Commentary: Why Sanders Does Better Against Trump Than Clinton Does

It’s about Clinton, not Sanders, writes Dan Payne. (John Locher/AP)
It’s about Clinton, not Sanders, writes Dan Payne. (John Locher/AP)

Even though we don’t elect presidents by national voting -- we use the state-by-state Electoral College system -- many news organizations pay for nationwide polls, which have shown Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders consistently beating Donald Trump by wider margins than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might beat Trump.

There are three reasons for that.

First, it’s about Clinton, not Sanders. Her negatives are high, nearly as high as Trump’s. In a recent national poll, The Donald’s favorable/unfavorable ratings were 26 percent to 55 percent; Hillary’s were 31 percent/52 percent; while Bernie’s cruised in at 41 percent/33 percent.

For months, there has been a constellation of bad stories swirling around Clinton, from her private email server to the bombing of the Libyan embassy, from the Clinton Foundation to voting to go to war in Iraq, from $300,000 speaking fees from Wall Street firms to her late arrival in support of gay marriage, to raising huge sums from Washington, D.C., lobbyists. (She even previously got contributions from a Mr. Donald J. Trump of New York.)

Second, she is not seen as “honest or trustworthy” by big chunks of the electorate -- 72 percent of independents, 71 percent among men and 59 percent with all Americans, in a Quinnipiac poll taken in December.

In Michigan, an open primary state where any voter may cast a ballot, Sanders won handily; exit polls showed he won independents 71 percent to 28 percent for Clinton. In Pennsylvania, a closed primary state, where only Democrats may vote, Clinton got 82 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of self-identified independents.

A myth has grown that Sanders won open primaries and Clinton won closed primaries. But the results show that Clinton has won 891 delegates in open contests and 821 in closed. Sanders has won 734 in open and 697 in closed. No statistical difference.

Why the animus toward Clinton? My theory is that older Democrats and minorities see the Clintons as positive fixtures, sort of hood ornaments, for the party. The flip-side of this is that independents by definition have no party loyalty or adulation; they don’t follow politics closely or hold strong views. Young Sanders voters don’t understand what’s with all the shouting for the Clintons. The youngest weren’t even born when Bill Clinton won the White House 24 years ago. What they may have read or heard is that the former president was a philanderer and got impeached for it. Young independents believe Sanders at minimum will cut their student loan debt.

Third, Trump’s negatives are so high, he automatically starts at a huuuge disadvantage relative to Sanders. In another recent poll, Trump is 26 percent-65 percent positive/negative, while Sanders is 51 percent-38 percent, a 52-point difference. Sanders enjoys high favorable ratings largely because there is so little known about him beyond his calling himself a “Democratic socialist.”

For example, just last week, we learned that Sanders’ second wife Jane founded a college in Vermont that failed miserably and may be subject to a federal investigation. If Bill Clinton is fair game, so is Jane Sanders. It’s been widely reported (and Trump has already mentioned) that Sanders and his second wife honeymooned in Russia in 1987.

Moreover, the costs of Sanders’ programs have not been part of the description of his candidacy. It could be as high as $18 trillion. That’s what The Wall Street Journal tallied to pay for things like “free” college, universal Medicare and a massive infrastructure construction. Regardless of their price, they stand no chance of passing the heavily Republican House even if Democrats regain control the Senate.

For now, the Republican attack army has kept its powder dry on Sanders; it may well be that the GOP and its allies would prefer to run against a socialist making his first run for president than a battle-hardened Democrat.

Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker. He tweets @payneco.

Headshot of Dan Payne

Dan Payne Democratic Political Analyst
Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR.



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