By Chris Dolan
The prospect of a Sanders nomination in 2020 conjures up memories of Senator George McGovern in 1972. With Senator Bernie Sanders, Democrats risk nominating another McGovern, someone who only speaks to progressives, independents and socialists. It also heightens the chances of President Donald Trump painting the entire party as a bunch of socialists out of touch with the middling voter. If Democrats keep moving left, then it could be 1972 all over again.
Both McGovern and Sanders ascended four years after the Democratic Party nominated moderate, establishment candidates in Hubert Humphrey and Hillary Clinton. After their losses in 1968 and 2016, Democrats debated whether to pursue moderate or progressive agendas. The campaigns of both McGovern and Sanders were and are comprised of young voters and independents. Furthermore, their insurgent campaigns complained about conventional party rules working against them.
The opposition was and is quite formidable. Nixon and Trump used culture warrior tactics to stifle Democrats. Nixon marshalled the “silent majority” and Trump makes appeals to “the forgotten men and women.” While Nixon resigned under threat of removal, Trump is particularly aggrieved after his impeachment and has already employed disinformation tactics to disrupt Democrats.
It could be that Sanders performs much better than McGovern did. The U.S. is much more racially diverse today than it was in 1972. The working class is much smaller today given the decline in labor-intensive manufacturing and the percentage of Americans holding high school diplomas and college degrees is much higher today. Even more, the Cold War is over and social media was simply not around in the early 70s. Also, Nixon was in a far greater position for reelection than Trump is today. However, Democrats face a significant hurdle. As Ruy Teixeria observes, “the way the population is divided up and distributed around the country is not to their advantage.”
Most Democrats hostile to Sanders may not be that concerned about his proposals for tuition-free public higher education or Medicare-for-All, simply because they assume these are likely to be dead on arrival in Congress. Or they appeal to the popularity of the Affordable Care Act. They probably dismiss Sanders as someone who promises the moon and beyond but that he will ultimately be incapable of getting his big promises through Congress.
Like McGovern, Sanders presents Democrats with a branding challenge. According to a Gallup Poll released on February 11, while Americans may be okay with electing a woman, an African American, a Latino, an LGBTQ individual, someone under 40, an atheist or Muslim candidate, a majority would not vote for a self-described socialist. Trump is seething at the chance of marking the Democratic Party with the socialist label. The real concern, as with McGovern at the time, is that the prospect of nominating Sanders, a democratic socialist, is far too much of a risk in the general election.
Also, a Sanders nomination is dangerous to the many Democratic moderates running for reelection in the House who represent districts won by Trump in 2018. In fact, 22 of the 30 freshmen members hail from Republican-leaning districts. The 95-member progressive caucus has garnered a lot of attention and Republicans have sought to make them the public face of the Democratic Party.
The 90-member moderate New Democratic Coalition serves as a powerful check and balance on the progressives. A democratic socialist at the top of the ticket risks the 22 members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition who hail from red districts. Trump, running on a strong economy, may have a coattail effect and boost the prospects of Republican challengers in those purple districts.
While it is still too early to fully discount Joe Biden as a viable centrist option, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg is rising in the polls. As more diverse voters cast ballots in Nevada and South Carolina and on Super Tuesday next month, the true frontrunner will only then become apparent.
If that frontrunner does turn out to be Sanders, we’re likely in for a repeat of 1972 when centrist Democrats couldn’t get behind McGovern’s progressive agenda. It could be a close race, but if he’s running against Sanders, Trump will likely be reelected.
Chris Dolan is a professor of political science at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.