Why Bernie Sanders Is Starting to Sound a Little Like Donald Trump

The Vermont senator is talking about his electability. But is it enough?

Bernie Sanders NH.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks on Nov. 29, 2015, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

PETERBOROUGH, New Hampshire—“In the last week or two of a campaign,” Sen. Bernie Sanders explained about midway through a rally in Peterborough on Thursday, “a lot of stuff gets thrown around. That’s what politics is about; media picks up on this stuff.” We do.

“And one of the arguments being used against me is that: ‘Bernie Sanders—nice guy—but you know what? He just cannot win a general election. He’s up against the Republicans, my goodness, there’s no way he’s going to beat Donald Trump and these other candidates.’ ”

Who is this voice of concern to whom he refers? For starters: Hillary Clinton and all of her proxies, meaning most elected Democrats in the United States. Here they all are in the New York Times carping about how a Sanders-topped Democratic ticket will quite possibly mark the end of elected Democrats in the United States. The Clinton campaign recently has been releasing ads focused on her electability in November, arguing that she’s the only Democrat who can “stop them,” the treacherous Republicans.

It is the Clinton mothership attack to which all subattacks are tied. Her campaign criticized Sanders on Thursday for his comment in the most recent Democratic debate about how we should “move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.” (Read my colleague Josh Keating for a more developed consideration of Sanders’ remark.) Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon suggested that Republicans would slice Sanders apart over a remark like this. “I can safely predict,” Fallon said, “that Republicans would love to have a debate with someone who thinks we should move quickly to warmer relations with a major sponsor of terrorism like Iran.”

But the concerns are not just claptrap coming from a desperate rival campaign. Sanders would be the most left-wing nominee the Democratic Party has nominated in a long time. Republican Party operatives, who are having difficulty ushering their own most electable candidates through the primary process, aren’t laying a finger on Sanders because they pray that he wins the nomination. They’re gamely helping him advance his arguments against Clinton to this end.

Electability is not just another dumb invention of airhead political consultants and pundits, either. Undecided Democratic voters, many of whom might lean toward Bernie on his message alone, want to hear Sanders’ electability case from the man himself. “I’m thinking about [voting for Sanders],” Brad Howell of Francestown, New Hampshire, told Slate at the Peterborough rally. But he’s concerned that Sanders is not “ultimately electable.” Why? The “socialist” label? His single-payer health care plan? “It’s hard to put a finger on it.” There is a vague cloud of unelectability hovering over Sanders, then, that he’s compelled to address.

Sanders does not enjoy speaking about horse-race garbage or really anything that diverts him away from his central issues of economic inequality and a political economy that’s rigged by and for the billionaires. He is only doing so now because he must.

That’s why he’s suddenly sounding so much like Donald Trump, who only likes to talk about polls, on the trail now. “I am happy to report to you the results of a poll taken by WMUR and CNN, just the other day,” Sanders said in Peterborough. “Here are the results here in New Hampshire. In terms of Marco Rubio, Secretary Clinton loses to him by one point; I beat him here in New Hampshire by 18 points.” Loud applause. “In terms of Mr. Kasich, it’s a tie between Secretary Clinton and Gov. Kasich; I beat Kasich by 21 points.” More applause. He added that he tops Gov. Chris Christie as well, by a similar margin, while Clinton enjoys a modest lead.

“And my favorite,” he said, allowing himself to enjoy the guilty pleasure of horse-race polling, “the man who I would love, love, love to run against: Hillary Clinton defeats Trump by nine points. We defeat him by 23 points.” With that, the loudest applause of all. He added that the matchup numbers are also strong in Iowa and national polls and read some of those, too. Again: not that he thought any of this was particularly important.

“Now here’s the other half of the story, which is actually more important,” Sanders continued. “I think it is fair to say … that for Republicans to win—given their disastrous agenda, of denying the reality of climate change, of their desire to give huge tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires, of their desire to cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid—the way Republicans win elections is when the voter turnout is very low.” He described how “abysmally low” turnout was in the 2014 midterm elections, allowing Republicans to win a “huge, landslide victory.”

“I believe that anyone who looks at Secretary Clinton’s campaign and our campaign—objectively, in terms of the turnouts that we’re seeing, in terms of the energy among working people and young people—will say, ‘This is the campaign that has the energy, has the momentum, and can create a large voter turnout to bring us to victory.’”

This is the classic insurgent’s argument. Look at the size of my crowds, the volunteers—we have the energy heading into the general election.

But this still does not directly address the issue of how the Republican Party is salivating over the prospect of facing him or the obvious attacks coming his way. The second that it becomes clear Sanders has the Democratic nomination mathematically secure, the national Republican apparatus will launch 1,000 ads with a hammer and sickle superimposed over Sanders’ face. The Soviet anthem will play, and words like “$30 trillion socialist government takeover plan!” in blinking text will appear. And, as Sen. Ted Cruz would say, that’s just on Day One. What I’m getting at is that the critical early effort to define Sanders will be unsubtle. Will it work? How will he respond?

Sanders’ best electability argument is the abysmal track record of the chattering classes so far this cycle. Since the early conventional wisdom about the primaries has been so wrong—It’ll be Jeb and Hillary in a walk!—perhaps the conventional wisdom about the general election will be equally bad.

“When we began this campaign about nine months ago, our candidacy was considered to be a ‘fringe’ candidacy. The media thought my hair was just beautiful, but other than that, they didn’t think we had much of a chance,” he said on Thursday.

“Well, the world has changed a little bit in the last nine months.”

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.