The Bernie Sanders lesson: America still isn't keen on socialism

News Analysis: Vermont senator may have been embraced more as the anti-Clinton alternative than for his democratic socialist policies.

Updated: April 8, 2020 - 1:27pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

According to the playbook by which presidential candidates win, Bernie Sanders seemed to check most of the boxes.

He had money ($180 million through February), primary state infrastructure, core voter enthusiasm and strong appeal with America’s most populous generation, the millennials.

But in the end he succumbed to Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat who had two prior failed presidential campaigns on his resume, a knack for tongue-tying, half the money ($86 million through February), and some uncomfortable baggage with his conduct among women in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

So how did that happen?

The short answer, experts say, is that the broad democratic socialist vision Sanders advocated — from free tuition to Medicare for All — had appeal among a small, ideological base on the elitist coasts but never resonated in Middle America or the South.

Yes, he could win Vermont or California, but failed to carry the Midwest (after a murky, split-decision draw in the Iowa caucuses) or the South, or the cities with large black populations that Biden gobbled up on Super Tuesday and afterwards.

In short, the majority of Americans — including establishment Democrats — aren’t keen on socialism where a big, central government funds a lot of new, big things, where felons get to vote, fracking that provides good energy jobs is totally banned, and borders are kept mostly open.

“Sen. Sanders' campaign failed largely because he advocated policies that attract fervent support from a small base but repel most voters,” the famed pollster Scott Rasmussen told me on Wednesday, shortly after Sanders announced his was suspending his campaign and ceding the nomination to Biden.

“A candidate who wants to ban private health insurance and fracking while believing felons should vote from prison is simply unelectable,” he added.

When history looks back, the story of Sanders' two colorful but failed campaigns for the White House in 2016 and 2020 is one that may ultimately be judged by another candidate’s record: Hillary Clinton.

Clinton’s high negatives made Sanders an unusually strong anyone-but-Hillary candidate in 2016. But with the former first lady out of the picture and a more affable Biden there for establishment figures to embrace, Sanders’ limitations were exposed.

“Many overestimated his appeal because of his relative success in 2016,” Rasmussen said. “However, much of his 2016 support came from Democrats who wanted anybody but Hillary.”

That said, Sanders has a legacy to carry into the fall election where Biden must battle incumbent President Donald Trump. He managed to force a wounded Biden, while the former VP was falling in the polls, to embrace some of those left-leaning policies. The question for voters in November is will Biden’s embrace become a millstone around his electoral neck.