The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sanders might actually be the Democratic nominee. Nobody knows if he’s electable.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Columbia, S.C., on Monday. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Now comes Bernie Sanders’s test. With the Iowa caucus just days away and Sanders getting strong poll results (here’s one showing him way ahead in New Hampshire), the possibility that he might win the nomination is becoming real. And this wasn’t something most people took all that seriously up until now.

I was one of them; from the beginning of this campaign I’ve been skeptical of Sanders’s chances to win the Democratic nomination. While he was perfectly positioned in 2016 as the one serious alternative to an establishment candidate he could portray as a compromised insider, I assumed that, because this time he’d have to contend with a much larger field of potentially compelling candidates, his appeal would be much narrower.

Yet the large field may have helped rather than hurt him, enabling him to be in a strong position with around 15 to 20 percent in national polls, while other candidates waxed and waned.

So now the “oppo dump” is beginning, in which people opposed to the candidate begin feeding their opposition research to reporters, which produces stories about things the candidate did or said in the past that might give voters second thoughts.

Iowa hosts the first vote of the 2020 election season on Feb. 3. Here’s a guide to the complicated process of caucusing. (Video: The Washington Post)

Stories like this one, in which we learn that in the 1970s, Sanders compared the plight of low-income (white) workers in Vermont to slavery. Which is a rhetorical flourish that in 2020 is considered extremely not cool, but in 1976 probably wouldn’t have aroused much notice.

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In the scope of what we’ll soon be seeing, that’s a mere oppo appetizer, and unusual because its release is aimed not just at forcing him to answer an uncomfortable question but at making Democratic Party voters mad at him.

The reason I say it’s unusual is that the bulk of the “revelations” Sanders will have to confront will be intended to convince Democrats not that they shouldn’t like him but that general election voters won’t like him.

In other words, it will be about “electability.” And much of it will be based on parts of Sanders’s history and record that have been in the public record but haven’t been much discussed. They certainly weren’t the basis for extended attacks from Hillary Clinton four years ago; she was too concerned about alienating his supporters once she won the nomination to go after him in any kind of sustained way.

So what we’ll be told — if you didn’t understand it already — is that Sanders has a long history as not just as a man of the left but a radical, one whose ideas are so outrageous that the general electorate could not possibly support him.

In support of that idea, we’ll hear about how he once advocated abolishing the CIA, how he once affiliated with the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party, how he honeymooned in the Soviet Union, and how he praised Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And then there are some old ruminations on male and female sexuality that are, let’s say, problematic, or at least ripe for being taken out of context.

All that has been reported before — and came up in 2016. But it wasn’t the subject of an extended, coordinated anti-Sanders campaign, the way it certainly would be in the fall and might be in the primaries, if Sanders’s opponents try to argue that he is too far left to win a general election.

There’s no doubt that Republicans would try to make that case, that Sanders is a crazy radical who would turn America into a communist hellscape where we will all have our property expropriated and be forced to stand on line in shapeless gray overcoats to get our monthly bread allotment.

The trouble is, we have no idea whether that kind of attack would work. Yes, on many issues Sanders is far from the median American voter, but so is President Trump; it’s not as though majorities are clamoring to overturn Roe v. Wade and give more tax cuts to corporations. Americans don’t vote on the basis of ideology, something most of them barely understand.

Sanders’s answer to the “electability" question is that his particular version of left populism will draw in voters who are not ideologically liberal, particularly the working-class whites who helped propel Trump to victory.

So will voters reject this crazy leftist, or will he manage to hold Democrats while pulling over just enough moderates and Republicans to bring the party he still refuses to join on to victory?

Here’s the truth: We have no idea.

We don’t know how any of this will factor in a general election. There hasn’t been a nominee like Sanders in modern history, nor has there been a president like Trump for a nominee like Sanders to run against. Polarization is more intense than ever, and that adds another factor that complicates our ability to make accurate predictions. We all have our suspicions, and we can tell a story any way we like that sounds plausible.

But anyone who tells you they’re sure what would happen is fooling themselves.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Bernie Sanders’s attack machine comes back to haunt him

Ruth Marcus: Sanders vs. Warren shows the difference between identifying sexism and giving in to it

Paul Waldman: Here’s what really matters about the Warren-Sanders feud

Paul Waldman: Are candidates responsible for their worst supporters?

Jennifer Rubin: When will Bernie Sanders get the scrutiny that top-tier candidates deserve?