Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Another "Missed Opportunity" Counterfactual: Could Bernie Have Beaten Trump?

Another predictable counterfactual is now making the rounds: "What if Bernie Sanders had been the nominee instead of Hillary Clinton"  This is the question now being asked by Frederick deBoer's article,  "Hillary Clinton Lost: Bernie Sanders Could Have Won," in The Washington Post.
DeBoer simply asks: "In her place, could he have beaten Trump?"

This "missed opportunity counterfactual" has some plausibility to it.  Sanders' popularity was high, with higher (10 percentage points) favorability and lower (15 points) unfavorability ratings.  At least in Michigan, Sanders probably would have beaten Trump.  His support among working class whites was considerable. (After all, he defeated Hillary Clinton there in the primaries).  Moreover, the Post declares, "We can only guess how much better he would have performed...in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin."  Since turnout mattered in this election (Clinton got six million fewer votes than Obama did in 2012), these points are valid.

Yet, this begs all kinds of other questions: one is whether a Sanders candidacy would have led to an even lower African American turnout; this is certainly a possible outcome, given the longstanding support for the Clintons among black voters.  (Perhaps, though, that lower turnout would have been offset by a higher millennial turnout, which is certainly conceivable).

More to the point, a Sanders candidacy would have led to a different GOP strategy of character assassination -- one that dredged up Sanders' leftist past in all of its eccentric glory.  Had he won the nominee over a more centrist Clinton, he may still have lost and we'd be arguing over the Democratic party's decision to go with a far left candidate when a centrist would have been the "safe" bet.

Finally, the Democratic Party's nominating process (with all the super delegates pledging early for Hillary and taking the wind out of Bernie's sails) made it quite difficult for anyone but Clinton to get the nomination.  Her nomination (read: coronation) may have been inevitable.

Whether this will have consequences for the Democratic Party's 2020 nominating process is unclear.

Until Trump's victory, many GOP insiders were probably vowing to follow the Dems and put the party elites back in control of the nominating process -- what with a Trump candidacy appearing doomed until the actual election was held.  Now, Democrats may be tempted to take a play out of the GOP playbook and bring the people back into the decision making process.

Popularity does count, after all; if you can't get your own people out to vote enthusiastically, you'll be doing a lot of counterfactual Monday morning quarterbacking in the future.

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