Here’s a curious little detail about this year’s presidential race that’s been hiding in plain sight in the polls since January and ignored by almost everyone in politics who should know better: The Democrats’ strongest candidate is Bernie Sanders. By a long shot.
Polling doesn’t leave much room for doubt on this point. Since the start of the year there have been 26 national polls that included a Sanders versus Trump trial heat question.
Sanders came out on top of 25 out of the 26. (The only one he lost was a USA Today/Suffolk poll taken February 11 to 15. Trump won that one by one point, 43-44.) Sanders not only won the other 25, he won 21 of them with double-digit margins.
In 11 of the 12 polls taken since the end of March, he got 50 percent of the vote or higher. (The exception was last week’s Fox News poll, which showed Sanders beating Trump by 4 percentage points, 46-42.) His margins in the other four most recent polls are +15, +13, +11 and +16.
During the same period, there were 37 trial heats between Clinton and Trump. Clinton won 29 of the 37 with one tie. But her margins were generally closer than those in the Sander vs. Trump match-ups. She led Trump by double digits in only 12 of the 37 and got 50 percent or more support in only 11 of them.
But the five most recent polls all ended in statistical ties and with Trump actually ahead by margins of 2 to 5 percentage points in three of them.
In other words, while Trump has closed the polling gap with Clinton since he effectively clinched the Republican nomination on May 3, he’s still getting blown out by Sanders.
Which raises some fascinating questions: What happens if these trends continue? Suppose Trump opens up a larger lead against Clinton, and Sanders continues to lead Trump?
If that happens, at what point does the national media start to notice that Sanders has a better chance of beating Trump in November than Clinton does? At what point does it dawn on the political chattering classes that they may have been as clueless about Sanders as they’ve been about Trump? And how does the narrative change then?
And what happens if Trump is leading Clinton and Sanders is leading Trump when the Democratic Convention convenes next July? Nothing concentrates the mind like the knowledge that you’re going to be hanged in the morning. Will it dawn on the Democratic establishment, super-delegates and all, that if they nominate Hillary it may be, uh, morning in America?
And at what point do the Republicans wake up to the fact that while Sanders may be a loopy socialist, six months of polling suggests that the American people may prefer him to a loopy capitalist? At what point does it dawn on the Republican Party that beating Bernie might be a lot tougher than beating Hillary — if for no other reason than it has been 25 years since the Cold War ended, and in that time, about 50 million Americans who lived through it have died, and 100 million Americans who are largely clueless about socialism have become eligible to vote?
To be sure, polling isn’t destiny. Plenty of presidential candidates have won come-from-behind victories — Truman, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, to name three. It’s entirely possible that Hillary could beat Trump or Trump could beat Sanders in November, no matter how badly they’re doing in the polls in May. That’s why we have campaigns.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the last five months of polling has consistently shown Sanders beating Trump.
If I were running the Republican campaign, I would stop assuming that Hillary Clinton will be the inevitable nominee, and start giving some serious thought to how to run against Sanders.
This has been a year of political surprises, and a Democratic pivot from Clinton to Sanders at the last minute based on electability shouldn’t be ruled out.
And if I had to run against Sanders I would make an ideological attack on socialism the centerpiece of my campaign. I would not assume that everyone knows that socialism sucks, and it is enough just to ridicule Sanders for being a socialist — as a lot of Republicans seem to think. If Sanders is the nominee, Republicans are going to have to re-defeat socialism in order to beat him.
In order to beat Sanders, Trump will have to run the sort of campaign Margaret Thatcher would run. Whether he has it in him remains to be seen.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.