We’ve played hypotheticals before: my first post was all about the possibility of a Bush v. Clinton redux. But as I was watching the news earlier I had an interesting thought:
People say that Donald Trump is unelectable. And on the other side of the aisle, they say the same about Bernie Sanders. To most fair-minded people, that seems reasonably accurate. Donald Trump is such a polarising figure it’s hard to see him winning a national election, and Bernie Sanders is an avowed socialist. Neither would win the presidency under normal circumstances, surely. Trump vs. Clinton would see the White House pass to Obama’s Secretary of State. And Sanders vs. Bush would surely see George W.’s brother in power. That’s the conventional wisdom, and I’ve seen nothing from either candidate to challenge that opinion.
But what would happen, I wonder, if the two candidates we consign to the depths of unelectability were pitted against one another? Who would win? Who would be the more electable? Or the less unelectable? Would Trump’s polarising nature stop him winning, or would the voters see Sanders’ socialism as too great of a risk?
The reason why it’s so interesting, of course, is that we simply don’t know what would happen: it’s unprecedented. There have been occasions where major parties have broken with conventional wisdom and nominated a real outsider. The last was probably Willkie in 1940 for the GOP. Go through the main party candidates for every election since and you find political insider after political insider. It’s a perfectly understandable pattern. But it’s one that could conceivably be broken in 2016.
Let’s start by setting the stage. A bruising fight for the Republican nomination sees consistent front-runner Donald Trump emerge victorious, scraping his way to the nomination. Across the aisle, Hillary’s problems force her out of the race, and the momentum swings behind ageing Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders. A man who never really expected the nomination suddenly finds himself in a two-horse race for the presidency.
For the first time in a very long time, two radically opposed visions of the United States’ future are on the table. Do voters want to seal the border and deport as many illegal immigrants as possible? Or do they want a path to citizenship? Do they want Trump’s militaristic vision of standing up to Russia and Iran, or do they want to follow Sanders’ path and see the US stand down from combat operations overseas? With two very different paths, whoever wins the White House will be faced with the almost impossible task of reconciling their vision with the other half of the country that disagrees quite fundamentally. A Trump vs. Sanders campaign would be nothing if not polarising. Very, very polarising.
So if you think things are bad now in Washington, just wait until you have two diametrically opposed visions competing for power. The presidency can be unforgiving. It’s a winner-takes-all competition, and if the winner isn’t able or willing to compromise somewhat (like a certain current president we shouldn’t mention) then practically half of the country gets left behind, feeling unrepresented and not listened to. The further apart the two candidates and their supporters get, the worse this polarisation becomes and the harder it gets to reach any kind of compromise.
So broadly speaking we can say that one of the main effects of a Trump vs. Sanders campaign, whoever might win, would be increased polarisation of politics and society. But that doesn’t answer the question of who would win!
Donald Trump has wide name recognition from his business and television careers. Sanders is, for many people, an unknown quantity. This gives him the advantage, as it’s easier to build a reputation from nought than to change one that’s already set. And Trump is, as we’ve already said, a divisive figure even within his own party. He has a very high negative rating, the highest in the GOP field. It will be far harder for him to change peoples’ minds than it will be for Sanders to forge a good impression of himself.
Trump’s biggest problem stems from this: his unpopularity with Hispanic voters on the back of his comments about Mexico. We shouldn’t kid ourselves – that isn’t going to go away or substantially improve. If he’s the nominee, the Democrats will clean up the Hispanic vote. Again.
But there aren’t enough Hispanics to swing the election, because remember, this isn’t a conventional election we’re talking about. In this funny world, we might’ve expected that the Democrats could run a monkey against Donald Trump and still win. But they didn’t pick a monkey. They picked a socialist.
Socialism is still a dirty word in America. And I would argue that the nomination of Sanders would send a lot of moderate liberals running for the hills. Not that they’d switch to a hard-right man like Trump. But Sanders’ socialism would scare off a significant number of moderates, and keep them away from the polls, perhaps feeling like neither candidate is suitable. This would almost certainly cancel out the anti-Trump votes from Hispanics.
So as we start to break this election down, we see a pattern emerging. Many moderates simply won’t vote for either candidate. Moderates on both sides of the political divide wouldn’t feel comfortable with either. Turnout will be depressed, and it will be up to the candidates to motivate their core, base voters. Whoever can do that the best will win.
And this doesn’t help us separate the two men, because they are both excellent and motivating their base voters. It’s the one thing they have in common, the one theme both of their campaigns are built around. It’s not possible to say at this stage who’s better at motivating their supporters, because they both do it so well!
So where does that leave us? Perhaps it will all come down to the ground game. In a base election, this is what counts. Who can get more of their supporters to the polls? Who has the best social media outreach? Who has more volunteers to knock on doors?
Frankly, the idea of seeing two very different visions for the US, led by two charismatic outsiders running unconventional campaigns, and backed by enthusiastic supporters is something quite exciting to the political observer. It would certainly be unlike anything we’ve seen before. It would be unpredictable, firey, and enthralling. The problem is that this kind of political theatre wouldn’t be in the nation’s best interest. The divisions it would sow would be very difficult to overcome, and bluntly, I suspect neither candidate has sufficient skills to overcome them.
It’s hard to say with great certainty who would win, but my gut feeling is that it would be Trump. Socialism just seems like a step too far, and I envision more people willing to vote for Trump to prevent it than there are avowed socialists and Democratic activists. There would be more cases of “negative voting” – where someone votes for a candidate to block the other, rather than because they support the candidate they’re voting for – than we’ve seen before. Many of those would be anti-Trump votes. But I suspect more would be anti-Sanders, or rather, anti-socialist votes.
This scenario is probably unlikely to come to pass. Without Joe Biden, Hillary is in a stronger position on the Democratic side. Only the e-mail scandal threatens her campaign now. And Trump isn’t the untouchable behemoth he was a few weeks ago – Ben Carson is catching him up in Iowa. But it was a fun brain exercise, if nothing else, to see how this scenario might play out.