The mainstream punditocracy is accurately reporting (at last) that the Bernie Sanders surge and Hillary Clinton decline is real, is here to stay, and has gone national beyond just mere (!) leads in Iowa and New Hampshire for the good senator from Vermont. Places like here, here and here are reporting that Clinton’s national lead over Sanders has shrunken to single digits, with her trend-lines going steadily downward while his trend-lines are steadily going upward.
What is amusing to me, though, is how stunned the punditocracy is over this. Chuck Todd’s gobsmacked drooling jaw drooping on the NBC studio floor is not a pretty sight. Establishment Democratic Party Operatives that were certain it was going to be Hillary and “Jeb!” are now scrambling for explanations (as both partisan outcomes are now anything but certain). They were sure that Sanders’s rallies, which are attracting crowds in numbers that look like ZIP Codes, were just curiosities; readily dismissed as young people attracted to novelty and that this phenomenon would not translate into polling or, ultimately, into votes. It still remains to be seen, of course, whether the phenomenon will translate into votes. But it certainly appears to be showing up in the polling.
What is it that the pundits missed?
Three things, as far as I can see.
1. You don’t need SuperPAC money if you’re the most honest man in Washington. Sanders has never had a scandal; the worst thing anyone has been able to dig up on the guy is that he wrote some bad erotica in the early 1970s. Big deal. He never pulls his punches, and he never leaves you guessing on where he stands on any particular issue. For example, he has clearly and effectively stated his opposition to the Transpacific Partnership (TPP); Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has been anything but clear on TPP.
All the smarties in Washington said that one can’t run for president without a SuperPAC pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into one’s campaign coffers. Yet, by eschewing SuperPAC money, Sanders has earned such a loyal following that his small-donation contributors are breaking records in contributions. This loyalty is the result of something that is so refreshing that ordinary people are willing to back it to an unprecedented degree: and that something an honest candidate in Washington. It defies political science and formulas and triangulations— indeed, it defies precisely the kind of triangulations for which the Clintons are so famous, but of which ordinary people are so weary.
2. The s-word doesn’t scare people as much as you thought it would. Pundits were sure that the word “socialism” was going to scare people away from Sanders. There are two reasons why this thinking was wrong. First, because Sanders has been more-or-less effective in explaining that his prevailing political philosophy is democratic socialism— you know, like they have in Canada and many European countries— and that this is quite a different thing from Cold-War totalitarian-style Socialism. Second, it’s just a label, and oddly enough, because the right has thrown that label so much at Obama, the American people have become quite tone-deaf to the right yelling “Socialist! Socialist!” all the time. Ironically, the more the right screams about Sanders’s socialism, the more they may be convincing the American public that their use of the word— which is in this case, for once, partially justified— is just more hyperbole.
When people listen to what Sanders has to say, they find they actually agree. Almost all of Sanders’s viewpoints poll in the majority. (The only stand he has taken that I can think of offhand that polls in the minority is his principled opposition to the death penalty, which does not bother me in the least since it is a position I happen to share.) The punditocracy has sadly underestimated the ability of the American people to see beyond labels and to see instead the substance.
3. You underestimate how much people are tired of people like you, Establishment folks. It is very easy to live in a punditocractic bubble and not be aware of the problems people are really facing. To the pundits, “economic disparity” is a buzzword with which to lard pretty progressive-sounding speeches if you happen to be writing for Hillary Clinton. But people are not convinced that the Wall-Street-cowtowing semi-progressive Democratic Party Establishment Operatives are actually feeling our pain when it comes to “economic disparity.”
The pundits scoff when it is pointed out that Sanders comes from a small (that means “relatively unimportant”) state. But I bet Senator Sanders can actually name people he knows who are economically hurting back in Vermont. When you come from a small state, and you represent that state, you rub elbows with ordinary people to a degree that people in the bubble do not. Hillary Clinton by contrast represented New York State in the Senate, a state not only which is perceived as very large and very important, but also a state to which Hillary Clinton had no particular ties. Progressives in the state thought it might be prestigious to be represented by a particularly smart former First Lady, and, as it happened, she faced a pretty weak opponent in one Rick Lazio.
But people trust Sanders to feel their pain. They don’t trust that Hillary Clinton feels their pain or knows anything about it. It has been a long time since Hillary Clinton knew anything about economic suffering in small-state, small-town America; she has not had any use for Arkansas since 1992. (Did it ever occur to her to run for Senate from Arkansas? What would have been wrong with that— not prestigious enough? Not Wall Street enough?)
So Hillary Clinton may still be just barely outdistancing Sanders by single digits, but you have to wonder, if given a choice, whose staff would you rather be on right now? The team that is clearly running out of gas? Or the team that looks like it has the wind at its sails and that looks like it’s still just warming up?
I cannot promise you that Senator Sanders will get the nomination. But I will sit here and tell you this, Establishment Democratic Party Operatives.
It is going to be a horse race.