawing on their future direction: a form of moderated neoliberalism, or muscular progressivism. Biden’s moderate (in more ways than one) victory is unlikely to end this debate.
But would the passionate left-wing populism of the Vermont senator really have delivered a larger victory over the Republican incumbent than the moderate voice of the former vice-president?
During the Democratic primaries, pollsters released “hypothetical matchup polls” which attempted to answer this. Although these polls can be unreliable, they can be used as a tracker for the name recognition and sentiment attached to different politicians.
These polls pitted each of the candidates vying for the nomination against the incumbent president, asking voters which of the two they would vote for.
In the Univision poll of Texan voters taken in September 2019, Senator Sanders was found to be ahead of President Trump by six percentage points. In an election, this means Sanders would have flipped Texas for the Democrats with a 14-point shift on 2016, a historic result by any measure. Biden also performed well in polls like these, and was at the time projected to flip Texas, but not quite with the same lead as Sanders.
In the Rust Belt states, polls in the early days of the primaries also showed Sanders hypothetically faring marginally better among voters when up against Trump. These results were, and are, trumpeted by his supporters to further the claim that, yes, Sanders would have beaten Trump, and beaten Trump better.
But we cannot take this data in isolation, and we also need to remember these polls were taken in September 2019.
Let’s return to that Texas poll, because months later, in February 2020, Univision asked Texans the same question again. This was at a point when Sanders was leading the pack in the Democratic campaign and Biden’s fight was, albeit momentarily, crashing and burning.
But in that poll, it was Sanders’s hypothetical lead over Trump that had crashed, from a six-point positive to a two-point deficit. His ratings were, at the time, not far off the numbers stacking up for Biden, much reduced from the figures a few months earlier.
When attempting to understand this shift from a six-point lead to a two-point deficit, it is useful to see these polls as revealing trends in name recognition, and the type of name recognition.
Following the 2016 primaries, Sanders gained a near cult-like following among progressive voters, both at home and abroad. To broadcasters, he was the ideal candidate for prime time TV slots when the nation was debating healthcare and other issues on which he had a lot to say. It was through those prisms that voters were initially able to shape and develop their favourable thoughts about him.
But opinions change, as does awareness, and at the start of 2020, Sanders was leading the pack and taking priority in the minds of the electorate. As a result, his favourability scores were falling, as were his poll ratings against Trump when compared with September 2019.
By February, America was much more attuned to the prospect of Bernie Sanders being the Democratic nominee and candidate for president. This was a nation that no longer viewed Sanders simply through the lens of his healthcare views, popular though they were and are. This was the emergence of a more rounded impression of him that failed to reveal him as a standout candidate on the cusp of securing a landslide for the Democrats. Perceptions shift, and the more people got to know Sanders, the more reactionary and negative responses to him became.
The FDR-style populism of the Vermont Senator is, however, unquestionably popular with America’s younger voters, and some claim that he would have instigated a surge in turnout among this age group. In the 2016 primaries, for example, Sanders defied the odds and scored a shock win over Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin. Nate Silver, the editor of FiveThirtyEight, described the victory as being “among the greatest polling errors in primary history”. The key ingredient in that shock win? Young people. Voters under the age of 30 were not expected by pollsters to turn out in big numbers in the state. But they did, and of those that voted, an eye-watering 81 per cent picked Sanders.
These numbers indicate a candidate that can enthuse and motivate, but Sanders still didn’t become the Democratic nominee. Hillary Clinton did; and what states Sanders won in those primaries came in regions and neighbourhoods with large proportions of white voters. Even in 2020, when his profile was much greater, his performance in black and Hispanic neighbourhoods, despite incremental increases, was underwhelming.
Sanders’s calls for radical change, while overwhelmingly popular with online activists, are not as likely to chime with the key voters in the states that matter. His appeal is strongest with liberals, not moderates or conservatives.
In Britain, we often see politicians from both the Labour and Conservative parties talk of their movements being “broad church”. The US Democratic Party is no different. Just 55 per cent of white voters who either register with or lean towards the party identify as liberal, but this is high compared with its black and Hispanic bases. Just 29 per cent of black Democrats identify as liberal, as do 37 per cent of Hispanics registered.
In a general election, this may well have led Sanders to perform worse than Biden in key states. In Georgia, where Biden is currently narrowly leading Trump, black voters make up one in three of the eligible electors. In North Carolina, black voters make up one in five; in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, black voters make up more than one in ten of the eligible voters. In most of these states, the black voters who lean Democrat are more likely to identify as moderate or conservative than liberal, and are more religious than their white counterparts.
They may be supportive of progressive policy, but that doesn’t guarantee support for the progressive candidate. A May survey by YouGov, for example, found a majority of self-identifying moderate voters agree with progressive policies on welfare payments and healthcare, but at the same time were not inspired by the progressive policy chief himself: Bernie Sanders.
The problem here appears to be a failure of perception, not policy. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that voters are not often voting on policy, but a combination of policy and perception of character and emotion. That Sanders’s policies are popular matters little when voters are unlikely to vote for a candidate they perceive as radical or, however mistaken a view it may be, “socialist” – a term that just 28 per cent of Americans view favourably.
The route to the White House is not paved by winning white liberal voters alone. Even Trump’s 2016 win came through a balancing act of winning over enough white voters to earn the Rust Belt while retaining enough Hispanic voters to keep the Sun Belt. Campaigns are won with coalitions, and candidates that are stubbornly popular with a single section of the American electorate, however active they are online, are not the most successful. Big Tent Democrats win, and they win for a reason.
It’s hard to say with certainty how well Sanders would have fared were he the Democratic candidate. No doubt much of the base would have held firm for him, and in some quarters with greater enthusiasm than they had done for Biden. But would all the base have held firm?
It’s doubtful, for instance, that black moderates would have been as enthused about Sanders as they have been with Biden. Would there have been enough young white liberals to make up the numbers in that case? In the Rust Belt states maybe, but in Georgia, Florida and Arizona?
It is also hard to know how Trump would have approached his campaign when faced with “Crazy Bernie”. His attack line that Biden is a “socialist” would no doubt have been magnified if Sanders had been his opponent, and he would have likely stoked fears about risking the economy with a “radical” Sanders presidency.
Voters, while agreeing with policy, need to feel that they are not being led astray from safe options. Progressives in the Democratic Party have an image problem: appearing radical is as exciting to some on social media as it is daunting to those voters that just delivered Biden his win in Georgia. As Jeremy Corbyn learnt in Britain, you cannot choose your electorate.