What’s worse: choosing a socialist for your party’s presidential nominee, or taking the nomination away from one at a contested convention?
With the presidential primaries underway, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. In a fragmented field featuring several ambitious, funded and hard-headed candidates, Sanders stands the best chance of leading the delegate chase by the time Democrats hold their convention in Milwaukee in mid-July.
Why? His small-dollar donor army is stable, unmoved by news cycles and the ups and downs that befall other campaigns. The Bernie Bros stick through thick and thin, unlike, for instance, the fickle supporters of Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. Party rules require a candidate to win 15% of the vote in any state to qualify for pledged delegates, and Sanders’ is the only candidacy guaranteed to do that in almost every state.
Sanders is in a similar position to Donald Trump in 2016’s Republican primary, benefiting from fragmentation below him among people who don’t know when to quit. The only difference is that Republican Party rules enabled Trump to rack up massive delegate hauls in several states while winning less than a majority of the votes, while Sanders cannot. The proportional allocation rules of the Democratic primary (no winner-take-all states) puts an anvil on Sanders’ head as he tries to rise up and grab the 1,991 pledged delegates necessary to win the nomination outright.
If Sanders gets close but falls short, all hell could break loose. After the first ballot, the Democratic “superdelegates” (establishment party leaders and elected officials) get involved and could turn the convention toward a more establishment-friendly candidate.
Can you imagine the absolute pandemonium if Sanders shows up in Milwaukee with the most delegates and leaves without his party’s nomination? All immediate chaos aside, a key political question emerges: Will Sanders supporters show up in November to support a Democrat who, in their eyes, stole the nomination?
Donald Trump’s dream
This would be a dream scenario for President Trump and the Republicans. In 2016, although Hillary Clinton won more popular votes than Sanders during the primary, many of his supporters felt the nominating process was unfairly rigged against them. And then in the fall, one large study of voters found that 12% of Sanders supporters voted for Trump, enough, at least on paper, to have swung the election away from Clinton in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
If the Sanders people felt violated in 2016, this scenario would put that emotion on steroids in 2020.
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But what happens in the other scenario, where Sanders is nominated? A major political party would have put a socialist on a plausible path to the White House, a norm-shattering moment in American politics. While Democrats and Republicans have had their differences over the years, both parties have tended to nominate candidates from within the traditional guardrails of American policy debate.
That would end with Sanders. Jonathan Chait, a well-known liberal writer, recently penned a column called “Running Bernie Sanders Against Trump Would Be an Act of Insanity” and listed Sanders’ most extreme and unpopular positions: “…replacing all private health insurance with a government plan, banning fracking, letting prisoners vote, decriminalizing the border, giving free health care to undocumented immigrants, and eliminating ICE.”
Sanders’ tax boost
And that list ignores taxes, which would increase substantially to pay for Medicare for All and Sanders’ pledge to wipe out all student loan debt, and abortion, which Sanders frequently refers to as “health care” (do the babies regard it as such?).
Remarkably, all of Sanders’ serious opponents for the nomination have adopted some or all of his extreme positions, gifting Trump the ability to call them all socialists. But while a more pragmatic Democrat might be tempted to walk back the “insanity” in a general election campaign against Trump, Sanders will double and triple down.
I tend to think it would be worse for Democrats to take the nomination away from Sanders, although choosing someone with such warm feelings for the Soviet Union seems downright crazy, too. But there’s no doubt that the energy in the Democratic Party is with Sanders and the young left-wing radicals who support him, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. To deny them would splinter their party and suck the energy right out of the Left’s fall campaign at a time when Trump’s supporters are already more excited to vote, according to Associated Press polling.
Socialism is a harsh mistress. Democrats are damned if they indulge and damned if they don’t.
You hate to see it.