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The conversation: Democratic electability


In the style of the New York TimesConversation column, the Stanford Daily’s two political columnists, Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna and Terence Zhao, discuss the question of electability with regards to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg.

Ruairí: Terence, to start, I want to make it clear that I don’t believe either Clinton or Sanders to be unelectable. I simply believe Hillary Clinton would be more electable than Sanders in the general election.

Terence: Well, in the words of Marco Rubio, I would just like to dispel with this notion that Hillary is more electable; she is not more electable. Current polling has her losing to every Republican except Trump and Carson (who is on the way out). Meanwhile, Bernie is beating every Republican except for Rubio, with whom he is tied. If Democrats care at all about keeping a Republican from becoming President (which they definitely should), then Hillary is not the smart choice.

Ruairí: I think it’s a bit presumptuous to believe that what the speculative polls say now will be how things play out in November. Hillary has been scrutinized at the national level for over twenty-five years, but the Republicans certainly haven’t pulled out all their ammunition against Sanders yet. There’s nothing the Republican nominee would like more than to run against a self-proclaimed socialist. Millennials may be eager to embrace one, but older generations will be a lot more hesitant when the attacks start coming in.

Terence: Certainly, Bernie will be subject to more attacks as time goes on, especially if he makes it to the general election. However, so will Hillary, and frankly, she’ll be starting off on much worse footing. Those 25 years of public scrutiny have made her deeply disliked: A large majority of Americans find her untrustworthy. She is also highly unfavorable, with 53% of Americans finding her unfavorable to 41% favorable; compare that to Bernie’s 38% unfavorable to 49% favorable. Moreover, if one of Hillary’s many scandals flares up again, regardless of its legitimacy, that will also give the GOP more fodder to attack her with and put her in a very weak position.

Ruairí: Hillary is definitely a flawed candidate, but we’re ignoring one big thing here: the ideological divide. Bernie Sanders is running on a far-left platform, and should he win the nomination, there is a very real possibility that Michael Bloomberg would enter the race (especially as it looks more and more likely that Trump or Cruz will win the Republican nomination). A three-way contest for the presidency might be more competitive than ever before, with the independent running down the middle rather than trying to outflank either of the major party candidates. Sanders would certainly be less electable in such a situation than Clinton would be in a Clinton vs. Trump (or Clinton vs. Cruz) match-up.

Terence: I think the scenario of Bloomberg entering the race is a fairly interesting prospect. If we presume, at this point, that Trump will be the GOP nominee, one has to wonder if Bloomberg would enter the race at all if it were between Hillary and Trump, or whether he would only do so if it were a Bernie vs. Trump race. In either case, Bloomberg’s hypothetical base would be ideological moderates and pragmatists who are not anti-establishment; and, frankly, I just don’t think such a group of voters exist in large enough numbers to do anything for him. There is an obvious yearning for a non-establishment candidate in both parties’ electorates, which seems to suggest that antiestablishmentarian populism is a bipartisan, national phenomenon, and that works greatly against a clear-cut establishment figure like Bloomberg.

Ruairí: It doesn’t take much wondering. Bloomberg won’t run if Hillary is the Democratic nominee. I agree with the idea that there is a strong yearning for a non-establishment candidate in both parties’ electorates, but I disagree with the assertion that ideological moderates/pragmatists are negligible. Bloomberg would find support if he is a clear centrist alternative to two ideological extremes. Both Sanders and Trump have limits to their support. Many, though probably not all, self-respecting Republicans would never vote for Trump, and similarly, many Democrats who don’t quite find themselves Feeling the Bern of democratic socialism would see the appeal of a candidate who ideologically aligns almost identically with the Democratic Party on social issues and the Republican Party on economic ones.

Terence: But Bloomberg would simply be too unappealing to either party’s voters. Republican voters would never go for a candidate who is pro-choice, pro-gun control, and pro-nanny state (remember the Big Gulp ban?). Meanwhile, if even Hillary has a tough time getting support for her Wall Street ties, Bloomberg — who is much closer to Wall Street than Hillary is — will face a nearly insurmountable challenge with Democratic voters. And Bloomberg, given his support of stop-and-frisk policies as mayor of New York City, will not be able to rely on the steadfast support of the Black vote that has been instrumental in keeping Hillary afloat. In an ideologically divided country, it’s very hard to manage to appeal to both sides of the aisle, and Bloomberg doesn’t seem like he’d be up for the job.

Ruairí: Well, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that. Whatever happens in the primary, I believe the eventual nominee’s electability will be determined by whether or not Democratic voters can put aside their differences to ensure that the Republicans don’t retake the White House. The magnitude of that, I believe we can agree, outweighs any perceived rift between Bernie and Hillary.

Terence: Indeed. Unfortunately, it is highly likely that turnout for the general election will be determined to a large degree by who becomes the nominee. Hillary will have to contend with the fact that a large segment of Bernie’s base, which has been built partially on enthusiasm for Bernie rather than the Democratic Party, might not vote at all if she becomes the nominee. Similarly, Trump, as you pointed out, will likely turn off many Republicans in the general election if he becomes the nominee. In any case, we appear to be looking at an extremely long-haul primary season that will have plenty more surprises ahead. As exciting as this may be for political junkies like us, it bodes ominously for the future of our already destabilized political system.

Contact Ruairi Arrieta-Kenna at ruairi ‘at’ and Terence Zhao at terencezhao ‘at’

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Terence Zhao '19 originally hails from Beijing, China, before immigrating to the US and settling in Arcadia, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles. He is majoring in Urban Studies, and promotes the major with cult-like zeal. In his spare time, he likes to explore cities and make pointless maps.