Making Sense of Bernie and Trump, and their Poll Numbers

(c) DonkeyHotey via Flickr.

(c) DonkeyHotey via Flickr.

Bernie Sanders, the Socialist/Democratic Senator from Vermont, is a serious man with serious ideas; Donald Trump – equal parts showman, mogul, and clown – is not. Yet the two men’s enthusiastic reception by their supporters is worth considering in tandem.

First the Senator.

Both as spectacle and political phenomenon, Sanders perhaps best resembles a man from the other party: Texas Republican and multiple-time Presidential candidate, Ron Paul. Both men appear to be, upon first encounter, uniquely unsuited for the modern political landscape. Wonky, draped in ill-fitting suits, sporting grey hair and dour demeanors, both Mr. Sanders and Mr. Paul have nevertheless proven wildly popular among young people.

The key to that popularity is twofold. First, both men have sparkling reputations as bonafide true believers. Nowhere in Bernie Sanders’ speeches will you find the notion that politics is the art of the possible – politics, instead, is doing the right thing. Second, both men enjoy an irreplaceable political commodity: the ability to honestly and accurately call yourself, at the same time, a man with experience as well a Washington outsider. With a long career in Congress, Bernie Sanders (just like Ron Paul before him) can make the case that he knows how the place works. At the same time, Sanders – who caucuses with the Democrats but is not a member of the party whose nomination he now seeks, and who freely calls himself a Democratic Socialist – can argue that he is not beholden to political insiders or special interests. Bernie, his supporters would argue, has both the wherewithal and the inclination to change Washington.

In the end, however, Sanders is unlikely to get the chance. His supporters concede this, but argue that there is a real path between Mr. Sanders and the Oval Office. There isn’t. One thing that’s often ignored is the size of the lead the Hillary Clinton has already opened up over her competitors. Bernie’s supporters point to the lead Hillary held over a little-known Senator from Illinois in 2008, Barack Obama. The problem with the comparison is twofold. First, Hillary’s lead over Obama was never as massive as her current lead over Sanders. But the emphasis on polling also leaves out other important metrics, like fundraising and endorsements. In those areas, Clinton enjoys even larger advantages.

Second, it is difficult to say this politely, but in 2008, Barack Obama was a media darling; Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, struggles to be taken seriously. Young, charismatic, and a gifted public speaker, Obama rode a wave of positive media attention to the credibility that might have otherwise eluded an unlikely challenger (particularly one who is African-American). Sanders finds himself swimming hard against a current of presumptive fringe status.

Bernie Twitter Photo

Senator Sanders appears in a campaign photograph.

Lastly, Obama was never openly hostile to the opposition – in fact, much of his political appeal was the result of his image as a politician who could overcome partisan bickering. He also wasn’t openly at war with establishment interests. In his long career, Bernie Sanders has accumulated a longer list of political enemies. The fight between Hillary and Obama was fierce and entertaining, but the political space between them was slim – as evidenced by the fact that Mr. Obama took Ms. Clinton in as his Secretary of State.

Most interest groups were indifferent to whether Obama or Hillary won the presidency, but sideline observers will be much less sanguine about the possibility of a Sanders presidency. In part, this is a testament to the fact that when Sanders’ supporters say he would bring change, people believe it. If the unthinkable happens and Sanders ends up holding the Democratic nomination for President, the GOP will crush him in the general election.

So much for the Senator; now for the clown.

Donald Trump’s expected-yet-unexpected entry into a massively crowded GOP field has been a wonder to behold. So far, almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. His announcement was overshadowed by the revelation that the Trump campaign paid actors to fill the crowd, even as Mr. Trump boasted of filling the room with supporters. Then his comments about Mexican immigrants – comments that were offensive in the extreme – led to a long list of terminated business relationships, effecting everything from the Miss Universe pageant (in which Trump has a business interest) to his distribution deals with Macy’s and Serta.

With the noticeable exception of Ted Cruz, Trump’s fellow competitors for the GOP nomination have largely denounced his statements, as have talking heads across the political spectrum. At the same time, others – such as Republican Committee Chairman Reince Priebus – have been unwilling to publicly distance themselves from the Donald. Trump has responded by doubling down. On Saturday, Trump appeared before a cheering crowd in Arizona, along with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who gained notoriety for his own stance towards immigrants as well as his declaration, after a six-month long investigation by his office, that President Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery.

(It should be noted that Donald Trump is also a prominent believer in the theory that President Obama was not actually born in the United States.)

So how has the GOP electorate reacted to Mr. Trump’s rollout and comments? Well, in the latest polls, Mr. Trump seems to be in a dead heat with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush for first place in the race for the nomination.

What gives?

For starters, Trump’s strong showing needs to be placed into context. It’s worth pointing out that his massive name recognition gives him a major advantage: Taylor Swift would, presumably, do very well in a similar poll if pollsters included her in the list of contenders. It’s also worth pointing out that Trump has very large negative numbers; for example, polling from earlier last month indicated that an overwhelming majority of Americans viewed Trump unfavorably, including a majority of Republicans. A whopping 59% of GOP voters said they would “never” vote for Donald Trump.


Trump addresses the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (c) Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

In other words, Donald Trump won’t win the GOP nomination. You can bet your house on it. (Though that hasn’t stopped Democrats from trying to fundraise on the prospect.) Not even his supporters, who seem to revel in championing Trump’s take-no-prisoners approach to politics, can confabulate a path to victory. But whereas the media barely deems to acknowledge Sanders as a possible threat to Clinton, they can’t help but cover Trump.

Everything about Donald Trump – from his decadent lifestyle, to his inscrutable hair, to his odd blend of jingoism and national pessimism – seems to scream, “PUT ME ON TELEVISION!”

Democratic fundraisers presumably tell Donald Trump stories around the campfire.

Democratic fundraisers presumably tell Donald Trump stories around the campfire.

There are two lessons to draw from all this. The first is that voters are all-too-ready to delude themselves into misreading the political landscape and all-too-ready to let their hope and aspirations get ahead of them. There might be good reasons for supporting Bernie Sanders’ platform for America (though yours truly is not a particularly enthusiastic supporter), but there are no good reasons for imagining that he might win. Yet in some circles, people seem convinced that he can make a solid run.

Similarly, some Republicans have eagerly embraced their id and stumped for Trump. But it’s hard to fathom what they think they’re doing. I, for one, can’t imagine the mind of the voter who pictures Donald Trump in the Oval Office and for whom that act of imagination is not accompanied by a deep sense of unease, bordering on panic. Perhaps the thousands of people who have attended his rallies (at least those who were not paid to attend) are simply letting off steam. Either way, the fact that this might be the way they choose to do that gives a glimpse at the soft and seedy underbelly of democracy.

The second lesson is this: the media is biased, but not in the way many people assume. For all of its would-be liberal slant, ‘the media’ has had no trouble sidelining Bernie Sanders. And while it often denounces Trump, his offenses to liberal sensibilities have proven no impediment to gaining airtime. The media, just as the people who consume it, are slanted in favor of bread and circus: bring out the clown and the media brings the tent.

The only question is, how many voters will come out to watch the show?

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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