Of those who know who he is, most voters like Bernie Sanders. He is the only major presidential candidate with a positive net favorability rating among the general public. Yet despite these facts and his wildly popular ideas, he remains the underdog in the race for the Democratic nomination. Why?
The answer appears to be perceived electability. When I've phone banked for Sanders, I've talked to a lot of voters who say they're a big fan of his, and they're glad he's in the race, but they just aren't sure he can win a general election. They're scared of the Republicans, they tell me, and their foremost concern is making sure the Democratic nominee, no matter who it is, wins in November.
I think this attitude is misguided, both because there are large and important differences between the Democratic candidates and because electability arguments can be circular, self-fulfilling prophecies. In no small part because electability considerations are speculative, we're much better served by casting our vote for the candidate whose record and platform is most aligned with our values.
That said, given that a lot of people think about electability, it's worth looking at some evidence. The numbers indicate that the Democrats' electoral prospects would be better under Bernie Sanders than under Hillary Clinton for two important reasons:
In In Iowa's Democratic primary, Sanders beat Clinton among Democrats aged 18-29 by 70 percentage points. In New Hampshire, he won that age group by 65 percentage points. And in the most recent national poll from Quinnipiac University, Sanders held a net favorability rating among 18-34 year-old voters of all political affiliations that was 57 percentage points better than Clinton's (see graph below).
Sanders is more popular among millennials right now than Obama was among young voters in 2008 and 2012.
On voting results alone, my generation won Indiana and North Carolina for Barack Obama in 2008 and Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in 2012. In addition, the youth contribution to electoral success extends beyond the vote; as Pew reported in 2008:
...young people provided not only their votes but also many enthusiastic campaign volunteers. Some may have helped persuade parents and older relatives to consider Obama's candidacy. And far more young people than older voters reported attending a campaign event while nearly one-in-ten donated money to a presidential candidate.
It is extremely hard to believe that millennials would turn out and vote for Clinton in such large numbers if she becomes the Democratic nominee; over 43,000 people, for example, have already pledged to write Bernie in if he loses to Clinton in the primary. There is also an undeniable "enthusiasm gap" between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns; even if most Sanders supporters would suck it up and turn out for Clinton if she ends up as the nominee, which is hardly guaranteed, we won't see anything close to the volunteerism millennials are already engaged in on Bernie's behalf. If your main concern is electability, do you really want to gamble with the key demographic group from the last two presidential elections?
2. Independents and Republicans are more likely to vote for Bernie Sanders than for Hillary Clinton.
Sanders also has much higher favorability ratings than Clinton among non-Democrats; his net favorability among them was 39 percentage points better than Clinton's in the most recent Quinnipiac poll, and in New Hampshire, he won Independents by 47 percentage points. His class-based, anti-Establishment message resonates. If you heard Sanders speak at Liberty University (a conservative hotbed) last September, you know what I'm talking about; his direct, honest pitch for people who disagree about social issues to band together in pursuit of economic justice was very well-received. He didn't win an army of converts overnight, but he did get people thinking; one Liberty alum estimates that half of the Liberty community could potentially Feel the Bern.
Read this take from teenage-conservative-icon-turned-Sanders-supporter CJ Pearson. Listen to the growing contingent of "Lifelong Republicans Who Love Bernie Sanders." Or consider my (admittedly anecdotal) experience talking to several voters and reading numerous Internet comments of folks who are deciding between Donald Trump and Sanders. As Daniel Denvir notes, that doesn't mean that Sanders will win over the most prejudiced Trump supporters, but his brand of economic populism may make him "the Democrats' only chance to wrest white working class voters from a billionaire's hate-filled dystopian rage."
The coalition we're seeing for Sanders in the primaries already indicates the appeal he holds for voters who less consistently vote Democratic. Polling data shows that "Sanders has forged connections to lower-income New Hampshire and Iowa Democrats that eluded Obama and every other progressive primary challenger in recent history." Unlike Clinton, Sanders may be able to turn out people who don't often vote, bring in some folks who usually vote against their economic interests, and unite both groups with traditional Democratic voting blocs.
Polls that explore head-to-head matchups also suggest that Sanders would do better than Clinton against each of the top five Republican candidates. Clinton-backer Paul Krugman calls such polls meaningless (he did, however, cite them himself to raise concerns about Barack Obama's electability in March of 2008), and I personally wouldn't read too much into them -- we're still very far out from the general election and opinions can surely change -- but arguments that these numbers will flip remain completely evidence-free. Here's why:
Republican attacks would work at least as well against Hillary Clinton as they would against Bernie Sanders.
Yes, Bernie Sanders defines himself as a Democratic Socialist. If he is the nominee, GOP attack ads would surely use that label to cast him as insane, dangerous, and/or un-American...which is exactly the same thing they did to Barack Obama for eight years and would surely do to Hillary Clinton as well.
Anyone who would run screaming from a 30-second ad decrying socialism without doing any research isn't going to vote for Sanders or Clinton in a general election. But since most of Sanders' platform, as mentioned earlier, is extremely popular, many voters who actually do their homework will quickly learn that his brand of democratic socialism isn't scary at all (it's not even particularly radical).
While the Republican party would undoubtedly dream up additional smears to use against Sanders, the GOP doesn't exactly have a crisis of imagination - or a lack of material to work with - when it comes to attacking Clinton. The idea that Sanders, a candidate whose popularity continues to grow with his name recognition, would be hurt more by such attacks than Clinton, whose favorability has steadily tanked over the last few years, is pure folly.
Candidates labeled "unelectable" by party elites and the punditry have won before.
While Clinton supporters love comparing Sanders' candidacy to the unsuccessful campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, these comparisons don't hold water. Electoral dynamics today are drastically different than they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
At least two presidential candidates in more recent history have been labeled "unelectable" and gone on to win. One was Ronald Reagan. The other, as alluded to earlier, was Barack Obama. That history isn't proof that Sanders will follow suit, but it indicates that "expert" opinions about electability should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt.
For all their talk about the importance of evidence-based electability arguments, Krugman and his fellow naysayers haven't actually provided any. They rely instead on a dubious application of the psychological principle of loss aversion and a simplistic political categorization model, among other speculative arguments, each of which is unconvincing.
None of that's to say that Sanders doesn't still have a lot of work to do if he wants to win the Democratic nomination. Clinton, despite having a very bad record on racial justice, currently holds a big lead among non-White voters. Sanders will need to cut into that. Clinton's lead is likely due more to voters' unfamiliarity with Sanders than anything else, however, and as more non-White voters learn about him, Sanders' popularity among those voters should continue to rise.
When it does, we'll have a real primary election on our hands. And while I'd advise against putting too much stock in electability arguments, the candidate in that primary with the best record and policy platform -- Bernie Sanders -- also happens to be the Democrats' best shot in November.
Note: A version of this post first appeared on 34justice.