Depending on your perspective, last night’s Democratic debate was either an important opportunity for the candidates to sharpen their debate skills or it was a debacle that the moderators allowed to devolve into a disorganized circus–or circular firing squad.  I’m leaning towards the latter. From the beginning, the moderators asked pointed questions about a variety of accusations recently leveled at various candidates, and it set a nasty tone.  Gone are the days when moderators ask each candidate the same question and hold them to a fixed period of time for an answer.  In the era of Trump, mud-slinging and division and shouting are the norm, and anything less is seen as “boring” by political observers and debate producers.

But the math of the nomination continues to become clearer and the choice we have to make becomes more stark, especially with Bernie Sanders garnering the most delegates at this early stage of the contest and the moderate lane too crowded for a viable centrist to emerge.  In a nutshell, here is the choice we face:

Alienating the “Bernie Bros” by nominating someone other than Bernie, or alienating moderates and independents by nominating Bernie? Which is worse?

New research by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla just republished in Vox takes a deep and detailed look at this question.  Their fifty-five page paper, titled “Candidate Ideology and Vote Choice in the 2020 US Presidential Election,” delves into the motivations of voters and draws some crucial conclusions.  They start with this fact:

So which candidate is most likely to beat Trump? Decades of evidence from academic studies suggests that more moderate nominees tend to perform better in general elections than more ideologically extreme nominees. For example, Democratic US House candidates who supported Medicare-for-all fared approximately 2.2 percentage points worse in the 2018 midterms than candidates in similar districts who did not.

It’s important to note that ALL of the 2018 Democratic House candidates who flipped swing districts, including Antonio Delgado in NY-19, held moderate positions while NONE of the far-left candidates were able to flip a district.

So here’s what Broockman and Kalla saw in the data:

We found that nominating Sanders would drive many Americans who would otherwise vote for a moderate Democrat to vote for Trump, especially otherwise Trump-skeptical Republicans.  Republicans are more likely to say they would vote for Trump if Sanders is nominated: Approximately 2 percent of Republicans choose Trump over Sanders but desert Trump when we pit him against a more moderate Democrat like Buttigieg, Biden, or Bloomberg.  Democrats and independents are also slightly more likely to say they would vote for Trump if Sanders is nominated. Swing voters may be rare — but their choices between candidates often determine elections, and many appear to favor Trump over Sanders but not over other Democrats.

Sanders believes he can overcome these lost voters by bringing in new young voters who haven’t participated en masse in elections before.  But Broockman and Kalla find that the math will be hard for Sanders to overcome.  Sanders would have to increase 2018 under-35 voting turnout by a whopping 30%, which would be nearly impossible, and meanwhile, a Sanders nomination would likely boost Republican turnout in ways that make it very hard for Sanders to triumph.

Here’s what they conclude:

Early polls are never a surefire guide to what will happen in an election months later. But Democrats should not be very reassured by early polls that find Sanders faring as well against Trump as the more moderate candidates: These numbers may only look decent for Sanders because they assume he will inspire a youth turnout miracle. Our survey data reveals voters of all parties moving to Trump if Sanders is nominated, a liability papered over by young voters who claim they would be inspired to vote by Sanders alone.

The gamble Democrats supporting Sanders based on his early polls against Trump must be ready to make is that, despite the evidence to the contrary, the lowest-participating segment of the electorate will turn out at remarkably high rates because Sanders is nominated.

You can read the article, which summarizes their paper, here:

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/2/25/21152538/bernie-sanders-electability-president-moderates-data

And you can read the actual research paper here:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QAUwLHHC8Vdkd02CgmPX1H7PMy7WzGwh/view

We all want a charismatic candidate we can rally around, a candidate who excites and inspires us.  And Bernie Sanders certainly has a lot of fervent support from young voters.  But the numbers suggest his candidacy has less in common with Barack Obama and more in common with George McGovern and Barry Goldwater.  Both of those candidates were beloved by their supporters, but they were outside the mainstream and got clobbered in the general election.  The data shows that nominating Bernie would be a huge risk for the Democratic party, and would present a historic turnout challenge.  This column isn’t intended as an attack on Sanders but rather a reality check. It’s important to be clear about the challenges that a Bernie candidacy would bring, not to mention the effect he might have on down-ballot candidates.  And this analysis doesn’t factor in the statements that Bernie made about Cuba and communism that will surely be turned into a cudgel by Trump and his allies to beat Sanders with mercilessly in the general election.

I will vote blue no matter who, but there are still Americans on the fence and we ignore them at our peril.  Keep resisting Trump and keep working to “vote his ass out of office.”

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