Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Much has been made about two things about Bernie Sanders that convince many he’s the only sure Democratic who can beat Trump in 2020. One is a poll that shows him narrowly beating Trump in a head to head match. The other is that Sanders got a lot of rural, blue collar, less educated voters to vote for him in Wisconsin and a couple of the other states in 2016. These were the states that Trump narrowly won and that put him in the White House. The assumption is that Sanders can bag those same votes again with his anti-corporate, wealth inequality, economic overhaul pitch. Maybe, but, 2020 is not 2016. And that assumption is just an assumption.
The rural, blue collar workers that backed Sanders and then later switched to Trump, didn’t do it solely because Trump hijacked Bernie’s economic message. Many of them did it because Trump tapped a dark, ugly nerve that also moved them. That nerve was raw, unabashed, naked race baiting, anti-immigrant bashing, and sheer pandering to base racial fear and paranoia. Surveys have shown that this was the great motivator for Trump’s rural, blue collar base. This is the same motivator that Trump has repeatedly, and just as ruthlessly stokes and inflames every chance he gets. The reward for him is their continued loyalty. There’s little evidence that many of them are going to do a radical pivot and break ranks with him in 2020.
Also, Sanders got many of their votes in the Democratic primaries in those states. His opponent was Hillary Clinton who many of them would have rather jumped off a bridge then vote for. She was clearly toxic goods to them. So, Sanders was an easy alternative.
Sanders had another big advantage in 2016. He was relatively new on the national scene and represented as close as a candidate can come to be a fresh face. His unabashed populist assault on Wall Street, corporate greed, and job losses was bound to have some appeal to many working-class whites in the Heartland who are furiously hostile and resentful toward Beltway politicians and corporate special interests. Four years later, these voters are hearing that same talk from just about every other Democratic presidential contender. Not only is it not fresh anymore, the message and the messengers are being roundly savaged as far-left, radicals to be shunned by rural and blue-collar workers in the Heartland states.
The other problem for Bernie is that he had the luxury of flying under the public radar scope of scrutiny because so much attention and fire was leveled at Clinton. He basically got a voter pass. His vulnerabilities were obscured. Trump will wave them to the world. The biggest one being his self-styled socialist label. The young crowd might not have any fear of that. But older, white workers, who vote in far bigger proportions that younger voters, are likely to have those fears. Trump will stoke them for all they’re worth. How Sanders deals with that withering attack will be the real test, especially since he’ll be lumped by Trump and the GOP with the other “loon” Democrats who supposedly espouse the same socialism.
Bernie is also as close to an atheist as there is without really calling himself that. One of these tags—socialist and atheist- could mortally wound any candidate for a national office. The two together could sink a candidate. Polls consistently show that many voters will not vote against an African-American, a woman, Jew, or a gay Lesbian, solely because of their race, gender or sexual preference. But they will vote against a socialist or an atheist. That’s not just conservatives or GOP leaning voters. That’s a sizeable number of Democrats and many Independents too.
None of this is to say that Trump’s bullying and scare tactics would render Sanders a walk over for Trump. He’s got some weapons to counter that. One is his base. It’s young, big, energized, and, as 2016 showed, can be stirred to real action. He’s a virtual cash cow when it comes to garnering nickels and dimes contributions which add up to millions. Though he’s a near atheist and a proclaimed socialist, that liability in many quarters is an asset in many others where they couldn’t care less whether you thump the Bible or thumb your nose at it. And they don’t equate socialism with the perennial Red Scare bogeyman of Stalin’s Gulags.
Sanders has also moved fast to clean up two pronounced pieces of baggage left over from 2016. That is his alienation of many women by not moving hard enough to clean up the sexist antics of some of his staff people. He’s profusely apologized and promised it won’t happen again. He’s also moving mountains to remove the racial blind-spot he was roundly ripped for in 2016. He’s talking race everywhere now and actively courting Black voters.
Sanders currently clocks in second behind possible Democratic presidential foe, Joe Biden, in straw popularity polls among Democrats. That’s a good sign for him. It shows a lot of Democrats like him and will back him. He’ll need them all and then some to beat Trump.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Russia Probe: What Did Trump Know, And When Did He Know It? (Middle Passage Press) https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L46G65XHe is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.