Eric Davis: Democrats could learn a lot from Sanders
Here are a few points that illustrate the dilemmas facing the Democratic Party, both here in Vermont and nationally, after last week’s election.
Democrat Sue Minter lost her home town, middle-income Waterbury, to Republican Phil Scott. At the same time, Minter defeated Scott in neighboring Stowe, a town with more affluent voters holding college degrees.
Nationally, there are 18 states, including Vermont, where the percentage of adults with an advanced degree exceeds the national average. Hillary Clinton won all 18 of them. Donald Trump won 29 of the remaining 32 states.
In Vermont, center-left pragmatist Minter did best in those communities with an above-average number of people employed in professional, technical and managerial jobs — cities and towns such as Burlington, Montpelier, Middlebury, Cornwall and Weybridge. These voters are more likely to have household incomes above the statewide median.
David Zuckerman, the Progressive Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, ran almost 7 percent ahead of Minter. He won more cities and towns than Minter. His strength was more geographically dispersed. Zuckerman won in more of the state’s small towns, especially in northern and central Vermont. In Addison County, Zuckerman won 13 towns, and tied in one, to Minter’s 7.
Nationally, Donald Trump won many communities in which Bernie Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton in last spring’s Democratic primaries. Examples include small- and medium-size towns and cities with many older, white, blue-collar workers in upstate New York, Michigan and Wisconsin. Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are three states that Clinton lost by very narrow margins, largely because of the defection of traditional working-class Democratic voters to Trump.
One of the few swing states that Clinton won was Nevada. In Nevada, Latino workers in the casino and other service industries are an important part of the Democratic base. Most of these workers are members of labor unions, so in Nevada much of the political mobilization is carried out by organized labor.
Looking ahead, how can Democrats in both Vermont and the nation put together winning coalitions for future elections? The Vermont Democratic Party is in much better shape than the national Democratic Party — it holds all of the state’s congressional seats, 5 of the 6 statewide offices and large majorities in the Legislature. However, Phil Scott did much better than Sue Minter in reaching voters in smaller communities where household incomes are at or below the statewide median. Democrats need to address this weakness among small-town voters in order to win the governorship in the future.
Scott came across as authentic to many Vermont voters, as someone who could listen to their concerns and do something about them. So too did Sanders, on a national scale, during the Democratic primaries, and so too did Trump — in spite of voters’ serious reservations about his qualifications to be president and distaste for his words and actions.
If Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden had been the Democratic nominee, either one might well have done better than Hillary Clinton against Trump. The Wikileaks materials make rather clear that the Democratic National Committee had a thumb on the scale for Clinton in the nominating contest with Sanders. Perhaps the DNC did not believe Trump could end up as the Republican nominee, and did not realize the extent to which there was an enthusiasm and authenticity gap between Clinton and Sanders.
Sanders has been a friend of working people throughout his political career. He has never taken money from corporate-funded PACs, and will never do so. He has never received six-figure fees for making speeches to banks. He has never disparaged hard-working Americans in private speeches to affluent donors at fundraisers. Sanders has a lot to teach national Democrats as they seek a way to move forward.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.