Bernie Sanders is electable, just not for the usual reasons

It’s early. Polls don’t matter. Bernie Sanders isn’t going to beat Hillary in a primary. Yeah, I get it.

But Holy Workers Party Revolution, guys. The Republican brand is so bad right now that Bernie Democratic Socialist Sanders is beating every single major Republican candidate in a CNN poll released yesterday.

Among the adult population, Sanders beat Jeb Bush 48-47, Scott Walker 48-42 and Donald Trump by a massive 58-38 margin. When narrowing the field to registered voters, Sanders trails Bush by one point, but maintains solid leads among all other Republican challengers.

To be clear, 41 percent of respondents had never heard of Sanders, so his leads over the Republican candidates could be in many respects a function of voters selecting a generic Democrat ahead of any Republican. But at the end of the day, isn’t that significant in and of itself? To the extent that voters are paying attention to the Republican primary campaign, they know that it’s a hot mess, and that whichever candidate emerges from the fray is going to be someone who doesn’t come close to sharing their values.

So sure, you can say that Sanders has little to no chance of beating Hillary Clinton in a primary campaign, but what you can’t say is that you shouldn’t vote for him because the general electorate would write him off as a beyond-the-pale extremist.

Bernie Sanders speaking at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, via John Pemble / Flickr

Bernie Sanders speaking at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, via John Pemble / Flickr

It’s also important to note that the CNN poll’s toplines recorded adults, while filtering for registered voters, and that likely voter models normally produce less favorable results for Democratic candidates. However, as Demos’s Sean McElwee pointed out earlier today, the kinds of policies Sanders is advocating — debt-free college, universal pre-K, basic income, ending corporate welfare — are the kinds of policies that turn unlikely voters into voters. Sanders isn’t electable simply because he isn’t as extreme as his opponents make him out to be, and he isn’t electable simply because the American public agrees with him on his core issues. The real reason Sanders is electable is that he has the potential to turn people out who otherwise wouldn’t vote at all.

As McElwee noted, 54 percent of unregistered voters — over 25 million people who are disproportionately comprised of low-income, minority and liberal voters — believe that politics is too corrupt; 42 percent believe that there’s no difference between the two parties. And when they say “no difference,” they may well acknowledge that one party wants to tweaks the marginal tax rate for the top one percent, or even that the two parties diverge significantly on social policy, but that isn’t their point. When they say “no difference” they mean that politicians in both parties are beholden to a donor class that is fundamentally opposed to addressing the root causes of structural inequality; neither party really cares about people like them. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who can make a credible claim to understanding this grievance, let alone wanting to do something about it, and for this reason he has a monopoly on the disaffected vote.

(You could make the argument that Donald Trump is tapping into similar disaffection on the right. He is, but those voters are turning out to vote for the eventual Republican nominee either way.)

There’s a reason why a poll last week found that Sanders is the only politician in either primary field with a net positive favorability rating: They like what he has to say, and they don’t think he’s sold out to the donor class.

Armchair political observers have a tendency to measure electability in terms of endorsements and fundraising as opposed to, you know, the number of people who say they want to vote for a given candidate. But by that metric Bernie Sanders is in a position to do just fine in a general election.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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