The ideas that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is the “front-runner” (with a grand total of 21 delegates, trailing former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg by two) or that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) cannot win or that former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg is the only one who can stop Sanders (because other than former vice president Joe Biden, no one else can win over black voters) are not immutable facts. They aren’t even facts.
The nature of punditry is to take what we know and assume nothing will change going forward, when in fact our experience tells us the presidential race is not linear. We should reject the idea that voters lack agency to break from the predetermined outcomes that pundits, pollsters and prognosticators have designed. New Hampshire voters, having voted in large numbers for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), showed they did not think much of polls or punditry. Voters in Nevada or South Carolina or the Super Tuesday states certainly could decide the conventional wisdom predicting the imminent demise of Warren or Biden is bunk.
We know the notion that Sanders can start a revolution big enough to support an extremist candidate in the general election is mathematically dubious, as Ruy Teixeira explains:
Democrats in 2018, especially the successful ones, did not run on particularly radical programs but rather on opposition to Trump himself, and to unpopular GOP actions on economic policy and health care (tax cuts for the rich and efforts to repeal Obamacare’s protections, for example). In the end, the 2018 results do not support Sanders’s theories — not the central importance of high turnout, nor the supposed non-importance of changing mainstream voters’ minds, nor the most effective issues to run on.
He explains how irrational it is for Sanders and other members of the “turnout-will-solve-everything crowd” to assume “that if they polarize the election by highlighting progressive issues, ‘their’ nonvoters will show up at the polls, but none of the nonvoters from the other side will.” He warns: “The turnout equation does not necessarily return positive results for a candidate like Sanders. The reverse is more likely. It is truly magical thinking to believe that, in a highly polarized situation, only your side gets to increase turnout.” While Sanders’s theory of electability is almost certainly wrong, we do not know if voters understand this.
We have yet to see a debate in which everyone gangs up on Sanders (Radical! Divisive!) or on Bloomberg (Stop-and-frisk! Buying the election!). We forget that on race — for example, Biden (crime bill), Sanders (crime bill), Klobuchar (prosecution), Buttigieg (policing) and Bloomberg — all the candidates have demerits. The issue is who has the best response when confronted with his or her inadequacies.
It may be that Bloomberg is the most overrated politician since millionaire John Connolly spent $11 million to win a single delegate or the most underrated since Donald Trump. If spending gobs of money was all it took, Tom Steyer would have won a delegate by now. Bloomberg, whose philanthropy, organizational prowess and record in New York are formidable, might come across as arrogant and curt — or, alternatively, he could emerge as the guy who is tough and accomplished enough to make Trump seem weak.
Voters would be well advised to heed Abrams’s admonition that the outcome rests in the hands of delegates outside of two small overwhelmingly white states. If voters don’t like the choices those states made, they can ignore them and the pundits who insist we know more than we do.