Politics

No One Thought Trump Could Win. What Does That Mean for Bernie?

Steve Kornacki on the Sanders anxiety that Democrats and political commentators are wrestling with.

Bernie Sanders, standing in front of an American flag, speaks into a microphone.
Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on Wednesday. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

If you’ve turned on cable news or picked up a newspaper recently, it’s hard to avoid the panic over the Democratic primary process. With Bernie Sanders in the lead going into South Carolina, you can feel some political commentators reaching around for the emergency brake. MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki says this anxiety comes from the fact that no one actually knows what’s happening here, as was the case in 2016. If that year marked a shift in the way our elections work now, perhaps looking back at Donald Trump’s rise could offer some clues about Sanders’ future.

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On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Kornacki about the Bernie anxiety that’s filling up airtime and questioned it a bit. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: To understand the odd position Sanders is in right now, it’s helpful to look at two areas of polling: how voters feel about Sanders himself, and how they feel about some of his ideas.

Steve Kornacki: We had an NBC–Wall Street Journal poll a week or so ago that said the “socialism” label seemed to make Democratic voters apprehensive And yet, Sanders as a political entity is quite popular. I looked at the favorable-unfavorable scores of a poll of Democratic voters, and Sanders polled at 72 percent favorable and 15 percent unfavorable. Those numbers are better than his opponents’. Personally, he’s popular and liked by Democrats. On policy he’s on shaky ground.

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The “socialist” label sets people off—I think you can see that materializing in a concrete way when you look at how Democratic politicians are talking about down-ballot races and how a Sanders candidacy might affect them there.

The Democratic Party has been making gains in traditionally Republican suburbs over the past couple years. These suburbanites are fiscally moderate, but on cultural grounds they have strong objections to Donald Trump and his Republican Party—and they voted for Democrats very strongly in 2018. So Democrats have been counting on that continuing in 2020. The fear that you’re hearing from certain party members is that Sanders would jeopardize that particular inroad—that Sanders will force a lot of those folks who crossed over for Democrats in 2018 to say, I don’t like Trump, but I don’t like socialism.

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it’s interesting because this “socialism” fear could be used as a cudgel. But there’s also this hard data fear, because the Sanders campaign says he’s going to turn out a new kind of electorate: more people, different people. Looking at the races so far, has that happened?

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There’s no obvious, gigantic surge in Democratic turnout that you could clearly attribute to the kind of effect Sanders says he’ll generate. Turnout in Iowa was only up very slightly, basically flat with 2016 and significantly lower than in 2008. Turnout actually exceeded 2016 and 2008 levels in New Hampshire, but that comes with an asterisk—when you start looking at where turnout increased in New Hampshire, you don’t see it in the ways the Sanders campaign describes it. In Nevada, the turnout looks like it will end up being up over 2016 levels, but well short of 2008. That year was the all-time-high watermark for Democratic interest in a in a presidential primary.

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It’s hard to know what turnout in these early races might mean for the general election. What happened there when Trump ran for president in 2016?

If you looked at the 2016 caucus results, you had no indication what was going to happen in the fall. Trump ended up outperforming Mitt Romney in certain states by dozens of points in the general election, but in the caucuses, Trump was often losing, sometimes to Marco Rubio, sometimes to Ted Cruz. It’s amazing to look back now at that caucus map, knowing what was going to happen in the general election and knowing that Iowa was going to move toward Trump more dramatically than any other state. Yet if you looked at those caucus results for signs of what was going to happen in the general election, you would have been severely misled.

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We read primary results to assure ourselves that this candidate has won this state’s primary and can win the state in the general election. I think that’s a very dubious jump to make.

There’s something else political pollsters have their eye on when it comes to Sanders’ electability. It’s about how he’s motivating young voters, and how many of them would need to turn out in order to deliver Sanders a victory in November. In an article published in Vox recently, a few political professors said that turnout would have to be “remarkable.” It claims that in order for Sanders to win, he would need a massive boost in youth turnout from 2016.

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My immediate reaction is to be skeptical of that conclusion because I remember a number of similar predictions like that with Trump in 2016. There was this thought that Republicans had to find a way to get 40 percent of the Hispanic vote or they were going to be doomed in every election going forward. Trump did not come close to that and yet got elected and won states like Florida that he wasn’t supposed to win.

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Trump showed you can get elected by voters who think very poorly of you. In 2016 you had a significant number of voters who said on Election Day: I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t think he tells the truth. I don’t think he has the temperament to be president. I don’t think he is qualified. I do think Hillary Clinton is qualified. And I am voting for Donald Trump.

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There’s also the bandwagon effect: Trump won in part because he captured a broad swath of Republicans and moderates.

You saw Trump doing really well with Tea Party voters. He did much better with non-college-educated voters, but he wasn’t getting blown out with college-educated ones. You saw him doing well with young voters, and great with older voters. You didn’t see a huge drop-off anywhere.

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And that’s one difference with Sanders. When I look at him, I see a huge drop-off: There are a lot of Democratic voters over 45, over 50, over 65, and they seem to read Sanders very differently than younger voters do. I think that’s about how people perceive a political character like Bernie Sanders, the label “socialism,” and the politics that come with that. If you’re over 45 years old, you have a memory of the Cold War. You remember people like Sanders being fringe characters in American politics. You remember them being largely unelectable. You probably lumped them in with George McGovern. Even if you like Bernie Sanders, you have a formative memory of Cold War politics and you read him as a really risky electoral proposition.

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That does raise a question to me of whether there is a critical bloc of Democrats who look at Sanders and have an unwillingness to vote for him.

It sounds like when it comes to South Carolina and Super Tuesday, you’re looking to see if any of these groups of voters starts tapping the brakes.

In South Carolina, that would be older black voters, who are a huge component of the electorate there. On Super Tuesday, it’s the overall question. If Sanders is coming in about 20 percent in the coming states, that’s very different than if he’s getting 30, 35, 40 percent, because that’s the leap Trump made in 2016 after he started winning the early contests. When you got to the bigger states, Trump was moving up and getting well into the 30s, even breaking 40 percent. He was showing that he was growing his coalition. On Super Tuesday, if Sanders is in the low 20s or even in the teens, that’s a sign the bandwagon effect has not set in despite early victories. I think then you’re really looking at the possibility of a ceiling there, probably imposed by age.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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