The national polls show a tightening race between Clinton and Sanders, with some surveys demonstrating the latter with slight leads in Iowa and a large one in New Hampshire. The Washington Post reports a recent collapse in Clinton’s support more dramatic than in 2008. For some "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”; Clinton is repeating all of her mistakes in 2008 again in 2016 and Sanders will do to her now what Obama did in 2008. Yet Clinton supporters rejoin and say that this time it is different, offering a series of arguments to show that Clinton is going to win no matter what and that the Sanders supporters should accept that reality.
There is a powerful dose of elitism and arrogance in this argument. It is an argument made not just by Clinton supporters but also by the mainstream media and party establishment (for the Republicans too) who have vested interests in declaring winners and losers and in say that Trump, Cruz, and Sanders cannot win. Claims about who can win are really empirical not rhetorical assertions. By that, simply declaring Clinton will win does not make it so. Unless one assumes elections are rigged in the US, the purpose of campaigns and elections is to decide whether someone is electable. Yet looking at the social media these days it is flooded with rhetorical claims about Clinton and Sanders. Let’s take a look at the case for Clinton.
The first rule of politics is that about the power of s compelling narrative. It is a story that starts with a candidate telling why he or she is running for office and it includes their world view, what they hope to accomplish if elected. The best narratives are positive, optimistic, and future-orientated. Think of Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” commercial and Clinton’s use of the song “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow” as two classic examples.
Clinton’s narrative is largely negative. Yes she has articulated many positions and policy stances, but so much of Clinton’s (or her supporters’ and the mainstream media and political pundits) narrative for her candidacy is less about why she should be elected than to showing why Sanders cannot win. There are several variations to argument.
Clinton Inevitability and Sanders Can't Win
The first argument is the inevitability claim that first surfaced in 2008. Maybe she Clinton will lose Iowa, or maybe Iowa and New Hampshire, but it is inevitable she will win. She has more super delegates, or more people of color support her, or once we hit Super Tuesday things will be different. Or Iowa and New Hampshire are perfect states for Sanders and after that the cards turn to favor Clinton. Maybe. There is no such thing as inevitable in politics. Arguments on inevitability have repeatedly shown that as political campaigns evolve so do the underlying conditions that affect strategy and political support. Inevitable assumes people do not gather more information, change their minds, or that campaigns make mistakes. Inevitable assumes the status quo is permanent. Six months ago everyone thought Jeb Bush was inevitable. Six months ago no one thought Sanders could win Iowa or New Hampshire (although back in May I said it was entirely possible he could). Inevitability claims are often made by front runners to ward off challengers. Variations of the inevitability argument are that Clinton has a fire wall with Super Tuesday. Again, this assumes that early victories do not change media attention, affect future attitudes, or fund raising for example.
Still another more potent argument used is that Sanders is unelectable, especially because he is a self-described democratic socialist. First, this is an empirical question that assumes that the past predicts the future. By that, because no socialist has ever been elected president (and because of American hostility to socialism) Sanders cannot win. This argument assumes that politics has not changed; it ignores that perhaps political attitudes have changed with a new electorate of Millennial voters and disgruntled Democrats frustrated with a political-economic system that they perceive as unfair. Saying Sanders cannot win is an elitist argument that declares that there is no point having elections and it rules out the possibility that he can win even before an election is held, or at least without offering any empirical evidence from this year to support that claim. If anything, recent polls suggest that Sanders is more electable vis-a-vis other Republicans than Clinton.
Others will argue that if nominated Sanders will be red-baited or that he will be destroyed because so far he has not be well scrutinized, as has Clinton. Some argue that the media has so well scrutinized Clinton that she cannot be damaged anymore but that Sanders is untested and who knows what will happen. First, all this assumes that the attacks on Clinton will not persist or get worse. Second, being an unknown has an advantage–one gets to mold or define one’s image. Clinton is so well known that it is almost impossible for her to redefine herself. Even independents know who she is and largely have made up their mind about her. Sanders is a blank slate and has a the potential to define himself to voters who do not know who he is.
Still another variation of the Clinton inevitability or Sanders can win argument is that the former has a lock on voters who are people of color. Sanders can only win among whites. Maybe. Yes for the last 30 or so years identity politics has trumped class, but nothing says that this will continue to be the case this year. Remember when Republicans could not win working class whites and Reagan changed that? Nothing again says that people cannot change their mind, that Sanders cannot reach out. Again, declaring Sanders cannot win the votes of people of color is an empirical question that only a campaign can answer.
Sanders' Agenda is Unrealistic
Beyond the inevitability argument a second basic thesis is that even if Sanders is elected his policy positions are dead on arrival or that Sanders does not understand how American politics works. Clinton’s rationale is that she understands politics and has realistic proposals. Realistically, does anyone think that any Democrat elected as president is going to move America beyond the current gridlock? Obama did his best to appease Republicans, even adopting the Affordable Care Act (which was essentially a GOP idea), and where did that get him? Obama was so appeasing that the point of compromise between him and the Republicans took almost all progressive ideas off the table. Sanders would at least put progressive ideas on the negotiating table, perhaps defining a new point a compromise, or at least putting America in no worse of a position of gridlock that it currently is in now or would be with a Clinton presidency.
Moreover, does anyone seriously think that Clinton will have an easier time working with Republicans than Sanders would? It is well known how hated she is by the Republicans and while that animus is not an argument against electing her, it should give one pause to think about how easy it will be for her to get anything done.
Clinton’s claim to understanding politics also could be questioned. She failed miserably in passing health care reform in the 1990s and her Senate legislative record (bills that she actually introduced herself and not simply signed on to) is thin. Conversely, Sanders in talking about the power of corporate America and Wall Street may well have a better grasp on how American politics works than many people give credit. Finally, Clinton was a Senator and Secretary of State–wonderful accomplishments–but Sanders has been a mayor, member of the House of Representatives, and the US Senate–also very important experiences.
The Polls are Right and Wrong
Finally, the last argument is about polls. Initially the argument was that the polls showed Clinton with huge leads and therefore she was inevitable or Sanders could not win. But now with tight polls the argument is that they are not reliable for many reasons, part of which may be that it is difficult to predict who will attend caucuses or primaries, or because right now voters are not paying that much attention. All true, but as the Iowa and NH get closer that argument is harder to make. Moreover, polls today are snapshots of the present not predictors of the future. Maybe Clinton is leading in South Carolina today but in five weeks things could change. One cannot both invoke the polls to show why one will win in a few weeks and discount them at the present. Polls are suggestive, not conclusive, and they should be understood as that.
So much political argument and analysis is simply awful. The point here is not to say that either Clinton or Sanders can or cannot win. Instead, the argument is that much of what passes for political argument or analysis in 2016 is weak, logically inconsistent, or empirically deficient. The arguments make assumptions about the world that may or may not be the case. They generalize improperly from past or present to the future, often making claims that may not be true. Are either Clinton or Sanders electable? The simple answer is we shall see, and that is the purpose of elections, to determine that.