America’s most famous socialist might be more electable than he looks.
In the swing state of Iowa, according to the latest poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, Bernie Sanders leads Donald Trump by 5 points and trails Jeb Bush by just 2 points. In purple New Hampshire, likewise, Sanders leads Trump by 10 points, and is tied against Bush. By contrast, both Trump and Bush lead Hillary Clinton—the presumptive Democratic nominee—in Iowa, and Bush stands ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire by 7 points.
This comes after a national Quinnipiac survey last month showed Sanders similarly competitive nationally with the most visible Republican presidential candidates: He tied Bush with 44 percent, led Trump by a margin of 47 percent to 42 percent, and barely trailed Carly Fiorina, 44 percent to 43 percent. In each instance, other than against Fiorina, Clinton performed worse. In other words, if Sanders had an electability gap with Hillary, he’s closed it.
Of course, there are caveats. At this point in an election, head-to-head polls gauge sympathy and feeling; they can’t predict an outcome. We don’t know how Sanders would look in a national campaign, against a unified Republican Party. Likewise, when it comes to Clinton’s weakness, we don’t know how she would look if she were the nominee. Given her place in the national Democratic primary—a solid, double-digit lead over Sanders—there’s a chance that her poor numbers reflect ambivalence from potential supporters, not outright opposition. Which is just to say that, to many Americans, the 2016 presidential election is still hypothetical, and when you ask them to choose between candidates, you’re asking for a gut reaction more than a considered choice.
But that’s not to dismiss Sanders. Even if his base—college-educated workers and liberal whites—reflects the extent to which he occupies a traditional left-wing role that has appeared in past Democratic presidential primaries, it’s meaningful that a self-described “democratic socialist” on the periphery of American politics is tied in two swing states with a man who has the same last name as two former presidents. Nor should anyone ignore the massive crowds that flock to every major Sanders campaign event; on Saturday, 20,000 people came to the Boston Convention Center to hear the senator speak, one of the largest presidential primary crowds ever assembled in Massachusetts.
Indeed, there’s evidence that Sanders’ appeal might go beyond liberals. Writing for the Washington Post, David Weigel found a friendly reception for the Vermont senator in working-class West Virginia, where white Democratic voters rejected Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
In Morgantown, home to West Virginia University, a 62-year old activist named Andy Cockburn went to an early organizing meeting for Clinton and found only 10 other people. In July, when Morgantown hosted one of several hundred Sanders house parties, more than 100 people packed a bar basement and started organizing. […]
“The whole feeling is that the parties have left the people,” said Doug Epling, a 73-year old businessman in Beckley with close ties to West Virginia’s elected Democrats. “We do need help from the federal government. Sanders is the only one that’s offered anything that I’ve heard.”
Yes, this is anecdotal, which makes it impossible to extrapolate to the broader general election contest. It’s possible that, outside the contours of a Democratic primary race, Sanders’ left-wing views will alienate white working-class voters. But if you take all the anecdotes and information together, you begin to see the outlines of a “Sanders coalition” in the Democratic Party: Predominantly white, with a connection to the white working class, and forged around core economic concerns. If durable, it’s the kind of coalition that could force Hillary Clinton into a more serious contest for votes, if not delegates.
There are a couple of takeaways from this early dynamic. First, if Sanders is ahead in early primary states, it’s because of men. In Iowa, as of a mid-September poll from YouGov and CBS News, Sanders led Clinton by 18 points among men, compared to just 5 points among women. In New Hampshire, noted the same survey, Sanders led Clinton by a whopping 38 points among men. And in a recent national poll from CNN, Sanders and Vice President Joe Biden combine for 53 percent of the male Democratic vote, to Clinton’s 34 percent. It’s possible that, if Sanders can build a durable coalition for the primary, it will center on moderate and liberal men more than any other demographic group. If Sanders and Clinton continue on their respective trajectories, then the 2016 Democratic primary may fracture on gender in more dramatic ways than it did in 2008.
Second, it’s not clear that Sanders could carry his coalition into a general election. After two terms of Barack Obama and two elections driven by nonwhite voters, the Democratic Party is fully tied to minority voters. As we’ve seen in those elections—as well as in state and local contests across the country—this makes it hard to extend the Democratic coalition to white voters, and working-class whites in particular. Bernie Sanders the Democratic outsider might win with working-class whites, especially those estranged from the GOP. But Bernie Sanders the Democratic standard-bearer—backed by a heavily black and Latino coalition—may have a much harder time.