I have been very critical of Bernie Sanders throughout this election season, but I’ll give it to him. He did everything I could have hoped for tonight. His full-throated endorsement of Hillary Clinton and his point-by-point recitation of how she will come through on issues dear to progressives were pitch perfect. Anybody on Team Sanders who doesn’t come around after this speech is simply unreachable.
Sanders was smart to acknowledge briefly his differences with Clinton; his supporters wouldn’t have bought it if he didn’t, and clearly, some didn’t buy it anyway, judging by some of the reactions from his supporters. But he spent far more time detailing the similarities. He did a very good job tonight. Now it will be up to him to follow through and keep making the case to the supporters he did so much to alienate from the party in the first place.
After decades as a both a participant in, and observer of, the political process, I understand all too well the propensity of perpetually nervous Democrats to panic at every turn. Because I recognize this unfortunate tendency, I am going to try to offer a level-headed analysis.
Despite the recent flood of polling showing Donald Trump moving slightly ahead of Hillary Clinton (after a Republican convention that most of the smart-money people in the Beltway and its outer boroughs deemed a disaster), I still think the fundamentals of this election favor Clinton. Conventions tend to move polling numbers, and we should not put too much weight on what happened in the top of the inning without seeing what happens in the bottom of the inning.
I will note, however, that in my tweets following Trump’s speech I said he had nailed it and that he perfectly channeled, in his remarks, the audience he wanted to get: blue-collar whites. What we have seen in the polling numbers since Thursday demonstrates that my analysis was correct.
In reporting its latest polling numbers showing Trump ahead by 3% in a two-way matchup and 5% when including the Libertarian and Green candidates, CNN noted that Trump had lost ground with college-educated whites, but had boosted his margin among whites without degrees from 20% to 39%. The CNN poll gave him a 62%-23% edge among this demographic.
It is important to note that Mitt Romney received 62% of the white, blue-collar vote in 2012 but still lost the election, and this despite handily winning the votes of college-educated whites by a significant margin as well.
In short, at this point, Trump is winning the voters one would expect him to win. The key question is whether he has hit his ceiling. If he has, then he still doesn’t have the support he needs to win, and with his numbers among non-white voters likely to be abysmal, where he stands right now is not enough to get him over the top in November.
On the flip side, Clinton still has to close the sale with the voters who she has a realistic chance to persuade. She will have an opportunity to start making progress in that direction this week.
Tonight, Bernie Sanders will address the nation, and the onus will be on him to get his more level-headed supporters fully on board, while perhaps converting some of the die-hards. Among the holdouts still unreconciled to Clinton, Sanders needs to press the case that yes, he has certain disagreements with Clinton, but he and his supporters will get much more of what they want from her than from Trump.
For Sanders to paper over the differences or give a full-throated endorsement will not fly with these supporters, who would see such a speech as dishonest or a “sellout.” He needs to acknowledge the differences briefly, then focus like a laser beam on the similarities, and also on the victories that he and his supporters have won in the party platform. This will give his supporters a reason to feel that they made a difference and that it wasn’t all in vain.
One key thing to keep in mind going forward is that Clinton cannot win this election by simply making it about Trump’s many deficiencies. The people who support him do so even though many of them find him obnoxious and unpresidential. She is going to have to find a way to boost her own electability. Her biggest problem right now is that, as CNN’s article noted today, more than two-thirds of those surveyed find her dishonest and untrustworthy. To close the deal and nail down an election that the demographic fundamentals suggest she should win, she’s going to have to change that narrative.
It’s actually a very unfair narrative, and one that has taken root over a quarter century of bad blood between her and the nation’s political media. The long, bitter primary campaign, in which Sanders and his surrogates irresponsibly and divisively stoked intense anger on the far left against Clinton (and the Democratic Party in general), exacerbated that problem and made this election much more difficult than it needed to be. Sanders needs to start making up for that tonight, and he has an opportunity to do so. Let’s see what he does with it.