Littwin: As Super Tuesday approaches, it’s time we had a talk about Bernie

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally in the Colorado Convention Center on Feb. 16, 2020. At the time, he was the Democratic primary frontrunner. He dropped out of the race on April 8, 2020. (Photo by Evan Semón)
Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally in the Colorado Convention Center on Feb. 16, 2020. At the time, he was the Democratic primary frontrunner. He dropped out of the race on April 8, 2020. (Photo by Evan Semón)

It’s time we had a chat. I’ve been out sick (not with the Coronavirus, fortunately), but it’s time we talked about Bernie.

If you haven’t heard, there’s some panic in some Democratic circles that Bernie Sanders — the clear front-runner and possibly in position to be unstoppable after Super Tuesday — would be a disastrous candidate who would not only lose to Donald Trump, but also lose control of the House.

Is the panic justified? Can a self-described Democratic Socialist win the presidency?

And even if he could, is it too great a risk to find out? (Look, if you want risk, there’s a virus that’s threatening the world, not to mention Donald Trump’s beloved stock market. If you want political risk, there’s Mike Bloomberg, who is proof that you can be very, very, very rich and still walk away from a debate looking as if you’d lost every cent. If Joe Biden has a big day, as he might, doesn’t Bloomberg have to drop out?)

But even if it might be too great a risk to nominate Bernie, is it too late to even do anything about it? Maybe it’s just me, but I wonder if all those establishment Democrats who spent so much time and effort knocking Elizabeth Warren out of the lead while basically ignoring Sanders have any regrets now?

As I said, it’s time we had a talk, if, that is, we can be heard above the screaming.

I’ll start. I’m in the “very liberal” polling camp. Occasionally, I do one of those online which-candidate’s-positions-are-closest-to-yours tests, and I always come up with Bernie. And while some find his cranky-old-man personality off-putting, I’m a bit of a cranky old man myself — though not nearly as cranky or as old — and Bernie won a piece of my heart when he said he was still upset, 60-plus years later, that the Dodgers had abandoned Brooklyn. I love the Dodgers. And I love lost causes.

And yet.

I worry about Bernie’s electability, even as the experts tell me (and I believe them) that we really have no reliable way to measure electability in this race. It’s a crap shoot in a season where we need a sure thing. One reason so many candidates are still alive at this point is that voters are desperately trying to figure out which candidate is the best bet to beat Trump and just can’t decide.

The head-to-head matchup polls that Bernie likes to cite — in which he and most Democrats outpoll Trump — may not be entirely meaningless, but they may not be meaningful either. I mean, this is easy. Jimmy Carter was once 22 points ahead of Ronald Reagan. Mike Dukakis was well ahead of George H. W. Bush. And maybe most significant, Hillary Clinton led Trump for most of the campaign.

In any case, the Dem-Trump numbers come before Trump singles out one candidate to go after in the ugly way that we know Trump and the right-wing noise machine will.

When I first voted in the ‘70s, Republicans routinely called liberals socialists and communists and long-haired-hippie-pinko-commies. And Democrats, who had held the reins of power in Washington for most of the time since FDR and the New Deal, would soon be overtaken by the Reagan revolution.

Democratic candidates would deny being socialists, and soon just being a liberal was a pejorative, which is why, I guess, we have progressives today instead of liberals. But you should forgive any Democrat of that age for worrying about how a self-avowed Democratic Socialist would do.

It is often said that Bernie would be the most liberal Democratic candidate since George McGovern. Gary Hart, who was McGovern’s national campaign director, just wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post saying McGovern was not nearly as far to the left as Bernie. McGovern was an early and strong opponent of the Vietnam war, but he was also an internationalist and a decorated bomber pilot who flew 35 missions in World War II. He certainly didn’t run on a platform, Hart writes, for programs that would fundamentally alter the economy.

Here’s what I remember. It was 1972 and my first vote in a presidential election. I voted for McGovern against the evil Richard Nixon, and McGovern won exactly one state. Yes, one state, Massachusetts, plus the District of Columbia. There used to be a bumper sticker: “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts.” And even though Nixon was forced out of office two years later, it’s fair to say I was scarred forever by my first foray into national politics.

The problem many of us have with the Bernie supporters — and often with Bernie himself — is that anyone who expresses such doubts about electability is somehow either intent on undermining Sanders to protect the establishment or is part of the anti-Bernie corporate media or can’t be simply opposed to Sanders’s views, prefer another candidate or have voted once for George McGovern. I tire of Bernie supporters always playing the victim. Don’t we already have a president doing that?

If you want an honest look at how Bernie might fare against Trump, there’s an excellent piece on Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball website by Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman, who rate Bernie a slight underdog who would have trouble expanding Democrats’ chances in the Sun Belt, but who would probably hold on to every state Hillary Clinton carried. In a race against a generic Democrat, they have it rated as a tossup. That doesn’t sound like panic. And here’s Bernie’s pollster making the case that the worries about, say, moving everyone off their present insurance are overstated.

Meanwhile Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report shows why he doesn’t think Bernie would be much of a drag on Democrats down-ballot, whatever he has said about Fidel.

The big argument now is whether someone with a plurality of delegates at the convention in Milwaukee should automatically be the winner. Though it’s a little premature to ask the question, the obvious answer is, it depends. There are dozens of scenarios that could play out between now and then.

Let’s talk about now. Bernie is the front-runner, and it’s possible, with the speeded-up calendar, that he could win enough delegates on Super Tuesday to build a lead that no one could catch. But Bernie is currently polling at 29% nationally. If he gets 29% of the vote on Super Tuesday, I doubt he’ll clinch anything. The polling does show that Bernie should win easily in Colorado, where his recent rally drew more than 11,000 people. I’d be shocked if he didn’t. If Warren finishes second, that would make a major statement on just how progressive Democratic voters in Colorado have become.

But here’s where we are nationally. Primaries get ugly. They always get ugly. I can remember a primary where one now-Trump loyalist had his wife called ugly and his father accused of plotting to kill JFK. Democrats don’t get that ugly. 

But this is what I’ve thought we should talk about. It’s not crazy to worry about whether a Democratic Socialist who once found time to praise Fidel Castro’s educational system can beat Trump. It’s not crazy, either, to think that the Bernie Revolution is real and has legs. What is crazy is for any Democrat to leave the convention in Milwaukee this summer with any thought other than to do what is best to beat Donald Trump in November.

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  1. You covered most of the points I was about to make. Like how D’s are always leading until Labor day and then blow it due to some shady politics by r’s.( I’m oversimplifying your point) If you;re an R it’s what you do. I have an array of models that have been saying since last summer the D’s have a 70-30 chance of winning, but I amend that if Bernie is the nominee. Then, it’s under 50%. Nominate Bernie and the only way you win is if the coming recession ( been calling that since last summer as well) hits before the election. I had that at 30 % for most of the last year, With the yield curve inversion it’s above 35 %. But that is a pretty think reed to hang your electoral hopes one

  2. The question I have not heard asked is: If Bernie wins the Presidency, will he be able to put together any type of coalition to get any part of his agenda passed? He’s been attacking both the Republican and Democratic Party establishments, and that just doesn’t seem to be a formula to get legislation passed.

  3. Good article based on personal experience and recent polling data and analysis. Speaking of Crystal Ball, check out Krystal Ball (The Hill) for the most vociferous Bernie cheering squad in the popular media. Meanwhile the whole MSNBC supposedly left leaning squad is going psycho over a Bernie’s growing strength across most demographic categories except older white voters, They went especially bat-sh*t crazy about his run-away win in Nevada. Bernie’s belief in increased voter turnout is belied by disappointing youth vote in the primaries so far, but somewhat buoyed by his ability to turn the Hispanic (not woke enough? sorry) vote against their own union leadership in Nevada, and his runaway numbers among Hispanic voters generally. Likely that the youth vote would turn out in greater strength in the general, than other, more moderate sub-groups.

    There are too many unknown unknowns to put much faith in the polling now. Even the known unknowns are daunting. Corona Virus, the economy, the markets, the effects of CR on the markets and the economy, whether the economy will recover before the election, MENA and especially Iran, whatever craziness Trump comes up with if he is losing etc, etc.

    IMHO, the most interesting drama now is playing out in the DNC/Dem establishment freakout about Bernie’s surging numbers. Pelosi has said she is comfortable with the possibility of Bernie as the nominee. Yeah, right. Meanwhile she is traveling coast to coast in support of mainstream Dems who are threatened by the AOC contingent.of progressive challengers to incumbent mainstream Dems in the primaries. How far will the DNC/Dem establishment go to stop Bernie’s candidacy, and even to sandbag him in the general should he be the nominee? What happens on the second ballot if Bernie comes to the convention with, say 35+% of delegates and whoever is second has fewer that 25%. Will the superdelegates throw it to someone else? MIchelle? Sherrod Brown?Kerry? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone? Anyone?

    Crystal Ball and Pelosi et. al. are right about downstream races if Bernie is the nominee. I’m a (very) old leftie supporting Bernie because of his policy positions (achievable or not), consistent long-term record and his personal integrity. But honestly, I would rather see Dems retake the Senate than elect Bernie, even if it means Trump is reelected. Mitch McConnell and his DT sycophant fellow travelers are a greater threat to liberty, equality and fraternity, not to mention saving the world from global warming, than an unhinged Donald could ever be.

  4. Let me take the liberty of a comment that does not even mention personal feelings and preferences.

    1. Revulsion at politics. Many Americans who might vote Democratic are so wholly alienated from the political process right now that they have not weighed in. Many don’t even want to think about it, despite our belief they ought to. So it’s to be expected that Senator Sanders’ energetic, switched on fans seem to represent a big chunk of the Party right now.

    2. Demographics. Sanders fans tend to be packed into already-blue states, even more so than the voters who made Secretary Clinton the top vote-getter in 2016. Sociologists find Sanders supporters, as much or more than Trump supporters, tend to know and associate only with others like themselves. This imposes a constraint on converting new voters in more reddish places. How big? Some say this election would have to be an epic popular landslide like LBJ in 1964 to just clear the 270 electoral vote mark needed for election.

    3. Cheating. Everybody knows and expects Putin to do as much or more than he did in 2016 to sway this vote, this time with the acquiescence and even the active connivance of a sitting US President. This President will also menace, threaten, and cajole GOP officials into producing the results he wants, regardless of legality. His henchmen have already gone to jail for him, and he has more.

    Democrats have so far not taken this threat very seriously. Nobody has said that protecting this election might take a world-class effort, building a network to defeat the upcoming cyberattacks, and convincing Silicon Valley to do the same. Objectively, I can think of only one person in the world who can do this.

    So we all have to ask how serious the threat is, and if we can take any chances that it falls short.

  5. I agree that winning the Senate is really crucial. If Trump is re-elected, control of the Senate would put a halt to unqualified right wing judge appointments. It would allow debate on legislation that MM has blocked for two years. It would be an obstruction to Trump’s ad hoc agenda. That’s the primary reason I worry about a Bernie nomination. I know so many democrats in my circle of senior citizens – reliable voters – who don’t want him as the candidate and are afraid he’ll lose and ruin the chances of down ballot candidates. The Trump campaign is salivating at the chance to go after Bernie. And fear is the primary motivator. I’d so much prefer Amy Klobuchar or even Warren as the nominee.

  6. McGovern ’72 was bad, but Humphrey ’68 was worse. Sanders is no McGovern, we need to avoid the mistake of ’68 a back the popular candidate. It’s crisis time, but fortune favors the bold. Give Sanders that! Me, I’m tired of timid Democrats…

  7. I think The Bern’s handlers should slip him some low doses of a decent benzo in the morning’s coffee. It would make a lot of people more comfortable if he would calm down a little and learn to play nicely with others.

    Plus he’ll have fewer heart attacks.

    Which is nice.

  8. By the way…22 points up on Rick Dalton?? Damn. That deal with the Iranians about those hostages sure paid off in spades.

  9. The people need to make sure that one of the two progressive presidential candidates receives the democratic party nomination. Let the country decide in November if they want to stop the destruction of the earth’s ecosystems and provide everyone health care.
    We’ve run out of elections to waste.

  10. This drivel is not based on current polling data. Evidence based polling says Bernie Trump’s Trump bigly.

  11. I’ll vote for Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg (too late), Warren or Yang. But not an avowed socialist who never held a real job. I love this country and have been active in politics since ousting Nixon and I’ll have nothing to do with any bastard who admired Castro or the russians.

  12. Humphrey 68 wound up with a campaign that surged — several accounts I’ve seen said that if Election Day had been a week or two later, he would have won. Popular vote separation was about 500,000 (Wallace got almost 10 million), Electoral vote was 301 – 191 – 45

    McGovern ’72 was bad. Epic loss — popular vote separation was about 18 million. McGovern had a majority in one state and DC. 520 to 17 in the EC.

    So, how was Humphrey worse?

  13. “If there’s one thing we learned from the 2016 election, it’s that none of the old rules seemed to apply, which is why nearly everyone (me included) got the election so wrong. ” – Mike Littwin May 1, 2019


    With the exception of his abiding opposition to the death penalty all of Mr. Littwin’s opinions are, well, fluid and have a shelf life of roughly 72 hours, so it’s not really surprising that Mr. Littwin’s view of Senator Bernie Sanders has shifted over time:

    —–“Bernie Sanders? At this point, he’s not even a Democrat.” – March, 2015

    —–“Bernie (Sanders) is the most benign of summer flings. He’s part Gene McCarthy, part Howard Dean, but mostly part Jefferson Smith (do the Google if you don’t get the reference). Of Bernie’s many parts, only Jefferson Smith wins in the end, and that was in a movie..” – July, 2015

    —–“History tells us that 74-year-old Jewish socialists are 0-for-forever in U.S electoral politics.” – February, 2016

    Mr. Littwin’s earlier views of Senator Sanders demonstrate how closely related political commentary is to reading tarot cards.

    The ridicule and vitriol Mr. Littwin aimed at Senator Sanders in the past (see above) has been replaced by the rather tepid “it’s time we talked about Bernie.” . But there are still a few things about Bernie he has yet to talk about:

    —– Does Mr. Littwin believe Senator Sanders can win in November?

    —– What does Mr. Littwin think of this New York Times report? “Dozens of interviews with Democratic establishment leaders this week show that they are not just worried about Mr. Sanders’s candidacy, but are also willing to risk intraparty damage to stop his nomination at the national convention in July if they get the chance. Since Mr. Sanders’s victory in Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday, The Times has interviewed 93 party officials—all of them superdelegates, who could have a say on the nominee at the convention—and found overwhelming opposition to handing the Vermont senator the nomination if he arrived with the most delegates but fell short of a majority.”

    —– Does Mr. Littwin believe Senator Sanders’ supporters will vote for the Democrat presidential nominee if Sanders is denied the nomination by unelected so-called superdelegates?

    —– Does Mr. Littwin believe Democrats can defeat President Trump without Senator Sanders’ supporters?

    —– Does Mr. Littwin believe a Senator Sanders’ nomination could cost Democrats control of Congress?

    “Gary Hart, who was McGovern’s national campaign director, just wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post saying McGovern was not nearly as far to the left as Bernie.”

    In that same op-ed piece Gary Hart also said, “Because of the barrage of attacks and mischaracterizations — started by his fellow Democrats and then picked up by President Richard M. Nixon — McGovern’s defeat was virtually inevitable.”

    So maybe “the ugly way that we know (President) Trump and the right-wing noise machine will (go after the Democrat presidential nominee)” has already been done by (gasp) fellow Democrats.

    “What is crazy is for any Democrat to leave the convention in Milwaukee this summer with any thought other than to do what is best to beat Donald Trump in November.”

    If Senator Sanders is the Democrat nominee it won’t be Sanders vs. Trump it’ll be socialism vs. capitalism. What “ism” does Mr. Littwin think wins that one? Would Mr. Littwin like to see a Socialist United States of America (SUSA)?

    Muhammad Ali said, “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.’”

    If Mr. Littwin views Senator Sanders this year the same way he viewed Senator McGovern in 1972 he’s wasted 48 years of his life.

    “The Independent is a nonprofit. You as readers and donors (both, I hope) are our investors. We work not to fatten the bottom line, but for our mission. It’s on our home page. You can read the whole thing there. But here’s a key passage: “We seek to amplify the voices of Coloradans whose stories are unheard, shine light on the relationships between people, power and policy, and hold public officials to account. We strive to report the news with context, social conscience, and soul, and to give Coloradans the insight they need to promote conversation, understanding and progress in this square, swing state we call home.”
    Tina Griego, managing editor Colorado Independent

    “We’re funded by donations from our readers, charitable gifts, community partnerships and foundations.”
    Holly Armstrong, board chair Colorado Independent

  14. Mr. Lopez, So great to hear from you again. I don’t know how many Sanders supporters would vote for the Dem nominee if he were to lose because of superdelegates. As I said in the column, it’s way too premature to ask that question. Let’s say Bernie has the most delegates, but someone else wins, say, 8 of the last 10 primaries and is leading in all the polls. What then? I have no idea who wins in 2020. I admitted I was wrong — as almost everyone was — in 2016. The experts rate it 50-50. I pointed to the work of experts who thought Sanders would far a little worse than generic Dem, but still be only a slight underdog, Bernie is not a true socialist. He doesn’t believe in nationalizing industry or central planning — basic precepts of socialism. He’s a Scandinavian socialist (although some point out, more a 70s Scandinavian socialist). Does that answer your questions? As for my fluidity, sure I change when the facts in front of me change. Who doesn’t? As for policies, I’m not sure which ones you think I’ve changed on in any significant way. Would love to hear, say, on abortion or death penalty or universal health care or civil rights or gay marriage or taxes on TABOR or investment in education or child care or gun control or a host of other issues.

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