After New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday, Republicans are panicking that Trump could win the nomination and then go down in flames in the general election. At the same time, Democrats are also panicking that Sanders could win the nomination and then go down in flames in the general election.
I think fears on both sides are unfounded. To the extent you think that Trump and/or Sanders would be terrible presidents, the thing that you should be afraid of is that either of them could actually become president. And not just in a head to head matchup. I think Trump would have a good chance against Clinton, while Sanders would have a good chance against Kasich, Bush, or Rubio. I have two reasons for this.
First, charisma. I didn’t use to think of this as a major factor in who wins elections, but after reading Paul Graham’s essay “It’s the charisma, stupid”, this seems kind of obvious:
Clinton didn’t represent any national shift leftward. He was just more charismatic than George Bush or (God help us) Bob Dole. In 2000 we practically got a controlled experiment to prove it: Gore had Clinton’s policies, but not his charisma, and he suffered proportionally. Same story in 2004. Kerry was smarter and more articulate than Bush, but rather a stiff. And Kerry lost.
As I looked further back, I kept finding the same pattern. Pundits said Carter beat Ford because the country distrusted the Republicans after Watergate. And yet it also happened that Carter was famous for his big grin and folksy ways, and Ford for being a boring klutz. Four years later, pundits said the country had lurched to the right. But Reagan, a former actor, also happened to be even more charismatic than Carter (whose grin was somewhat less cheery after four stressful years in office). In 1984 the charisma gap between Reagan and Mondale was like that between Clinton and Dole, with similar results. The first George Bush managed to win in 1988, though he would later be vanquished by one of the most charismatic presidents ever, because in 1988 he was up against the notoriously uncharismatic Michael Dukakis.
In 2016, if you ask which candidates have managed to generate the most excitement, the answer is hands-down Trump and Sanders. The fact that they have come this far, when most people were dismissing their campaigns six months ago, suggests that they’re probably doing many other things right as well.
But can charisma overcome extreme policy views? I think the answer might be yes, which is one reason I was warning people early on that we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that Donald Trump could be president next year. (I was slower to catch on with Sanders.) But there’s a second factor at play here: conventional wisdom likely mis-judges where the true center of American politics is.
For example, Americans know they dislike “Obamacare”, but it’s not clear that they have any real problem with universal health care in general. Republican politicians often say they want to “repeal and replace Obamacare”–a promise whose vagueness is probably intentional. Even many “conservative” voters probably wouldn’t respond well to GOP politicians openly announcing, “if people can’t afford health care, too bad.”
Ironically, Sanders’s proposal for single-payer is technically consistent with “repeal and replace”. It’s not at all clear to me that Sanders’s position is a tougher general-election sell than Clinton’s approach of incremental improvements to Obamacare: every nasty thing you can say about single-payer has already been said about Obamacare, but Sanders will be able to make his case afresh, without the negative associations that have been attached to the current system.
Sanders is pitching single-payer as “Medicare for all”, which is probably smart because Medicare is extremely popular with voters, even consistent Republican voters. The same is true of Social Security. Ideological Republicans would love to get rid of them, but they know they must tread carefully. Even Ted Cruz, the most ideologically “pure” of the current crop of GOP presidential candidates, has vowed to preserve these programs for older Americans, and only gradually replace them with something else for younger workers. This is another example of the disconnect between elite ideology and voter preferences.
If you want decisive evidence of how little GOP voters care about small government ideology, look no further than Trump’s campaign. Trump does not seem to care at all about that ideology, and GOP voters love him anyway. In the first couple months of his campaign, he was even talking about raising taxes on the wealthy. He flip-flopped and now has a fairly standard Republican tax-cutting platform, but this flip-flop seems to have been driven by pressure from elite GOP advocacy groups, not voters.
Meanwhile, Clinton is promising not to raise taxes on anyone who’s “middle class”, using the absurdly out-of-touch definition of “middle class” as “anyone who’s making less than $250,000 per year.” I mean c’mon. Which do you really think is closer to the center of American politics: “we must rule out tax increases on people making $200,000 per year” or “it’s OK to pass a small tax increase on middle-income people if the program it funds has big benefits”?
Everything I’ve just said should thrill progressives, but they should be less happy with another way conventional wisdom misjudges the center: Americans are a lot more xenophobic than conventional wisdom admits. As I’ve pointed out before, if you reject Trump’s claim that Mexicans, Muslims, and other foreigners pose a grave threat to America, our immigration laws become nothing but pointless cruelty. In fact, it annoys me when people harp on Trump for perceived racism, because while he may be racist, focusing on that angle obscures the fact that, in America, racism is taboo but xenophobia is mainstream.
This is not just good news for Trump, but good news for Sanders, because his record on immigration gives him a way to credibly swing right during the general election. The current version of his immigration platform on his website at first glance reads like an immigration activist’s wish list. But it also treats fewer immigrants as a desirable goal, which he plans to achieve by making it harder for employers to hire foreign workers and by rolling back free trade agreements.
You’re probably wondering what rolling back free trade agreements has to do with immigration. Sanders’ view appears to be that free trade agreements are a tool greedy corporations use to profit at the expense of ordinary people in all the countries involved. This, Sanders seems to think, is the reason why so many people want to immigrate to the US from other countries.
In fact, Sanders seems to believe that immigration is also a tool that greedy corporations use to profit at the expense of everyone involved. People have accused Sanders of flip-flopping, but to me it seems like more of a shift of emphasis. He can embrace many demands of immigration activists because he sees undocumented immigrants as victims, but he’s still anti-immigration at heart.
I don’t think Sanders’s view of trade and immigration makes any sense whatsoever. But I expect well-educated people in coastal states to underestimate how well it will play among large swaths of the country. (Note that Trump is, in addition to being anti-immigration, anti-free trade–another heresy GOP voters don’t seem to mind at all.)
Surprisingly, if you accept that Trump has an excellent shot at the White House, all this means is that you could make a case for supporting Sanders as the more electable “lesser evil” candidate.