Is Bernie Sanders the Ronald Reagan of 2016?

February 9, 2016
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Derry, New Hampshire February 8, 2016.    REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton - RTX262HX

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Derry, New Hampshire February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton – RTX262HX

Is Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) electable? As Sanders has surged in the polls, supporters of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are issuing increasingly dire warnings about his general election prospects.  On websites like Vox, many political scientists agree: He can’t win. Millions of dollars in Republican ads, they insist, will paint him a socialist or a red. Americans aren’t about to elect a Jewish socialist who still hasn’t lost his Brooklyn accent.

It will be a debacle, critics predict, like Democratic Senator George McGovern’s crushing 1972 loss, when the Democrats lost 48 states, or Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, buried by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s stunning landslide in 1964. It will set progressives back for decades.

Ironically, as Sanders rises in the polls and does better than expected, the alarms grow in volume and intensity. It verges on oxymoronic for Clinton and the party establishment to scorn as unelectable a candidate who is beating her at the ballot box.

Insurgent candidates face forbidding odds — but they don’t always lose. In 1980, establishment Republicans issued much the same warnings about former California Governor Ronald Reagan, asserting he would be Goldwater redux. Moderate Republican John Anderson went so far as to mount a third party bid against him.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire February 6, 2016.   REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton - RTX25RD2

Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire, February 6, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Reagan not only won, he led a re-alignment election. Republicans took control of the Senate, and launched, in Barack Obama’s words, a transformative presidency that marked the end of the New Deal coalition and the beginning of the conservative era. (In 1984, Walter Mondale lost 49 states to incumbent President Reagan).

President Richard M. Nixon and then Reagan built the conservative Republican majority coalition by splitting off so-called Reagan Democrats — largely white, disproportionately Southern, working-class men — from the Democratic Party. The GOP attracted these voters with talk of God, guns and skillful use of race-baiting politics, while waging a culture war against gays and women.

Sanders similarly may have the potential to expand the Democratic majority coalition by attracting blue-collar, white male voters back into the Democratic Party.

As Donald Trump’s rise in the 2016 Republican primaries has shown, these blue-collar white male voters are restive. Trump has garnered significant support with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim diatribes. But he’s also echoed Sanders by scorning the corruption of U.S. electoral politics, failed U.S. trade policies and endless wars without victory.

Sanders’s passionate populism may gain him a hearing from these voters and potentially forge a far broader electoral majority coalition for Democrats.

Predicting whether Sanders is a Reagan or a Goldwater isn’t easy. Polls that show him doing well in match-ups against potential Republican nominees are virtually meaningless. Sanders hasn’t even introduced himself to most Americans and the Republican assault on him hasn’t begun.

The assumption that he wins the nomination — against Clinton, who enjoys universal name recognition, the support of virtually the entire Democratic establishment, the best party operatives and all the money in the world — posits a stunning political rise. It would mean that Sanders makes significant inroads among minority voters, sustains the enthusiasm of the young and consolidates his support among middle- and lower-income Democrats.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters outside a polling place in Nashua, New Hampshire February 9, 2016, the day of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RTX265MT

Hillary Clinton greets supporters outside a polling place in Nashua, New Hampshire, February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

As Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist from Emory University, has wisely noted, the fears of a Sanders electoral debacle may be overdone simply because the electorate is far more polarized now than when McGovern and Goldwater ran.  The harsh negative partisanship of U.S. politics, the growth of segmented media and the rise of social media have all helped consolidate more ideologically cohesive voting blocks.

A Clinton candidacy, for example, will mobilize the Republican right, which loathes her nearly as much as they do Obama. The Republican nominee is most likely to push an extreme right-wing agenda that will help unify and mobilize the Democratic base, no matter who the Democratic nominee is.

The question of electability is generally a comparative one: Is Sanders more or less electable than Clinton? There’s a natural tendency to assume that Clinton, the more moderate and experienced candidate, is presumptively more viable. But while Sanders has clear vulnerabilities, so does Clinton.  She is burdened with significant baggage — Wall Street money, the smarmy Clinton Foundation fundraising, the email mess and more. Sanders has been the most courtly of opponents, but Republican attacks are and will be incessant and poisonous. Polls indicate Clinton already faces troubling doubts about her honesty.

Democrats go into the 2016 election cycle confident that they have a majority coalition: the young, people of color, unmarried women, and liberal professionals. If they show up in large numbers at the polls. Already, polls report an alarming “enthusiasm gap” between Democratic and Republican voters. Sanders has clearly electrified young people, whereas Clinton has not. Sanders won voters aged 17 to 29 by an astounding 84 percent to 14 percent in Iowa, and he enjoys a similar margin in tracking polls in New Hampshire.

This is a troubling time, particularly for this new Democratic majority. The nation is still struggling to recover from what Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has begun calling the “long depression.” Young people find themselves burdened with college debt, struggling with lousy job opportunities, inheriting a world of ceaseless war and catastrophic climate change. With wages stagnant and jobs insecure, Americans fear losing ground.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton applauds supporters at a "Get Out the Vote" campaign rally in Hudson, New Hampshire February 8, 2016.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RTX262WU

Hillary Clinton applauds supporters at a campaign rally in Hudson, New Hampshire, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The alarming spread of drugs, suicide and declining life expectancy among white working-class men is only one measure of the scope of dismay. Growing movements — Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the young Latino Dreamers, the “Fight for $15” campaign (referring to the hourly minimum wage) — reflect the growing demand for change. The hopes roused by Obama’s historic election have largely run aground on Republican obstruction.

In this context, Sanders offers a clear and passionate vision. He indicts an economy rigged by and for the few, and a politics corrupted by big money. His calls for fundamental reforms: Medicare for all, tuition-free public college, a $15 minimum wage, fair taxes on the rich, breaking up big banks, re-making U.S. trade policies and meeting the challenge of climate change. He summons a “political revolution,” of millions of people standing up to push politicians to respond. Sanders has walked the walk — funding his campaign with literally millions of small donations, spurning the creation of Super PACs to collect large and dark contributions from the wealthy and corporations.

Clinton dismisses Sanders’s agenda as unrealistic. Former President Bill Clinton scorns it as a “cartoon.” She’s made herself the candidate of continuity by defending Obama’s reforms, drawing distinctions mostly by being more hawkish on foreign policy. Hillary Clinton argues that progress can only come one step at a time — reaching out and seeking to find “slivers” of common ground with Republicans. She touts her experience and her skill at negotiating in back rooms to make progress.

In face of the Sanders challenge, Clinton increasingly sounded like the “No We Can’t” candidate. As New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow, among many others, has argued, she has yet to show that she has a vision that can provide hope and inspiration and can mobilize voters. Yes, electing the first woman president would be historic — but thus far it has not been enough.

This is also a battle over what the Democratic coalition looks like, who Democrats are and whom they fight for. Clinton seeks to consolidate the current arrangement — collecting upscale professionals repelled by Republican social conservatism and linking them with unmarried women, people of color and the young.  With financing from Hollywood, Wall Street and Silicon Valley, the party leads with its social liberalism linked to an established moderate economics. What Bill Clinton’s New Democrats once worried were damaging wedge issues now play in Democrats favor.

Sanders seeks to consolidate a coalition based upon his core economic and political populism, without abandoning social liberalism. He recognizes that single women, people of color and the young are united largely by their need for fundamental economic and political reforms. The authenticity of his appeal — his willingness to call out America’s rigged economy and corrupted politics — give him the possibility of reaching into the white blue-collar workers, who Trump has already shown are shunning establishment Republicans.

Hillary Clinton, of course, remains the prohibitive favorite to win the 2016 Democratic nomination. The argument about Sanders viability is, in some ways, a distraction. She has to show that she is viable electorally by laying out a vision and agenda that rouse energy among the Democratic base. If she does that, she could provide the best proof of Sanders’ lack of viability by beating him.


Correction: The final results in the Iowa caucuses have been updated in this article.


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Posted by cooday | Report as abusive

It’s going to happen sooner or later. Too many poor people in this country now to ignore, or try to keep away from polls.

If not now, then 20 years from now. But be ready or be crushed. A socialist is headed for the White House.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

This is the first piece that has pointed out the irony — the surrealism — of Hillary and the DNC continuing to make the “electability” argument when not only does Senator Sanders poll better against hypothetical Republican opponents, but he’s actually beating HER in the polls in NH and tied her Iowa. Bernie can win if we vote for him. And if he’s the candidate in November, he will bring a lot of new voters, long disaffected voters and independents to the polls. #feelthebern.

Posted by johndou | Report as abusive

“Americans aren’t about to elect a Jewish socialist who still hasn’t lost his Brooklyn accent”? Are you kidding me????????? That’s EXACTLY what America wants.

Posted by Bernie2016 | Report as abusive

Well, I don’t think a Jewish President would sell long range missiles to Iran.

Reagan was a joke of a human, and failure as a President.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Either will do. A Republican will sell what is left of this country to China.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

“Clinton, the more moderate and experienced candidate”

Huh? Only clueless media could brush off 40 years of work.

Do you clean Hillary’s shoes for her too?

Posted by andy869 | Report as abusive


(No one remembers the 2008 DEM primary? REALLY?)


3) IT’S ALREADY OVER FOR HILLARY. Millions of Sanders fans are WRITING him in if somehow The Clintons cheat the nomination. She’s toast.

It’s OVER. And Bernie hasn’t even announced Warren as VP yet!

He blew away a 40-point Hilliary LEAD IN IOWA! Did you miss that?
He has DESTROYED her national lead.

And he’s JUST beginning! HOLY CRAP!



You may not go to prison (for war crimes etc)… but you’re doomed.

Posted by joeeffyourself | Report as abusive

NO! He is the FDR of 2016. Google: FDR’s 2nd Bill of Rights – Bernie Sanders’ speech on Democratic Socialism at Georgetown University

Posted by swoods | Report as abusive

wut?! sanders is unrealistic, but hillary has no plan unrealistic or not; she’s just a puppet of the big boys, no wonder americans tend to vote for a trump when they face such a ‘democratic’ candidate. I’d really like to see Sanders win but I don’t know if americans have any amount of brain that hasn’t been washed

Posted by SCRT | Report as abusive

Ronald Reagan was never a Washington insider. The people in and around Washington DC hated Ronald Reagan.

This year’s election favors the outsiders. The only reason Sanders is considered to be an outsider is that his opponent Cackles is the consumate insider which makes Bernie appear to be an outsider.

Appearances are deceiving. Bernie has milked his Washington-insider gig for decades casting multitudes of votes that have fattened the Beltway Bureaucracy and that have enriched the plutocrat leaches who inhabit the counties that surround the Beltway.

Posted by majormike3 | Report as abusive

Professor Reisman wrote in his book that a population no matter how successful will elect governing individuals capable of damaging successful economic institutions when there is ignorance of economic principles; ie. division of labor, etc. And in so doing, the eventual result will be economic policies that damage the creation of wealth.

The fact that NONE of the candidates are “selling” positive economic policy is frightening; ie. Trump’s support of eminent domain to promote real estate development, restrictive trade practises, etc. Sanders ignorance of economic matters is so self evident as to be almost be laughable.

What is more frightening is the lack of “call out” by either “knowledgeable” press or worse voters and commentary to articles like this. THERE IS NO INTELLIGENT DISCOURSE ON ECONOMIC POLICY TODAY ON EITHER SIDE.

Reagan, frankly had an economic message, a simple, albeit polarizing one: Less taxes = less money for govt. = more money for citizens = more growth + less government = even more growth. Clinton 1 had the brains not to screw with a winning formula.

Trump / Sanders / Hillary’s pandering = New low in quality of potential leadership.

Posted by VSWilsonCanessa | Report as abusive

It’s a no brainer. The white working class man get’s to keep his guns with Bernie, his children get an education and his family get’s better healthcare.

Posted by rhess595 | Report as abusive

He won’t win. Reasonable people understand socialism cannot work when you are letting in every ditch digger in the world into the country. Look at most European countries – they are selective about who they let in. Finland has an income requirement. The Swiss won’t let anyone become a citizen unless they are practically a celebrity or world renowned at something. Germany’s sustainability will surely take a hit with the migrant problem they have over there.

If Sanders wants to be taken seriously, he needs to come down hard on immigration. That is the only way he could make his socialist dream a reality.

Posted by SSINTENSE | Report as abusive

“un-electable” = not bought

Posted by Calvin2k | Report as abusive

NO! He is the FDR of 2016. Google: FDR’s 2nd Bill of Rights – Bernie Sanders’ speech on Democratic Socialism at Georgetown University

Posted by swoods | Report as abusive

Instead of welcoming white, blue-collar workers Sanders is meeting with Al Sharpton – you know him, the one who owes millions in taxes and is an “advisor” to Obama. Good going, Sanders – way to see what you are doing to help destroy the white, blue-collar workers and promise more freebies to those who spend their time making more babies they don’t support, rioting, looting and burning their own neighborhoods, living off others’ tax dollars and killing each other.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

If you make less than $150,000 per year….. you gain from Socialism. It’s really that simple.

So you can freak out, or you can look at reality. Your choice.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Please do not compare Bernie Sanders to Reagan. Reagan was a monster who gave status and impetus to the craziness of the NRA; manufactured lies about “welfare mothers,” was just plain terrible which becomes more and more evident as time passes. Mr. Sanders is an ethical man who has walked his talk for decades and in my opinion a solid hope for for this country to regain power from the oligarchs who are not only destroying this country but the world with their money and greed. GAILHEN

Posted by gailhen | Report as abusive

Not even close. Reagan had a certain appeal to the common man cowboy wanna-be as does Bernie, but Bernie is honest and sincere, where as Reagan was a big fake and a fascist.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

There are several HUGE differences between Bernie Sanders and Ronald Reagan:
1. Mr. Sanders is angry, Mr. Reagan was a sunny optimist.
2. Mr. Sanders is focused on redistribution as economic policy, Mr. Reagan was focused on “…let’s grow our way out…”.

There are common elements though:
1. Both excite, get the adrenalin going.
2. Both are eloquent.

But, personally, I think Reagan’s approach was more constructive. Mr. Sanders would probably serve his country better if he took the time to read Professor Reisman’s books and study the economic development of Estonia after the fall of the Soviet Union. There is a complete absence of discussion on how wealth and prosperity are created and assured from his message. Frankly, I think this absence is based on ignorance.

Posted by VSWilsonCanessa | Report as abusive

Reagan accomplished nothing. Except sending weapons and cash to Al Qaeda. Oops.

Terrible president, terrible legacy. Anybody who tells you different…. probably listens to too much AM radio.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

How do you comment-gatekeepers sleep at night knowing your own arguments don’t stand up to criticism and must be kept from other people eyes? My experience has been that objectivity is one of the rarest of human qualities and nearly absent from the left wing. So, I suppose, not having the capacity for objectivity means you sleep just fine.

Posted by caracoid | Report as abusive

Thanks for showing your true colors and censoring my comment. Have a nice site.

Posted by KarenHurtz | Report as abusive

Vermont is one of the worst states in the New England area. Half the people work, half are on the dole. It is a poor state in real terms in New England. But most are Democratic and failing. NH and MA are doing well. Sanders will be elected just in time to see the US collapse into bankruptcy due to poor economic decisions. Quantitative easing (printing more money) $19 trillion in debt, half the people working, and worse conditions for those employed. Elect a socialist, take a way rights, reeducate the populace how to think in a socialist paradise. Make the decisions for the people to grant them utopia. This is why people will pull the lever for Trump, angry, yes, change yes, business as usual no.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

His moral strength certainly to make him a unique candidate Unlike his competitor, he is fighting with his strong will to serve people and the nation, not the greed for the post. He is overstretching his physical strength but has boundless store of moral strength based on truth like Gandhi,the proof how he has inspired people with his limited means where only money is might.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Another positive blog for the Democrats amongst a slew of negative blogs against the Republicans. Reuters bias is pretty clear. And obviously, Bernie Sanders’ political stances in no way, shape, or form, bear any resemblance to those of Reagan.

Posted by D65406540 | Report as abusive