I Really Am Still Undecided Between Bernie and Hillary

In some ways I envy those of you who feel certain in your choice. I'm just not there yet. And I doubt I'm the only one, even on this site. On what basis is this undecided voter going to decide? That's what this post is about.

At the heart of the matter, I'm a liberal. Because ours is a two-party political system--a duopoly really--and the Democrats have consistently been the more liberal of the two major parties during my lifetime, I am a Democrat. I freely admit, I am a liberal rather than a radical, but I do believe our system needs serious reforms. On the other hand, I don't want to burn the system down. I believe in free markets, but with strong constraints to prevent abuse and a robust safety net to ensure that all citizens receive basic supports. All the major Democratic candidates are ideologically in the same ballpark as I am, at least roughly speaking.

As a reformist liberal, I select my candidate for president by determining which one can do the most to move our country to the left from where it is now, through legislation, regulation, judicial appointments, and rhetoric that changes opinion. Pretty simple. So I ask myself whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is the person who, if nominated, would accomplish the most on that front. At this point, I still don't know.

Although I don't know who I'm going to vote for in New York's Democratic primary on April 19, I do know one thing. I'm very glad Bernie Sanders is running, and that he's doing well enough that Hillary Clinton will not be running unopposed. I've written more than once about my desire for Elizabeth Warren to make a run for president. Her policy positions and her understanding of how the economic elites dominate our politics would have made her a terrific candidate and, I believe, a terrific president. Even if she didn't win the nomination, she'd have made the winner a stronger candidate. Likewise, Bernie Sanders--whether or not he wins--will end up making the Democratic nominee better off for his candidacy--much like the Black Lives Matter movement has made all the major Democrats better candidates by forcing them to deal with a crucial issue in a more comprehensive way.

I respect the experience and knowledge Hillary Clinton has gained as a senator, a secretary of state, and as a top adviser to two presidents. She's a powerful advocate as well as a skilled politician--as she's shown in just the last couple of weeks with her preemptive attack against Jeb Bush at the National Urban League conference, where she skillfully "skewered" his "Right to Rise" slogan.

However, on the issues--in particular economic issues--I'm closer to Sanders than I am to Clinton, although the latter has moved leftward. He believes we need more fundamental change, and I believe he's right. I'm rooting for him to do well. Here's the thing: the better he does, the harder my decision becomes. On the one hand, it's mathematically almost impossible that my individual vote will determine the winner. On the other hand, what if it actually did?

If I knew, right now, that Hillary Clinton was going to win by a wide margin both statewide and in my district (delegates are determined in New York on both bases), I'd probably just vote for Sanders. As the candidate who is overall more progressive, I'd want to see him make a strong showing so that, even if he lost, progressive Democrats would have demonstrated that they are a force within the party. But right now, I certainly don't know that that's the case. Let's assume the race remains at least relatively close.

On the one hand there is the matter of electability (yes, I know that a whole bunch of Sanders supporters just either spluttered their coffee or yelled an unprintable expletive in disgust). Here's the thing: the matter is somewhat less than crystal clear. A new set of general election polls for Missouri--a state with a roughly representative percentage of African Americans (although very few Latinos)--from PPP shows Hillary and Bernie doing very similarly (zero or 1-point difference) against Trump, Rubio, and Walker, although Sanders runs 6 points weaker than Clinton against Jeb Bush.

PPP's new Iowa results also show a zero or 1-point difference when the two Democrats are matched against Trump, Walker, and Rubio, but a 3-point stronger performance for Clinton compared to Sanders against Bush. In Minnesota two weeks ago, PPP found Hillary doing 3 points better than Bernie against Jeb and Walker, although Bernie ran 3 points stronger against Trump. PPP polled Illinois as well, and there Hillary's comparative advantage over Bernie was a bit stronger against Bush (4 points stronger) and Rubio (6 points stronger), although both beat Walker by 4 and crushed Trump. However, that Illinois poll is already three weeks old, whereas the Iowa and Missouri data are from last week.

National polling indicates something a bit different, although the newest national general election polls that include both Hillary and Bernie were conducted three weeks ago. Quinnipiac showed Hillary running more strongly (4 to 6 points more) than Bernie against Jeb, Walker, and Trump. So did a CNN/ORC poll--other than against Trump, whom Bernie trounced by three more than did Hillary, although both won by more than 15 points in any case. PPP's own national poll from late July found Hillary 10 to 15 points stronger than Bernie against Rubio and Bush, but only 3 points stronger against Trump, whom both beat by double digits. I haven't seen this kind of apples-to-apples comparison elsewhere of the two Democrats' relative general election strength, so if you've read this far at least you've gotten something tangible from this post.

What does all this information about polls tell me? It tells me that Hillary, at least as of now, is probably the stronger general election candidate than Bernie, in particular against Jeb for whatever reason, but that the gap between them may well be closing. That matters, and I'll keep following those patterns up through the day I cast my vote. If the data consistently show that Hillary would run significantly stronger than Bernie--or vice versa for that matter--that would weigh heavily on my decision. If there's no consistent pattern, or a consistent pattern where neither is stronger, then I don't have to consider electability at all.

I did check each of their websites, and read all of their issue pages. I can't say I found any real surprises. It's worth noting that, for now, Sanders' list of "Issues" does not include either immigration or anything relating to foreign policy. However, he certainly has spoken about immigration during this campaign, and has a strong progressive record on both issues. On the other hand, as of Wednesday morning, Clinton's issue section--which is broken into four broader categories--has a far less comprehensive discussion of how we should deal with racial injustice than does Sanders'--a section he added a bit over a week ago. So each has some work to do.

Ultimately, there is a degree to which this is a battle between my head and my heart. Or perhaps between what I'd like to see and what may be more strategically sound. If I came to the conclusion that there was a statistically meaningful chance that one Democrat would win while the other would lose, that would prove decisive. We simply cannot afford to lose the White House in this or any other election, to allow the Supreme Court or the federal courts to move further to the right, and certainly not to give a Republican-controlled Congress the White House as well. I'm certainly not comfortable relying on Senate filibusters that can--on budgetary matters--be rendered moot by the reconciliation process.

Even if both Hillary and Bernie would win, if one ran stronger than the other that could make the difference in whether Democrats retake the Senate, and thus become able to confirm far better judges than if Republicans maintained control, even by a single vote (I'm presuming that the House is out of reach at this point, making sweeping progressive legislation impossible for now). Coat tails matter.

It is certainly possible that--for any number of reasons--nominating the less progressive candidate could result in moving the country further left than nominating the more progressive one. As a reformist, I believe strongly that incremental improvements matter a great deal. As a historian, I know the long run matters. But I also know that people alive now only get one life, and so anything we can do to improve their lot while they are alive is worth doing.

Having spoken about coat tails, it's also wrong to say that a President Sanders wouldn't be able to do much different than a President Clinton because both would almost certainly be stymied by a Republican House. Each one would appoint not only different judges but different regulators and different cabinet officials, all of whom can have a tremendous impact on the way laws are interpreted and enforced. Think of the difference a Joseph Stiglitz could make as Treasury secretary.

Finally, there is the issue of gender. I do think it would be a tremendously positive thing to elect a female president. We'd be breaking a historic barrier, and I like the idea of my own daughters growing up seeing that a female president is as normal a thing as, say, a black one. If my decision between Sanders and Clinton turns out to be very close, that could be the deciding factor. Although there hasn't been a Jewish president either, breaking that particular barrier ranks behind breaking the gender barrier for me, based on the general position of Jews compared to women in the contemporary U.S.

For those turned off by my considering anything other than the issues, I can't help you. And for those who were hoping I'd bash either of these Democrats, well, I can't help you either. As of now, one of these two will be the Democratic nominee (could Joe Biden shake up the race? I doubt it, but one never knows). I would be happy and proud to work for and vote for either Hillary or Bernie in the general election.

On November 8, 2016, we Americans will select our next president. It must be a Democrat. The Republican Party is so destructive that defeating them is more than enough motivation for me, whether or not I agree 100 percent with the Democratic nominee. For whom will I vote to be that nominee? For better or worse, I still don't know.