Sanders Versus Trump, Revisited

Every so often, I write what I call a "blue-sky" article, just for fun. This is where you sit back in your chair, allow your eyes to unfocus, and ponder a far-fetched "What if...?" scenario, because you've got nothing better to write about that particular day. And I'll fully admit it -- the more outlandish a proposition you begin with, the more fun such an article is to write. Very occasionally, though, one of these scenarios actually becomes reality. This, of course, allows you to bask in the special pundit's glow of looking downright prescient. Much more commonly, though, the far-fetched remains unreal and never comes to pass, and the outlandish article you wrote predicting it remains (hopefully) forgotten. This is all just an introduction to me revisiting one of those columns, which I wrote last August. It was cheekily titled: "Sanders Versus Trump Would Be Fun."

Five months ago, this was a pretty far-fetched scenario to suggest, even in jest. Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump in the general election? How preposterous an idea! Of course, when writing one of these articles a good rule of thumb is to always point out how speculative the concept all is, which I dutifully did:

Again, this is indeed nothing but the wildest speculation. I fully admit that. Call it a thought exercise, not a prediction of what's going to happen. I pose the question of a possible Trump-versus-Sanders matchup not because I think it's the most likely outcome, but rather because it would certainly be the most interesting one.

That last sentence is still true. However, the likelihood of such a matchup is a lot higher now than it was back then. I correctly labeled Trump "unquestionably the frontrunner" of the Republicans back then, which few were doing at the time (some even still deny this polling reality). His poll numbers have improved since last summer, and nobody else's on the GOP side are really even close to his. The more noticeable change, though, has happened on the Democratic side, where Sanders is actually causing some serious worry for Hillary Clinton's campaign. Back then, she was trouncing him in the polls. Now -- three weeks before Iowa kicks off the primary season -- that's not so true anymore.

But rather than getting hung up on the possibilities (or probabilities) of a Sanders-versus-Trump race, I focused more on the dynamics of the race for the American electorate, versus the party establishmentarians.

For once, the centrists and "serious people" in both parties would be left out in the cold. For once, the American public would get to choose between the most exciting candidates on both sides. The old argument of "Well, this candidate's interesting, but he'd never win the general election" wouldn't work, because if the non-centrist candidate won in both parties, then the centrists would be the ones eventually holding their noses and voting for a candidate they really didn't approve of.... The party hacks and overpaid consultants wouldn't know what to do with themselves -- on either side of the aisle.

. . .

Of course it also almost goes without saying that the populist base on both sides would be delighted with such a contest. Both sides would believe -- deeply -- that the other candidate couldn't possibly win, and that their candidate was an absolute shoo-in. Both would prematurely measure the Oval Office for new drapes, in other words. Both sides would be absolutely convinced of victory: "Are you kidding me? Do you really in your wildest nightmares actually see [Sanders/Trump] getting elected president?!? Ain't gonna happen!"

. . .

I can see a scenario where all the centrists (including a large number of independents) got so disgusted by the choices offered that they all stayed home and refused to vote. Hey, welcome to the world of the true believers, where every four years the choice is to hold your nose and vote for someone who you know is going to disappoint you -- or watch the other team win. Especially with Trump as a major party nominee, a whole lot of people would just throw up their hands and say "this is ridiculous, the choice is between a socialist and a carnival barker." But I also wonder if the opposite might happen. If "the other guy" is seen as so apocalyptically catastrophic that America would be downright unlivable if he won, then a lot of centrists might vote out of sheer terror of the other guy winning. This could actually drive voter turnout to new highs. A vote cast in fear counts exactly the same as a vote cast with rampant enthusiasm, after all.

The probability of both Trump and Sanders becoming presidential nominees is in no way guaranteed, of course -- to some degree, most people see both men as longshots, even today. But the concept is no longer in the realm of "laughably unlikely" in either man's case.

How would this scenario play out? On both sides, there would be a lot of open astonishment leavened with a goodly degree of bitterness from large chunks of the party's voters. Republicans may wind up being more shocked, but Hillary supporters may wind up being more angry. Would both parties eventually bury the hatchet and rally around their nominee? Probably. That's what usually happens, after all -- but Trump and Sanders would be such unusual nominees that the old rules may not apply.

Sanders and Trump supporters would be ecstatic, of course. That pretty much goes without saying. Sanders supporters already point to head-to-head polling which shows that Bernie holds a significant lead (bigger even than Hillary does) over Trump. But when the general election contest starts, a whole lot of mud is sure to be thrown. Trump's business dealings and personal life will receive much more scrutiny, because Democrats are not in the same position as Trump's rivals for the Republican nomination. Other GOP candidates have learned that attacking Trump head-on leads to his voters rejecting you and your campaign (as Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, and Bobby Jindal all found out). Democrats don't have this worry, because they will not be fishing for the same voters as Trump. So the attacks against The Donald will be a lot sharper and a lot less restrained.

However, the same exact thing would happen to Sanders. Bernie's got a lot of past history that remains largely unexamined by the public. Sanders supporters bemoan the lack of media coverage of their candidate, but they may not appreciate the media spotlight if it does turn full-force on Sanders -- including his voting record, his past speeches, and any mud that the opposition researchers on the other side dig up. Hillary Clinton is just beginning to dig into Sanders's record, but so far she's only superficially done so. When the real microscopic examination happens, it could change the head-to-head matchup polling, even against Trump. If Clinton starts losing in a big way, she could get desperate and start flinging mud at Bernie with abandon, but even if she doesn't Donald Trump will certainly not hesitate to go after Sanders as hard as he can. He hasn't yet shown any restraint against Republicans, and it'll only get more vicious when he's only got one Democrat to beat, that's for sure. Sanders will, no doubt, be painted as the second coming of Karl Marx -- you certainly don't need a crystal ball to see that one.

How would Sanders fare against Trump in a head-to-head debate? That certainly is an interesting question. Trump is known for brushing his detractors off with poignant put-downs that are, by design, almost impossible to refute in the heat of a debate. Can Sanders be quick enough on his feet to counteract this? It remains to be seen.

Sanders is already pitching his message to have crossover appeal, of course. Economic problems hit Democrats and Republicans alike, and the feeling that the game is rigged is not exclusive to either party. Sanders will rely, as he has all along, on the substance of his proposals. He will explain how his agenda is designed to help the largest amount of people possible, in very tangible and concrete ways that almost anyone can comprehend.

Trump, on the other hand, might change his game up a bit for the general election. Oh, sure, he'll still hold large rallies where he tosses red meat with abandon to the adoring crowds -- that's not likely to change. But lately Trump seems to be attempting to portray himself in interviews as a lot more reasonable and a lot less hot-headed. This could be the start of his pivot towards his general election campaign. Trump likely knows that what fires up the Republican base isn't going to be enough to get him elected, so his challenge will be to appear a lot less frightening and a lot more reasonable to as many people as possible. This doesn't necessarily mean a change in his agenda, but more a change in his tone. At least during sit-down interviews with the press (the rallies will likely remain as rowdy as he can manage).

What I wrote back in August still resonates, though. Both Sanders and Trump supporters would find it absolutely inconceivable that the other guy could win. There are a lot of "true believers" following both men, to put it another way. Perhaps one side is right -- the election could lead to a stunning McGovernesque defeat for Democrats or it could lead to a Goldwater-sized fiasco for Republicans. Or it could be a lot closer than any of them expect. But the question of what would happen in such a matchup is certainly worth pondering now, because Sanders-versus-Trump is a looking a lot more possible these days. One thing remains unchanged: it certainly would be one of the most interesting presidential contests America has seen for quite some time.

 

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