If Bernie Wins California, Should Hillary Step Down?

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks on stage during a campaign event in Vallejo, California, May 18,
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks on stage during a campaign event in Vallejo, California, May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

The Democratic Party must nominate the candidate with the best chance of defeating Trump. If Bernie wins California, Hillary is not the best candidate.

Oh, I hear the groans aplenty. Hillary won the most votes. Hillary has the most delegates. Bernie can't possibly win against the Republican attack machine. Katha Pollitt in The Nation colorfully expresses the position heard often from progressive Hillary supporters:

"I just don't believe Americans are ready for a 74-year-old self-described socialist with a long far-left CV who would raise their taxes by quite a lot. By the time the Republicans got finished with him, he'd be the love child of Rosa Luxemburg and the Ayatollah Khomeini, and then it's hello, President Trump."

But if Hillary loses California, what does that say about her ability to win in the fall? It would mean that she has alienated most white voters. It would mean she again has lost the vast majority of independents, a crucial category. It would mean she couldn't win dog catcher among those under 30. And most importantly it would mean that she could lose to Trump.

In Denial?
What supports the argument that Bernie would be the weaker candidate in the fall? The starting assumption is that "I just don't believe someone with his politics could possibly win...." But what is the factual basis for that belief? Or rather, is there any factual basis for it at all? Most importantly, how would we find out whether or not that basic assumption is valid before the votes are counted?

There are many kinds of information that could be useful -- historical examples, poll data, primary results and favorability ratings to name a few.

For example, one could argue by historical example that big spending Democrats or socialists have lost in the past. But who? Eugene V. Debbs? FDR? LBJ? George McGovern? According to Noam Chomsky, Bernie isn't really a socialist. He's just a New Deal democrat. But didn't that kind of democrat win many elections?

Of course, those were different times and that's what makes historical arguments so problematical. Then is not now. Societies and institutions change. Our attitudes change. Historical conflicts (like the Cold War) change as well.

Should we value polls?
Hillary progressives largely reject the current poll data on Trump-Clinton and Trump-Sanders match-ups. Instead, they remain firmly fixed to their starting assumption that Sanders can't win, and then argue backwards from there. They go on to claim that the current polls aren't good indicators because they don't support their assumption: The voters aren't focusing on the fall yet; The Republicans haven't attacked Bernie yet; The polls are really inaccurate this far from the election; Polls in general this year are off; and so on.

But for those Hillary supporters who are willing to look at the most recent polls, here are three that should worry you.

Wednesday, May 18
New Hampshire: Trump vs. Clinton: WBUR/MassINC: Clinton 44, Trump 42:
Clinton +2
New Hampshire: Trump vs. Sanders: WBUR/MassINC: Sanders 54, Trump 38: Sanders +16

Tuesday, May 17
Arizona: Trump vs. Clinton: PPP (D): Clinton 41, Trump 45: Trump +4
Arizona: Trump vs. Sanders: PPP (D): Sanders 45, Trump 44: Sanders +1

Sunday, May 15
Georgia: Trump vs. Clinton: Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Trump 45, Clinton 41: Trump +4
Georgia: Trump vs. Sanders: Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Trump 42, Sanders 47: Sanders +5

Quite a pattern, no? These are not cherry-picked. They are the latest state match-up polls listed on Real ClearPolitics.com

(This just in: New Jersey: Hillary over Trump by 7 pts. Sanders over Trump by 12 pts. And nationally Hillary over Trump by 6 pts; Sanders over Trump by 13 pts. according to the latest CBS/NYT poll.)

Let's start with New Hampshire which President Obama won twice. Hillary barely bests Trump while Bernie clobbers him. Hillary people might say that this is to be expected because Bernie comes from a neighboring state and they already know him.

Precisely. They know him well. They already know he is a democratic socialist. They already know about his big government agenda. Bernie never hid his beliefs, nor changed them very much. Do you really think the Republican attack machine is going to flip those New Hampshire voters with new information?

And even if they do raise more doubts, why won't the same attack machine do similar damage to Hillary? (The Hillary fallback line is that she's already been attacked so much that there's no more damage to be done. Oh really?)

Maybe that slime machine argument works better on Bernie's slim lead in Arizona, which no Democrat other than Bill Clinton has won since 1948. But what about Georgia? How do we explain that disparity away? Trump is thumping Hillary, but Bernie is running nine points better. Again, attacking Bernie may weaken his numbers, but why should Hillary do any better against the attack machine?

Nevertheless, Hillary progressives stick with their starting assumption that Bernie can't win. It's as if they believe all the polls are part of a grand conspiracy to make Hillary look bad.

Favorable/Unfavorable Ratings:
Trump should lose to just about anyone given that 63.7 percent of likely voters view him unfavorably while only 30.4 percent view him favorably according to the most recent poll average found on RealClearPolitics.com. That computes to startling gap of negative 33.3 points.

How is it possible for Trump to win with such negative numbers? Only by running against someone who also has prodigious negatives. Hillary is viewed favorably by only 36 percent of likely voters and unfavorably by 55 percent for a gap of minus 19 points. Better than Trump but nothing to brag about, and likely to get worse.

Meanwhile Bernie has a 46.9 percent favorable versus 40.0 percent unfavorable rating for a gap of plus 6.9 points. Of course that number could drop under withering attacks. But how do you make the case that Bernie's numbers will worsen more than Hillary's? Only by denying that any of this data matters and concluding with your starting assumption, "I just don't believe Americans are ready...."

Well, if Hillary loses California, might it not be time for Hillary progressives to start reevaluating their basic assumptions rather than accepting them as empirical facts?

Blame it on Bernie?
The most pernicious rationalization of Hillary's weak poll numbers puts the blame on Bernie. He's attacking her too hard. He's waging a destructive campaign even though he has no chance of winning. He's writing the playbook for the Trump campaign. He's ramping up unrealistic expectations among his young supporters. He's not willing to denounce their vociferous demonstrations and nasty comments. He's the new Ralph Nader throwing the election to Trump.

It's easy to understand why the Clinton campaign would put out these talking points in an effort to wrap up the race. But Hillary supporters who buy into this fiction are making a self-defeating argument. Is she really so fragile that she can't handle a principled debate about policy positions, campaign financing, Wall Street and her own prior actions and stands on critical issues? If she can't hold up against Bernie's relatively mild attacks, how could she possibly stand-up to Trump's unprincipled assaults? That's a virtual admission that she's an extremely vulnerable candidate.

Why Hillary could lose Californian to Bernie and then the fall election to Trump.
We could provide a more complex explanation of the attack on the neo-liberal order from the right and the left. We could show how runaway inequality has turned much of the electorate against the plush establishment which is leaving them behind. We could also go over Hillary's hawkish positions and her failure to release her Wall Street transcripts.

But none of this is necessary to explain Hillary's high unfavorables. Simply put, she is identified with the past just when the electorate wants to break with it. Most Americans don't want to go back to another Clinton drama. She is not well liked because she too often seems to shift her positions, and that makes her seem insincere and lacking in integrity. Independents and young people seem especially put off by that affect.

This leaves progressive Hillary supporters with a crucial decision. Do they stick with Hillary if she loses California, even if that portends a debilitating loss to Trump in the fall? Or will they demand that Hillary step down in favor of Bernie, the more popular candidate?

Say President Trump three times before deciding.

Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute in New York is working with unions, worker centers and community organization to build a national economics educational campaign. His latest book, Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice (Oct 2015), is a text for that effort. All proceeds go to support this educational campaign.