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. 

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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 and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.