If Democrats had made a different choice in the primaries last spring, Bernie Sanders would be assembling his Cabinet right now. A reading of voting patterns in the presidential election suggests that the Vermont senator would have beaten Donald Trump.
Trump won the election by prevailing in the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that, together, gave him 46 electoral votes. In Michigan, he edged Hillary Clinton by just three-tenths of a percent. In Wisconsin, the margin was eight-tenths. In Pennsylvania there was a slightly larger gap of 1.2 percent.
All three of those states usually lean toward the Democratic candidate. This time around, most working-class white voters — many of whom voted for Barack Obama in the last two elections — saw Clinton as the incarnation of a political establishment that was indifferent to their struggles. They were won over by Trump’s boasts that he would protect American jobs and challenge the influence of Wall Street. Who else in the 2016 campaign made similar promises, with far more conviction? Bernie Sanders, of course.
Polls and interviews with voters, both before and after the election, identified a significant overlap between Trump voters and Sanders admirers. Among non-college-educated whites in the old industrial states, many were simply looking for someone to address their concerns and shake things up in Washington. They went with Trump on Nov. 8, but plenty of them would have voted for Sanders if he had been on the ballot.
Would it have been enough to tip Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania? Given the small numbers needed, the answer is very likely yes.
Now, I have a smart friend who is certain the socialist label would have sunk Bernie in the general election. He believes America’s long antipathy toward the Red Menace (the old red, not the new, conservative red) would have been fully exploited by right-wing commentators and the Trump campaign. Certainly, that would have been the central line of attack. But I argue, with the Soviet menace no more than a memory, the potency of that attack would have been largely limited to a constituency on the right that no Democrat could win anyway.
Sanders is not a threatening, alien figure. His “socialism” was most pronounced in his calls to tax the wealthy at a higher rate and provide free college tuition at state universities — two ideas that are hardly radical, given that both were the norm in the America of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
It is now clear, as well, that Sanders would have had another big advantage: He wasn’t Hillary. It may be grossly unfair, but 30 years of character assassination from the right took its toll. A big share of voters opted for Trump because they loathed Clinton, or at least the predominant caricature of her. Bill Clinton was a drag on her candidacy, as well. When Trump’s lewd comments about women made on video were revealed, the negative reaction was blunted by Trump surrogates who skewed attention toward the sordid past of Hillary’s husband.
With Bernie, there would have been no Bill — and no email controversy, no Benghazi brouhaha and no last-minute letter from the FBI director. Also, no misogyny — a disturbing but real factor in Clinton’s loss.
Finally, there was an enthusiasm gap among younger voters who were a key demographic in Obama’s victories. They would not have stayed home on election day or wasted their vote on the Green Party candidate if Sanders had been the Democratic Party nominee. Despite his white hair and stooped shoulders, Sanders was adored by a legion of millennials who respected his ideological consistency and responded to his challenge to become part of a movement for change.
It would not have taken many votes to produce a different result in three key states. Bernie Sanders could have done it. He would now be president-elect and America would be heading in a very different direction.