I stand with my colleague Paul Waldman, who argued last week that it’s all but impossible to know how Sanders will fair against President Trump until — and if — such a match-up ever happens. Let’s focus instead on how so many who should have known better dismissed the possibility of this sort of endgame.
For starters, Sanders’s online fundraising ability should have let everyone know how formidable he would be. We’re a nation that likes to tell people to put their money where their mouth is, and no group on the Democratic side did that more than Sanders supporters. Over and over again, reporters found themselves noting not only that the Sanders campaign raised the most money of any Democratic contender, but that he’d accomplished it by grass-roots small-dollar donations. He did so in the first quarter of 2019, the second quarter, the third quarter and the fourth. But instead of pondering that level of enthusiasm, much of the attention centered on the fact that it would allow Sanders to remain in the primary even if he wilted electorally.
Instead, the donor class appeared much more concerned about the rise of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) then that of Sanders. In November, Rattner, for instance, penned an op-ed for the New York Times titled “The Warren way is the wrong way.” On one level, this focus made a lot of sense — Warren came in with a list of very specific proposals targeting business practices of both Wall Street and Silicon Valley and a track record of taking them on. But it’s also true that Sanders often got taken less than seriously. After all, minus Sanders, it seems unlikely we’d been talking about such things as Medicare-for-all, and his successful push to get Amazon to raise its pay to a minimum of $15 an hour was no small thing. Similarly, on health care, more moderate candidates pummeled Warren (and Sen. Kamala D. Harris before her) for specifics on Medicare-for-all, while Sanders — who “wrote the damn bill” — got off lightly.
Was it sexism? That probably played a role. A feeling that her potential voters were more gettable? No doubt. A belief that voters would eventually decide that a septuagenarian self-described socialist — one who suffered a heart attack in October, no less! — could not be the party’s standard-bearer? That, too. But again, it’s hard not to suspect they just didn’t take Sanders seriously, that he would just somehow fade away. The result: Warren bled support — and enough of it went to Sanders that it ended up strengthening him.
Then there is the millennial vote. The generation has been whipsawed by a confluence of bad economic circumstances — a massive recession, immense amounts of student debt, sky-high housing prices and so on. And here’s a pro tip: A future candidate who tells the younger generation to “give me a break” when they complain about “how tough things are” is not likely to win many of those people over to his cause. Neither is a candidate whose response to calls for tuition-free college is she would do it if she was a “magic genie.” No one likes being talked down to. The result? A WBUR poll of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters conducted last week found Sanders maintaining a large lead with both male and female voters between ages 18 and 49.
That large portions of the Democratic establishment seem caught off-guard by Sanders says more about the party than the senator. It implies that the party is not taking the issues that are roiling the electorate as seriously as they should. Their panicked response doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the establishment’s ability to effectively challenge Trump come November.