After Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders split the primaries in Kentucky and Oregon last night, the Democratic Party should be on the verge of ending a long and unexpectedly bitter campaign. Clinton’s narrow win in Kentucky took a bit out of the sting of her string of defeats in recent months that have, though they’ve highlighted her weakness, have done nothing to halt her inevitable march to her party’s presidential nomination. But Sanders’ defiant speech last night after winning Oregon made it clear he is not going quietly into the night even though he has no chance of beating Clinton. By continuing to feed the narrative that the Democratic race was basically fixed by a corrupt party establishment — the same story line that drove the bizarre and violent confrontation between the two campaigns at the Nevada Democratic convention— Sanders is setting the stage for what could be a nasty split within the party.
That raises the possibility that, in an ironic twist that no one would have anticipated only a few weeks ago, the Democratic convention in Philadelphia may turn out to be even more of a free-for-all slugfest than the Republican gathering in Cleveland where Donald Trump will have his coronation. But whether angry Sanders supporters spoil Hillary’s crowning or not, there are more serious questions at play here. Are the young and/or very liberal supporters of Sanders angry enough about what happened during the campaign and disgusted enough with Clinton to stay home in November? Is it even possible that some of them will be tempted to vote for Trump instead of Hillary?
The answer to both of those questions is that neither possibility is very likely. But the fact that either can even be posed shows us the depth of the resentment within the rank and file of the Democratic Party against their putative nominee as well as the weakness of Hillary Clinton’s appeal.
The dynamic of any presidential race is such that the overwhelming majority of voters on either side of the partisan divide are bound to “come home” to the party’s nominee by Election Day even if they aren’t happy with the choice. That’s the factor that even now is driving large numbers of Republicans — especially officeholders — to make their peace with Donald Trump even if they are deeply unhappy with the prospect of having to defend, rationalize or even to vote for a man whose views and behavior they abhor. The same is true with liberals and Hillary Clinton though their disgust level has never seemed to be as high as that of mainstream GOP voters with Trump.
Throughout the last year, Clinton has failed to generate much enthusiasm from grassroots Democrats. Her lackluster and often inept political skills are one reason. The fact that she is a blast from the past — a factor only accentuated by her tapping her husband this week as the person who will be in charge of the economy in her administration — in a year when voters want something new and fresh is another. And though most Democrats keep insisting that the talk of Clinton being dishonest is the result of right-wing smears, the fallout from her email scandal and the ongoing revelations about the conflicts of interest and possible corruption involving the Clinton family foundation have taken their toll even among Democrats. Though she will start the general election campaign with enormous advantages in terms of the Electoral College and her party’s stranglehold on minority and female voters (factors that are only accentuated by Trump’s weaknesses) she is also one of the most unpopular general election candidates in terms of negative personal poll ratings her party has chosen in its modern history.
As our Noah Rothman noted yesterday, Sanders’ willingness to rationalize if not entirely condone the calls to violence by members of his campaign during the Nevada fracas and willingness to double down on his attacks on the party establishment just at the moment when it was expecting him to start winding down his campaign has unsettled the Democrats. While Sanders has always steered clear of attacking Clinton on her personal scandals, his indictment of the party as a creature of Wall Street and wealthy donors has resonated with the liberal base of the party. The success of an unlikely contender like the 74-year-old socialist has caused many observers to wonder what a stronger candidate could have accomplished against Clinton’s shaky effort but that is irrelevant now. What Democrats have to worry about is that dismay about the frontrunner and a primary campaign that — due to the party’s several hundred superdelegates that are lined up behind Clinton — has seemed to be fixed will cause many of the young voters turning out for Sanders to lose interest in the presidential race after he finally gives up before or at Philadelphia.
Will these left-wing enthusiasts really stay home in November?
No doubt, some will. But if Republicans are counting on liberals writing off the presidency in 2016, they’re nuts. Many on the right cling to the myth that they lost the last two presidential elections because millions of disillusioned conservatives were willing to let Barack Obama win rather than vote for John McCain or Mitt Romney. This is mostly nonsense that is not backed up by any credible data, but many in the GOP still believe it. The truth is, the overwhelming majority of conservatives held their noses and voted for the Republican candidate both times. We should expect liberal Democrats to do the same for Clinton.
Nor should anyone put much stock in the notion that Trump can scoop up Sanders voters even if he plans to run to the left of Clinton on foreign policy, echo the left’s slanders of George W. Bush, and buy into liberal positions on trade and even the minimum wage that are antithetical to conservative principles. Trump’s dog whistles to racists and rabid anti-immigration stand will ensure that most liberals will flock to the polls in November because they hate him rather than from any desire to put the Clintons back in the White House.
But it would be foolish of Democrats to ignore the possibility that some elements of their coalition won’t be vulnerable to Trump’s appeal. White union member households, which are not favorably disposed to Clinton and are angry about the way radical left-wing ideologues have taken over the party, may well be attracted to Trump. Most of these people may have already defected to the Republicans in past elections. But to the extent that there are actually still some white working-class Democrats left that are not turned off by Trump’s vulgarity and his position on immigration, those votes may well be up for grabs.
Democrats entered 2016 assuming they would face whomever the Republicans nominated with a united party. Sanders has proved this belief was probably wrong. But this is not so much a matter of sabotage on his part as it is the inability of Clinton to unify her party. The left wing of the Democratic Party is angry and in no mood to be Clinton cheerleaders. The only way Clinton can win is if Democrats get the kind of turnout that Barack Obama produced. Clinton’s shortcomings and Sanders’ attacks have ensured that if it happens, it will only be due to anger about Trump and not the pretense of Democratic unity or support for their candidate.