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Bernie Sanders is challenging two cherished theories of electability

One of the theories is beloved by centrists. The other is believed by leftists. Neither is looking good.

Bernie Sanders Holds Campaign Town Hall In Fort Dodge, Iowa Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

It’s still early days, but Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign is throwing two cherished theories of presidential electability into question.

One of those theories is beloved by self-styled centrists, and has served as a way to gate-keep against more liberal candidates. It argues that Americans are ideological moderates who punish political parties for nominating candidates too far to the left or right.

The other is beloved by leftists, and has served as a cudgel against more centrist candidates. It holds that there’s a vast working-class majority out there for any candidate willing to slough off the Democratic Party’s turn to corporatism, free trade, and identity politics and recapture the economic populism that made the New Deal Democrats dominant for a generation.

Neither theory, right now, is looking particularly strong.

To begin, let’s look at a few recent polls. A Fox News poll matched up leading Democrats against Donald Trump. Vice President Joe Biden led by 11 points, the largest margin of any Democrat. Bernie Sanders was in second place, with a 5-point lead. An Emerson poll tested a similar question and found both Biden and Sanders beating Trump by 8 points. Quinnipiac ran a head-to-head in all-important Pennsylvania and found, again, that Biden and Sanders led the pack, with 11- and 7-point leads over Trump, respectively.

Business Insider, meanwhile, decided to poll something else. It asked Americans to rank the Democrats by how liberal they were. Here, Sanders leaped far ahead of the pack. “Americans believe Sanders is the most liberal candidate in the Democratic field — by a wide margin,” wrote Insider. Sanders isn’t just viewed as far more liberal than Biden; he’s viewed as far more liberal than Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Beto O’Rourke.

So what we can say about the head-to-head polling, right now, is that Biden and Sanders lead Trump by the largest margins, with Biden typically holding a slightly larger lead than Sanders. And that’s true even though Sanders is viewed as far more liberal than any other Democrat in the race.

This presents a challenge to two traditional theories of electability.

Two theories of electability, provisionally debunked

Centrists have long held that the electorate is ideologically moderate and temperamentally cautious and will penalize political parties for nominating ideologically extreme candidates. There’s been some evidence for this. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern were wiped out in their respective races, and political scientists have long believed that voters penalize candidates who seem too far to the left or right.

But that wisdom, which has been so deliciously conventional for so long, has come under recent attack. A 2016 paper by Marty Cohen, Mary McGrath, Peter Aronow, and John Zaller carefully analyzed the data for every presidential election between 1948 and 2012. “We find scant evidence of extremism penalties,” they concluded.

A 2019 paper by Stephen Utych looked at congressional races and concluded that “while moderates have historically enjoyed an advantage over ideologically extreme candidates,” that “gap has disappeared in recent years.” Today, Utych found, “moderates and ideologically extreme candidates are equally likely to be elected.”

This matches what we’re seeing in the early 2020 polling. Sanders is considered the most liberal Democrat in the race. But he’s right there with Biden in leading Trump by the widest margins. The centrist belief that voters will be turned off by a liberal nominee isn’t holding up well.

Leftists have long had a counter to the centrist theory of electability. In their telling, Democrats lost their post-New Deal dominance by embracing corporations, free trade, and neoliberalism. Medicare-for-all polls great. Minimum wage increases and Medicaid expansions pass easily even in the reddest states. There’s an overwhelming popular majority lying latent for a leftist candidate willing to recapture the old faith. No one has believed this theory as long or as fervently as Sanders himself; it serves as the foundation of his belief in the possibility of “political revolution.”

Sanders, however, is also the best test this theory has had in modern times. And it, too, is coming up short. Sanders has spent the past four years as one of the country’s most prominent political voices. He isn’t another milquetoast Democrat. He’s a democratic socialist who wants to take on the corporations, the millionaires, the billionaires. He wants Medicare-for-all and stronger unions and higher taxes. If you know of him, that’s what you know about him.

Yet Sanders is polling like any other Democrat. He’s a bit behind Biden and ahead of Warren in head-to-head matchups with Trump, but fundamentally, he polls like both of them and draws his support from the same voters as them. His national approval rating is in the mid-40s, and his net favorability “is at about the same level as the other people who have declared their candidacy for the Democratic nomination,” writes CNN’s Harry Enten.

If the leftist theory of electability was correct, we should, by this point, be seeing some evidence of it. But instead, Sanders looks like any reasonably electable Democrat, not a candidate whose coalition dwarfs that of other Democrats.

A frozen electorate

We’re early in the 2020 election, of course. Perhaps, as voters tune in, they’ll penalize or reward Sanders for his politics in ways that will make a hash of this analysis. But I think it’s more likely that 2020 will confirm what we saw in 2016, and 2012, and 2008. The electorate is largely frozen. Swing voters are endangered. The differences between the parties are clear enough that most people know which side they’re on.

That’s not to say that marginal differences don’t matter. In 2016, the world turned on 75,000 votes in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. In a country that closely divided, everything matters. But the reason the election was so close in the first place is that Donald Trump, for all his antics and heterodoxies, managed to consolidate the Republican vote as efficiently as Mitt Romney did before him. What’s always been remarkable about the 2016 election isn’t its abnormality but its normality.

The same is likely to be true in 2020. This is a winnable election for Democrats, but it’s also a losable one. That Fox News poll I mentioned earlier had another result worth pulling out. By a 54-38 margin, Americans want to elect someone who isn’t Trump in 2020. But rewind the clock to June 2011, and by a 49-44 margin, Americans wanted to elect someone who wasn’t Barack Obama.

Obama, of course, went on to win in 2012. The good news for Democrats is that Trump is now, and always has been, less popular than Obama. The bad news for Democrats is that there’s no simple rule of electability they can follow in trying to beat Trump. It’s not as easy as simply nominating a safe moderate, or a left-populist. Either can win, which also means either can lose.

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