Eric Davis: Sanders can make a strong case

Bernie Sanders claims that he would be a stronger Democratic candidate than Hillary Clinton in a General Election campaign against Donald Trump. This claim is borne out by several reputable polls released by national news organizations in recent days.
The latest CBS News/New York Times poll shows Sanders 13 points ahead of Trump, compared to 6 points for Clinton. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has Sanders 15 points ahead of Trump, while Clinton leads by only 3 points. In the ABC News/Washington Post poll, which did not include a question about a Sanders-Trump trial heat, Trump leads Clinton by 2 points.
These polls should be interpreted cautiously. Election Day is nearly six months away, and no candidate has yet geared up a voter mobilization and turnout operation aimed at November. The expected Democratic barrage of negative ads against Trump is just beginning. Unlike Clinton and Trump, Sanders has to date not been the target of attacks from other candidates and their surrogates, or from well-funded Super PACs.
In order to overcome Clinton’s lead among elected delegates, Sanders would need close to 75 percent of the vote in California and New Jersey, the two large states voting on June 7. Such an outcome is most unlikely. However, if Sanders could get nearly half the votes in these two states, Clinton would not be able to clinch the nomination solely on the basis of elected delegates. She would need the votes of superdelegates at the convention to be nominated.
Sanders’ campaign in recent weeks has emphasized the “rigged” nature of the Democratic nominating process, and what he believes is the Democratic National Committee’s favoritism toward Clinton. While such arguments may help arouse young voters and independents to vote for him, particularly in California, they are unlikely to carry much weight with superdelegates, many of whom have been Democratic elected or party officials for much of their adult lives.
A more effective strategy for Sanders would be to emphasize his greater electability in November than Clinton. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that while large majorities of respondents have negative opinions of both Trump (minus 29) and Clinton (minus 20), Sanders has a positive rating (plus 7). Rather than attacking the DNC, Sanders should be arguing that Democratic superdelegates should think seriously about nominating a candidate whose net approval rating is 27 points lower than her challenger.
Breakdowns of all the recent polls by subgroups show that while Clinton does very well against Trump among both groups that strongly supported her in the primaries (African-American and Latino voters), and among groups that supported Sanders (voters aged 18 to 34), Trump defeats Clinton among independents. Sanders’ best showings against Clinton were in states that allow independents to vote in Democratic primaries.
Again, Sanders should emphasize to superdelegates that his demonstrated appeal to independents would make him a stronger candidate than Clinton against Trump. Sanders also did well in primaries in “rust belt” industrial states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana, states to which Trump is likely to devote special attention in the General Election.
Closer to home, the recent polls raise important questions for Vermont’s Clinton superdelegates — Howard Dean, Patrick Leahy and Peter Shumlin. Is it a risky strategy to continue supporting a candidate with high negatives, who is in a dead heat with Trump in multiple national polls, and whose negatives might continue to climb through November? Why not support the candidate who won 86 percent of the Vermont Democratic primary vote and has the highest approval rating of any major party candidate still remaining in the race for president?
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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