Election 2016

Are Democratic Voters About to Make the Same Mistake Again with Hillary Clinton?

It all comes down to electability.

Image: Sen Bernie Sanders talks to reporters in Dubuque, IA
Photo Credit: Screen capture

Last week the highly trusted Quinnipiac University National Poll delivered good news and bad news for Bernie Sanders.

The unpromising lead is: Sanders polls 30% behind Clinton.

This bad news might be best explained by the Democrats’ even more lopsided answer to the big “electability” question. Unfortunately for Sanders, 38% more Democrats think Clinton “would have a good chance of defeating the Republican nominee” than would Sanders (87% to 49%).

Whose Electability?

The good news is what the pollsters actually demonstrate to be true about electability by direct match-ups of the two Democrats against those four Republican contenders who have more than single digit support. Their findings: “Sanders does just as well [as Clinton against Rubio], or even better, against [the other] top Republicans [Trump, Carson,and Cruz].” Against each of the latter three, Sanders’ winning margin exceeds Clinton’s by 2%, 3% and 5% respectively.

It appears that democratic voters are not just misinformed, but grossly misinformed, about whether Clinton or Sanders would do better against Republicans. Comparing the margin of support for Clinton over Sanders (30%) with the even larger 38% margin of polled Democrats who erroneously rank Clinton as a more electable candidate than Sanders suggests the possibility that their grossly erroneous belief may well account for much of their expressed preference for Clinton.

Even if not all Clinton supporters are using electability as their main criterion for preferring her in opinion polls, it would be useful for these grossly misled Democrats when casting their primary vote to consider the reason why Sanders’ outperforms Clinton against Republicans. They should remember that it is independent voters, not party loyalists, who generally determine the outcome of typically close general elections. If Democrats really want to lose the 2016 election to a Republican they should by all means choose a candidate that Independents reject. Clinton is just the candidate for that job.

Whose Centrist?

Theoretically, in a democratic two party system the more centrist Democrat should normally appeal most to independents. Many Democratic voters may have missed their only honest former president Jimmy Carter’s useful anouncements that we no longer have a democracy. The US has become a full-fledged plutocracy due to the line of usually 5-4 “money is speech” decisions culminating most notoriously in Citizens United (2010) and McCutcheon (2014). Therefore the conventional wisdom does not hold true for the open election of 2016. For those concerned about electability to still hew to the more centrist candidate is misguided for two reasons.

First, the centrist position in a plutocracy is centrist not because it is supported by a majority of voters distributed around the bulge of the bell curve but rather because it falls within the area of paid bipartisan service to plutocrats. This plutocratic center where Clinton resides defines the safe position that will not be undermined by unanswerable quantities of paid bipartisan propaganda and a plutocratic mass media. Unlike Clinton, Sanders’ policy positions are not centrist in the plutocratic sense. They are virtually all majoritarian positions with voters, scaling the top of that bell curve. Many of them, like financial reform, are supported by large bipartisan majorities. Clinton has created a montage of Sanders’ positions modified so as to be unthreatening to plutocrats. Independent voters who decide elections are bell curve centrists, not plutocratic centrists.

Second, Sanders’ principal campaign message is about political inequality and the economic inequality that it causes. He is promising to fight the very plutocrats who are Clinton’s campaign contributorsthe only way possible, with an electoral revolution. Large majorities regularly report their desire to change the corrupt system in which the Clinton family has prospered. The 84% of all Americans who complained recently to pollsters that “money has too much influence” in campaigns included the same portion of Independents holding that view. Independents are at least as critical as partisans about political corruption, with 59% possessing the basic understanding about US plutocracy that most of the time incumbents “promote policies that directly help the people and groups who donated money to their campaigns.” Fewer partisan Democrats, only 53%, share this view that both parties are essentially corrupt. One reason increasing numbers of voters identify as Independent is disgust with the systemic political corruption managed by the two parties.

The Independents’ “Party”

For these two reasons it is no surprise that the Quinnipiac poll shows that more Independents think Sanders shares their values compared to Clinton by 47-33%; more Independents think Sanders, compared to Clinton, really “cares about the needs and problems of people like” them by 59-40%; and vastly (38%) more Independents, 64% compared to 26% for Clinton – and also a corroborating margin of Republicans, 39% to 7% – think Sanders “is honest and trustworthy.”

The only important issue in the 2016 campaign is which candidate can honestly be trusted to act effectively to rescue democracy from the deadening grip of corruption on all levels of government. No important policy opposed by plutocrats can be accomplished until that happens. There is no conceivable reason to believe that Clinton will fulfill any campaign promises about reforming the corrupt plutocracy any more than Obama did when he violated his campaign promises in order to instead, in 2014, cleverly lead Democrats to vastly multiply the scope for political corruption to historic levels in Washington.

Independents by a large margin apparently believe Sanders does have the integrity to keep his campaign promise to fight plutocracy.

These comparative ratings of Sanders and Clinton help explain why only 38% of Independents have an overall favorable opinion of Clinton while 56% have an unfavorable opinion of her. (Only 5% have no opinion, leaving virtually no room for improvement in her negative numbers.) It is almost impossible for a Democrat to win an election with an 18% net negative favorability rating among Independents. Independents are now the plurality “party” at 43% of the electorate, compared to Democrats at 30%.

By stark contrast, Sanders exactly reverses Clinton’s Independent deficit by scoring an 18% positive favorability margin (47%-29%) among Independents. Since 24% of Independents still “haven’t … heard enough about him” to form an opinion, Sanders would, in a general election, almost certainly enlarge significantly this already sufficient margin. This would achieve the mandate-conferring landslide Sanders and the country need to accomplish his electoral revolution.

Sanders is the Independents’ favorite candidate irrespective of party. You could say that Sanders, a lifelong Independent, is the leader of the Independents’ “party.” Clinton is the Independents’ least favorite candidate, aside from Trump and Bush who narrowly pass her for that honor. In head-to-head polling of Independents Sanders, far more comfortably than Clinton, beats every Republican candidate, with margins from 16% over Trump to 7% over Carson, who is the second favorite candidate of Independents. Using the terminology leveled against the Green Party, one could say that in 2016 it is the Democrats who are the “spoilers.” They can win by making a strategic alliance with the plurality of Independents, or risk defeat by insisting on their own “donor-driven” candidate.

This 36% favorability advantage with Independents that Sanders has over Clinton defines the actual substantial margin by which Sanders is more likely to win a general election than Clinton. Both candidates cam be assumed to attract the same number of Democrats according to Q-poll. The 36% spread provides a more reliable number than the expressed pre-primary preferences of partisans. And it is clearly more reliable than the Democrat’s current totally mistaken guesstimate about who they think is the more electable candidate.

It is a number that many Democrats need to learn at risk of helping to elect a Republican in 2016 if they insist on Clinton.

Experienced Leader vs Authentic Honesty

The Quinnipiac poll also helps identify which Democrats have been misled into supporting Clinton as more electable. The most startling difference between Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters is that, by 81%-6%, more Clinton supporters think the “right experience” and, by 70%-24%, that being a “strong leader,” is an important attribute for a presidential candidate in this election. Lower ratios of Clinton supporters compared to Sanders voters think attributes like values, authentic caring, and honesty are important. It seems to be irrelevant to her supporters that Clinton’s attributed advantage on experience and leadership seems to neglect the reality that Sanders has far more actual experience in more government offices than Clinton, that he has won countless elections compared to Clinton’s two practically uncontested elections as senator from the safe Democratic seat of New York, that he was a successful mayor compared to Clinton’s lack of elected executive experience.

Fact-checking these perceived differences is important to assess the comparative risk of unanticipated weaknesses of the candidates in the general election. As a seasoned campaigner, Sanders is unlikely to make major mistakes. Given the number and frequency of his numerous election contests it is unlikely that Sanders has any skeletons left in a closet somewhere to surprise the Party after it is too late to change horses. 

The only real outstanding campaign issues facing Sanders is whether he will be able to persuade the still uncommitted Elizabeth Warren to join his ticket, and whether the media will begin to tell the truth about his being significantly more electable than Clinton. Well, there is that other emerging question about Sanders’ lack of a precise credible strategy for getting money out politics, or maybe as one writer put it has “no idea what really needs to be done” about plutocrats. But that is a question for another day.

There is a traditional theory that presidential voters are always correcting for the perceived faults of the current incumbent. Under this theory, the emphasis of Clinton supporters on experience and leadership suggests that Clinton’s supporters are precisely those who not only misjudge Sanders’ strength but also wrongly attribute Obama’s “poor” performance to weakness and inexperience. The leading public intellectual of our times, recovered Obama supporter, and current Sanders endorser, Professor Cornel West disagrees with that analysis. West describes Obama as a “counterfeit” who “posed as if he was a kind of Lincoln.” Far from being weak and inexperienced, Obama turned out to be like the consummate political operator Bill Clinton. 

Pursuing this theory, it is possible that the Democratic primary results could be determined, at least in part, by whether the informed historical judgment of Professor West about Obama prevails during the primary season over the Democratic apologists’ cover story about a supposedly “well-intentioned but hapless” president.

If honesty and authenticity is the main issue in 2016, Sanders wins overwhelmingly. As a decisive number of Independents apparently believe and West tells us, ”only Bernie has authenticity and integrity.” Let’s hope that West, and others, can persuade enough Democrats of this fact before “spoiler Democrats” throw the general election to Republicans by nominating another “donor-driven” centrist.

Rob Hager is a public interest litigator who filed an amicus brief in the Montana sequel to Citizens United and has worked as an international consultant on anti-corruption policy and legislation.

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