Announcing his second bid for the presidency March 2, Sen. Bernie Sanders drew a massive crowd in Brooklyn, estimated at 13,000 by his campaign. But can he do the same in Peoria?
The answer, unequivocally, is yes. His performance in the 2016 primaries showed that the Vermont socialist enjoys broad appeal in Middle America.
That may seem surprising, given the media’s focus on Sanders as a far-left progressive who never shies away from the socialist label and its depiction of “fly-over” country as the domain of backward-looking conservatives.
These narratives would lead you to believe that Sanders and Middle America would be the political equivalent of oil and water. But like most political narratives, these are incomplete. And if they’ve led you to assume that President Trump would easily trounce the aging socialist in the interior in the presidential election next year, think again.
Sanders’ base may be dyed-in-the-wool progressives, but his support extends far beyond that. In the 2016 Democratic primaries, rural working-class voters vastly preferred Sanders over Hillary Clinton.
And while that’s common knowledge, what is often overlooked is the fact that 10 percent of all those who backed Sanders in the primaries cast their votes for Trump in the general election. More importantly, these voters were the deciding margin in states like Wisconsin and Michigan.
Without the Sanders crossovers, Trump would not be president today.
How can a Bernie Bro also be a Donald Dude? This voting phenomenon tells us that working-class voters are disenchanted with the status quo.
The dynamic will become one of the central battlegrounds for 2020. Who can keep the working- class voter in the fold?
For Trump and the GOP, the challenge is to identify a policy agenda that continues to attract working-class voters while retaining middle-class voters, suburban Republicans and base conservatives.
President Trump’s trade policies, his China crackdown, deregulation and tax cuts are a good start. But more is needed to win over millions of working-class voters and ensure their long-term participation in a GOP coalition.
For his part, Sanders has the most working-class street cred of all the announced Democrats. However, he will likely have a much harder time appealing to this demographic in 2020, given the actions of many of his colleagues and the party in general.
With the election of freshman Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and others, the Democratic Party has careened to the left – and not just on economic policy where Sanders felt comfortable.
Democrats have doubled down on identity politics in a way that threatens to undermine the broad appeal Sanders enjoyed in 2016.
If you look back on his 2016 run, you’ll see that Sanders wasn’t an identity politics warrior the way many in the party are now.
Sanders emphasized unity, patriotism and economic socialism. It was a message that did resonate – and probably still will – in Middle America.
But to convincingly convey that message, Sanders this time around will need to intentionally separate himself from the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez crowd. And that won’t be easy.
Look at the last few months. As Matt Continetti writes in the Washington Free Beacon: “So far this year the Democrats have floundered in a pit of racism, sexual assault, and anti-Semitism. They've embraced policies akin to infanticide, and announced plans to expropriate wealth, pay reparations for slavery, eliminate private health insurance within two years, and rebuild or retrofit every building in the United States before the world ends from climate change 12 years from now.”
This seems like a poor strategy to win the heartland. Will Sanders repudiate it?
Sanders has a huge opportunity to challenge President Trump in working-class and rural states, but that opportunity will be made significantly harder given the politics of the Democratic primaries and the party’s rapid movement to the left.
Sanders’ big challenge, then, is not just Trump. It’s finding a way to keep his heartland appeal without losing his progressive base.