Editorial – The Observer
Despite the fears about his electability, Bernie Sanders is the man to beat on Super Tuesday and could yet pose a real threat to Trump
The battle for the US Democratic party’s presidential nomination will reach a sort of climax this week when 14 states, including California and Texas, hold Super Tuesday primary contests. While the policies espoused by rival candidates matter a great deal, one consideration dominates all others: who among them is best equipped to beat Donald Trump in November?
Bernie Sanders, the radical leftwing senator from Vermont, currently leads the race. Having performed well in Iowa and New Hampshire, and secured a big victory in Nevada, Sanders goes into Tuesday’s contests with an average double-digit lead in national polls over his nearest rivals, Joe Biden, a former vice-president, and Mike Bloomberg, a former New York mayor.
Sanders has enjoyed notable success in grassroots fundraising and energising the party base, including younger voters and Latinos. He casts himself as an agent of revolutionary change, ready to stand up for working people against vested interests – for example, by guaranteeing universal health cover. Unusually for modern American politics, he is not afraid to be called a socialist.
Although Tuesday’s votes will not end the contest, they could provide Sanders with a clear path to the nomination. This prospect is the cause of growing unease among the Democratic party’s centre-right establishment, especially Congress members elected in the 2018 midterm polls, when many swing voters abandoned Trump’s Republicans.
Party critics suggest that Sanders is too old (he will be 79 in September) or that health issues may render him unfit (he suffered a heart attack last year). But their biggest worry concerns electability, given his unapologetically populist platform and his record on divisive issues such as Cuba. Old foes Bill and Hillary Clinton fear Sanders will scare off independents and moderate voters.
“Liberalism celebrates certain values: reasonableness, conversation, compassion, tolerance, intellectual humility and optimism,” wrote the American political columnist David Brooks last week. “Sanders’s leadership style embodies populist values, which are different: rage, bitter and relentless polarisation, a demand for ideological purity among your friends, and incessant hatred for your supposed foes.”
Some of this angst is overcooked in ways that the Labour party might recognise. Yet Sanders is no Jeremy Corbyn. He has no use for glorious defeat. If nominated, he will doubtless proclaim his principles. In practice, he may tack towards the centre, as he has already on immigration. That would not please his fans. But while Sanders may be an idealist, he is also a politician eyeing a last chance at power.
Would his candidacy be a gift to Trump? The president, and his GOP supporters and Russian friends, believe so; they are betting on Bernie. Yet the political scientist Steve Phillips suggests such predictions are wide of the mark. In 72 head-to-head polls conducted in the past year, he noted, Sanders beat Trump in all but five.
Phillips argues that demographic changes in battleground states such as Michigan and Wisconsin favour Sanders. Both were won narrowly by Trump in 2016. Since then, nearly 1 million young people there have turned 18 – and they, mostly, will vote Democrat. If such trends are projected nationally, Sanders could win the popular vote and the electoral college. His hopes rest on the record turnout he claims he can attract. Meanwhile, rivals snap at his heels. Big spending by Bloomberg has bought him a slice of the polling action. Biden remains a threat, and two other middling candidates, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, could amass enough delegates to turn the party convention in Milwaukee in July into a cliffhanger. Leftwinger Elizabeth Warren is a wild card.
Whoever eventually gets the nod, it’s clear the party must quickly come together around their banner – and attack the real target. Dislodging Trump will be fiendishly difficult. In this looming showdown, unity is all.