"Do you think your husband would have had a better chance at beating Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton did?" CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked.
"Absolutely," Jane Sanders replied, "but it doesn't matter now."
In the wake of Donald Trump's stunning win on Tuesday, many supporters of Sanders' outside of his immediate family have expressed frustration at what could have been. A key part of Sanders' closing pitch to Democratic superdelegates was that he stood a better chance against Donald Trump (or any other Republican) than did Clinton, an argument that his backers now see as validated.
It's a question worth exploring. Or, really: It's a pair of questions worth exploring.
1. Could Bernie Sanders have beaten Donald Trump?
Certainly. Of course Bernie Sanders could have beaten Donald Trump. How can we be so confident? A few reasons, including that Hillary Clinton came as close as she did.
Save 109,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Clinton would have prevailed in the electoral college vote and therefore be president. (That's according to the most recent estimates compiled by Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman.) Or, importantly, if she'd swung Florida and Michigan by about 128,000 votes -- meaning that there were a few ways in which Clinton might have emerged victorious save for a relatively small number of ballots. Out of a pool of 128 million votes, 128,000 is a rounding error, one-tenth of one percent. Any number of different decisions made by either campaign could have resulted in those votes going one way or the other. Meaning that one of those changes -- swapping out Sanders for Clinton -- might certainly have been the difference-maker.
One thing that the Trump candidacy and victory should remind us is that all sorts of things can happen over the course of a campaign. There's that great scene in "No Country For Old Men" in which Tommy Lee Jones as the local sheriff tells a story about a rancher slaughtering cattle when one comes to and starts thrashing around. The rancher pulls out a firearm to finish off the animal, but its thrashing causes him to miss and the bullet ricochets back to strike him in his own shoulder. "Point being," Jones says, "even in the contest between man and steer the issue is not certain."
Even in the contest between polished political veteran and angry neophyte, the issue is not certain. In the contest between any two politicians, the contest is not certain.
We've entered the post-campaign period during which an awful lot of consultants and pollsters are going to try to dine out on their perceived success over the last several months -- and a lot of losing staffers will start pointing fingers elsewhere. That so many little things might have shifted those 100,000-odd votes one way or the other means that a lot of arguments can be made about why they were or weren't. Which suggests that there's little question that Sanders could have beaten Trump -- just as Clinton could have beaten Trump, Trump could have beaten Clinton or Trump could have beaten Sanders.
2. Did Sanders stand a better chance of beating Trump?
This is a much harder question to answer.
There was a private poll commissioned by Gravis Marketing released last week showing that Sanders would have easily beaten Trump, which some have used as an argument to prove the point above. But the flip side of any number of things having possibly played a role in determining the outcome of the race is that it's very hard to swap in any other candidate at this point to gauge what might have happened.
If Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic nomination, he would have faced an entirely different terrain than did Hillary Clinton. He would have faced opposition from some Clinton die-hards, just as she faced opposition from some of his. In 2008, 16 percent of Clinton supporters angry at Barack Obama's primary victory bailed on him in the general. The dynamics of the race would be broadly different.
It's sort of taken as an article of faith that Sanders would have easily flipped those Rust Belt states that Clinton lost. It's clear that his vehemence on trade was more in line with what many voters in that region were hoping to hear. Was that enough? How would Sanders have fared in the face of attacks on his political philosophy? Socialism is broadly viewed positively by Democrats according to Gallup, but is widely unpopular among Republicans. It's mostly younger people who view the idea positively, a group that tends to turn out less regularly than others. More would have done so for Sanders, certainly -- but would the group of Democrats that stayed home simply have moved from one demographic to another?
Sanders did better than Clinton in Michigan and Wisconsin, a point that's been made to suggest he'd have done better in those states. But he didn't do that much better, winning 17,000 and 140,000 more votes, respectively. Clinton did far better in Florida and Pennsylvania (532,000 and 204,000 more votes) -- does this mean that Sanders would have underperformed in those states? No: There's no real relation between primary and general election success.
There are many other questions. If the Sanders team's emails had been hacked and trickled out by Wikileaks, what might we have learned? Would Sanders have campaigned with Obama, then becoming part of the establishment that turned off other voters? How would his faith have been considered in an election where anti-Semitism was an obvious undercurrent?
It seems obvious, from the vantage point of Nov. 13, 2016, that Sanders might have won Florida and Michigan or that coterie of Midwestern states and won the presidency. His team and supporters have a motivated reason to make that case. But it's impossible to know if he would have had a better chance than did Clinton, in part because her chance was very good.
Just, as it turned out, not good enough.