Can Bernie Sanders Steal Supporters from Donald Trump?
Policy + Politics

Can Bernie Sanders Steal Supporters from Donald Trump?

© Jay Paul / Reuters

In a trope common to television and movie dramas, a group of characters find themselves in a tight spot and one of them suggests a plan that is objectively nuts. It rightly gets shot down by almost everyone, except for that one guy who sees not madness, but brilliance.

“It’s crazy, all right,” he says in a moment of chin-stroking perspicacity. “So crazy that it just … might … work.”

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Bernie Sanders’ plan to win the Democratic primary and the presidential election by stealing voters currently enamored with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is exactly that sort of plan. Except for the “just might work” part.

In an appearance on Face the Nation Sunday morning, the Senator from Vermont, who is currently running a distant second to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary polls, made the case for the migration of Trump voters to the Sanders banner.

Though he is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders serves in Congress as an independent and has long identified himself as a democratic socialist. And he casts himself as the defender of the working class.

“Look, many of Trump's supporters are working-class people. And they are angry,” Sanders told host John Dickerson in a taped interview. “And they're angry because they are working longer hours for lower wages. They're angry because their jobs have left this country and gone to China or other low-wage countries. They're angry because they can't afford to send their kids to college or they can't retire with dignity.”

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So far, so true. People are angry about these things, even if they might not always articulate it quite that clearly.

“And I think what Trump has done successfully, I would say, is take that anger, take that anxiety about terrorism and say to a lot of people in this country, look, the reason for our problems is because of Mexicans,” he continued. “And he says, they're all criminals and rapists. We have got to hate Mexicans. Or he says about the Muslims, they are all terrorists, and we got to keep them out of this country. Those are -- that's what we have to deal with to make America great.”

Sanders pointed out that many of the policies Trump has proposed – cutting taxes on the wealthy, maintaining a lower minimum wage – would do nothing to help and could well hurt many of his supporters.

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However, when he gets to the kind of message that he thinks will entice Trump voters to turn to Sanders, the Vermonter loses the thread.

“I think for his working-class and middle-class supporter, I think we can make the case that if we really want to address the issues that people are concerned about: Why the middle class is disappearing, massive income and wealth inequality in this country, that we need policies that bring us together, that take on the greed of Wall Street, the greed of corporate America, and create a middle class that works for all of us, rather than an economy that works just for a few.

“Everybody is concerned about the disappearing middle class or the fact that we have 47 million people living in poverty, that we're the only major country on Earth that doesn't provide paid family and medical leave or guaranteed health care to all people.”

On its face, this seems like a pretty solid set of arguments. Sanders’ problem, though, is his premises. What Sanders believes “everybody is concerned about” isn’t actually what everybody is concerned about. It’s what Bernie Sanders thinks everyone should be concerned about. He may be wrong, and he may be right, but that won’t matter in the voting booth.

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Earlier this month, in one of its large-scale surveys of U.S. citizens, the Gallup organization polled the electorate on what people believe is the “most important problem” facing the country.

Most of the issues that Sanders raised on Face the Nation polled in the low single digits. The gap between the rich and poor was named the biggest problem by two percent of respondents. Corporate corruption, wage issues and taxes all came in at one percent. Healthcare came in at three percent.

Paid family leave and the disappearing middle class don’t turn up at all.

In the Gallup survey, the two issues most frequently named as the country’s biggest problem were terrorism and governmental failures. And it is Trump, not Sanders, who hits those issues relentlessly on the campaign trail.

Again, Sanders may actually be right about what the country’s biggest problems are but if the people he wants to vote for him – particularly Trump supporters – don’t agree, being right will have to be its own reward.