2020

This Is How Bernie Wins

Sanders isn't the safe bet. But he's not a terrible bet, either.
January 16, 2020
MINNEAPOLIS, MN- FEBRUARY 29: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks to a crowd of supporters at the Minneapolis Convention Center (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Over the weekend Bret Stephens had a smart column arguing that people should not discount the possibility that Bernie Sanders could win both the Democrat nomination and the presidency.

He’s right.

I mean, he’s right in the cosmic, moral sense because if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, Trump versus Sanders is the choice this country clearly deserves.

But he’s also right in the arithmetical sense.

The easy part is seeing Bernie’s path to the Democratic nomination. Nate Silver’s primary model gives him slightly better than a 1-in-5 chance to win the nomination outright and a 1-in-4 chance of winning a plurality of delegates. You don’t have to be doing Scott Steiner math to put those together and see a reasonably good chance that Sanders could be the nominee.

This isn’t to say that Sanders has the best shot to win the nomination. That’s clearly Joe Biden. But Sanders has the best shot, by far, to win both Iowa and New Hampshire and if he’s able to do that, then he will be in a one-on-one race with Biden and his odds of winning the nomination go way up, maybe even close to 50-50.

The second part is harder: Could Bernie beat Trump?

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If you were being cold-blooded about it and just thinking about probabilities, the answer is that Bernie has a smaller chance to beat Trump than Biden does. But maybe not as much smaller as you think.

Biden has led Trump in almost every general election match-up poll taken this cycle.

So has Sanders. His lead isn’t as large as Biden’s, but it’s real.

The difficulty becomes the Electoral College, where Sanders is notably weaker than Biden. But he’s also a little bit different.

This is Joe Biden’s path to winning the White House:

Biden is strong in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, because he does okay with both working-class whites and educated suburbanites. And he’s strong in Virginia and North Carolina because he does well with African-Americans and, again, educated suburbanites.

Bernie’s path to 270 is slightly different.

He’s not as strong as Biden in the Rust Belt, but he’s probably strong enough to get the job done. (Trump is in so much trouble in Michigan that Mike Bloomberg is +6 against him there.) But Bernie’s problems with educated suburban voters are probably enough to cost him Virginia and Florida. At which point he’s down to 280 electoral votes and he needs to hold on to everything else, or expand the map. Which would probably mean making big plays in Ohio and Iowa.

It’s important to understand that the Sanders and Biden coalitions might be similar in size, but they’d probably be slightly different in composition. I’d expect the two big differences to be:

  • Where Biden turns out more African-America voters, you’d expect Sanders to turn out more under-30 voters.
  • Where Biden would be okay with working-class whites and strong with college-educated suburban voters, Sanders would flip that around. Bernie would give back some of the suburbs while expanding his share of non-college white voters.

If I was a Democratic strategist trying to engineer the maximum number of votes, this is not a trade that I would want to make. But it’s still dangerous territory for Trump.


There’s a lot of talk about how Trump would hang “socialism” around Bernie’s neck. And I’m sure that would be the president’s major point of attack. But it’s not clear how effective that would be.

One of the defining features of the last three years has been an emerging argument from both the progressive left and the nationalist right that the free market is overrated.

Here’s Trump’s problem: How does the guy who expanded the government, blew up the national debt, and gave $28 billion in farm bailouts to subsidize the tariff war he started complain about Sanders not being a true-blue capitalist?

Don’t get me wrong. Trump certainly would make that argument, and it’ll probably work with the kind of marginal suburban voters he’d like to win back. What I mean is that there is a problem in that Trump has already told his base that the world is stacked against them and that the only way for them to get theirs is for the government to redistribute money in their favor.

So what happens when Sanders comes in saying, Hey, that billionaire buffoon said he was going to blow everything up, but things are still the same. Elect me and we’ll really change the system.

Again, if you’re on Team Trump, you’d rather take your chances with this argument, banking on the idea that your base is wedded more to white identity politics than it is to economic populism. That’s a good bet. But maybe not a lead-pipe cinch.

And by the way, if you want evidence that this is how Trump World does indeed see the race, watch how they’ve maneuvered in an attempt to draw Anybody But Biden:

  • Trump has gone out of his way not to take shots at Elizabeth Warren, who he viewed as the best possible matchup.
  • Trump literally got himself impeached in an attempt to damage Biden by demanding that the government of Ukraine make a public show of investigating Biden’s son.
  • Now Trump is loudly proclaiming that he’s shifting his focus to Bernie in an attempt to make Biden look weak and help give Bernie momentum going into Iowa.

The interesting thing is that against Biden, Trump would wage his normal, asymmetric warfare, where Biden can be expected to run a traditional campaign while Trump zigs and zags trying to disrupt the story.

But against Sanders, Trump would be the guy making the normal political arguments that every incumbent Republican president has made for 50 years—that other guy is a commie!—and playing defense against an unorthodox, disruptive Sanders campaign.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is executive editor of The Bulwark.