“I’m a progressive who gets things done.”
It is a phrase that has almost become the slogan for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, as the former Secretary of State made the statement again on Thursday night during the latest Democratic debate against her primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, at the University of New Hampshire.
Putting aside her self-proclaimed “progressive” label—which is a grossly inaccurate categorization for someone whose pockets are filled with Goldman Sachs money—the implicit message from Clinton is that, if elected, she would be a more pragmatic president than Sanders. The line of thinking extends from the long-standing idea that a “fringe” or “radical” candidate as far to the political left as Sanders, a self-proclaimed Democratic socialist, is, would be less able to pass laws than a centrist candidate like Clinton.
However, at this point, the idea from the Clinton campaign that she is more likely to win in a general election matchup is lazy and unvetted.
An ability to “get things done” is one of two arguments Clinton has raised in recent weeks to promote her candidacy—the other being her general election “electability”—as she has veered away from issue-based rhetoric and is now trying to paint herself as a more reasonable candidate that can appeal to a broader base than Sanders, vowing that she can compete better against Republican opponents in November.
Upon first sniff, it is a convincing argument. Many have compared Sanders’ candidacy to that of former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, the far-left Democratic nominee in 1972 that lost to Republican incumbent Richard Nixon by an astounding 503 electoral vote margin—losing 520 to 17. Ever since that beatdown, the conventional wisdom has been that Democrats lose when they nominate a left-leaning candidate.
In a recent Salon article, University at Albany political scientist Bruce Miroff said, “The more Sanders is taken seriously, the more that radical label, and that extremist label, would be relentless attached to him. It was effective against McGovern.”
While it is easy to imagine the attacks from the right-wing against a 74-year-old Jewish socialist from Vermont calling for a “political revolution,” they may not be as effective in today’s world, where the dynamics of politics are very different from what they were in the ‘70s.
Last month, one poll found that 43 percent of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers identified themselves as “socialist,” more than the number that identified themselves as “capitalist.” What used to be considered the extreme is increasingly becoming the new normal, as the political spectrum is becoming more polarized.
Democratic voters are unlikely to be turned off by their nominee being a socialist, so the general election consequences for radicalism are not as large. In fact, in a Quinnipiac national poll released on Thursday, Sanders outperformed Clinton against Donald Trump by five percent, against Ted Cruz by four percent and against Marco Rubio by seven percent.
Why? Because in the current political landscape, for independent voters (the determinant voters in general elections), being an anti-establishment candidate actually matters more than one’s place on the political spectrum. It is becoming increasingly common for voters who have winnowed down their support to either Sanders or Trump, two candidates that disagree on virtually every issue, but represent the same frustration with the “same old politics,” running populist, anti-establishment campaigns.
In addition, Sanders’ electability is enhanced by the passion for his campaign from young Americans. It is no secret that Democrats fare better when the younger electorate shows up to vote on Election Day, and the fate of the elections has proven to hinge on the turnout of young voters. According to Tufts University data, when Democrat Barack Obama took office in the 2008 election, youth (18-29 years old) voter turnout was 51.1 percent. In 1992, when Democrat Bill Clinton took office, youth voter turnout was 52.0 percent.
When Republican George W. Bush shocked Democrat Al Gore in 2000? Youth turnout was a dismal 40.3 percent.
It is undeniable that Sanders has energized young voters more than Clinton has so far in this election cycle. In Iowa, the senator beat the secretary by, brace yourself, 70 percent among young voters, leading 84 percent to 14 percent in the opening-caucus state. Sanders out-performed Obama, who led the Iowa youth vote by 43 percent in 2008. In today’s politics, general elections are, more than ever before, dependent on campaign enthusiasm.
The Sanders campaign, a campaign that has received a record-to-this-point 3.25 million individual contributors, averaging $27 per donation, has a significant advantage in campaign excitement.
Based on recent history, that makes him the most electable general election candidate.
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