Sen. Bernie Sanders never misses an opportunity to cite how well he is going in general election polls. On “Meet the Press” last week, Sanders boasted “in all of the national polling that I have seen, we are beating Donald Trump by much greater margins than is Secretary Clinton.”
Gov. John Kasich regularly sings the same song. In a recent Fox Business Network interview, he crowed, “I’m beating Hillary Clinton in every single poll. … I’m the only one with the positive ratings.”
There’s one statistic that neither one of them cites. however: how they fare against each other. The Real Clear Politics average has this matchup as basically a tie: Sanders up 45 to 44 percent, though Kasich leads in three of the five polls taken in March. Neither can argue that he, or his ideology, has definitively won the hearts of the American majority yet. If one had, he’d be beating the other.
Still, can they at least argue that they are the strongest options for their respective parties?
In one sense, yes. They do poll best in general election trial heats, and have the lowest “unfavorable” rating compared to their party rivals.
We can’t know if those poll numbers would hold up under the pressures of a general election. And, because neither Sanders nor Kasich is expected to win their respective party’s nomination, we may never know. For that same reason, neither man has been bombarded with negative attacks from the opposing party. In comparison, the Republican National Committee has been hammering Hillary Clinton for months (in addition to the last 24 years) as untrustworthy and Donald Trump is a Democratic piñata.
Furthermore, if the nation was falling in love with either candidate, millions more voters would be backing them in the primaries. The vast majority of Sanders’ wins, 10 of 14, have been in low-turnout caucus states. Kasich hasn’t won anything outside of his native Ohio.
The typical underlying premise of the underdog’s I’m-better-in-the-general-election argument is that he would be best at attracting swing voters who don’t participate in primaries. But in the cases of Sanders and Kasich, there’s confusing and contradictory data.
Sanders’ supporters often point to his strength with independent voters who do participate in the primaries. For example, he won independents by 2-to-1 or better in his most recent Midwest primary losses: Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. But many of these are left-wing independents who hold disdain for the Democratic establishment, not ideologically moderate independents. Clinton is the one who secured the centrist vote in all three states.
There is another pocket of non-traditional Democrats whom Sanders does attract: “old registered Democrats who vote Republican in presidential elections,” as the New York Times’ number-cruncher Nate Cohn describes them. But it’s unclear whether these voters are evidence of the cross-ideological appeal of Sanders’ economic populism, or evidence of antipathy to Clinton and national Democrats in general. Cohn notes, “The exit polls in Oklahoma showed Mr. Sanders winning big — 59 percent to 24 percent — among the large number (28 percent) of voters who wanted the next president to change to less liberal policies. That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t support Mr. Sanders; perhaps they think of liberalism in cultural terms, like racial issues or guns. But it does raise doubts.”
Kasich’s primary exit poll case is even weaker than Sanders’: He flat-out gets beat among independents and moderates. Looking at the March 15 primaries in North Carolina, Missouri and Illinois (let’s leave out Kasich’s home state of Ohio, and Florida, where Marco Rubio was a factor), Trump won the moderate vote in each, and by solid margins. Trump and Ted Cruz effectively tied with independents in North Carolina and Missouri, while Trump won them outright in Illinois.
Considering how Trump currently gets shellacked by both Sanders and Clinton, trying to extrapolate general election dynamics from “independent” and “moderate” exit poll data is perhaps a giant waste of time. The 20 state primaries so far have attracted about half the voters of the 2012 general election in those same states. Plenty of people – ten of millions – are not hooked on politics and aren’t paying close attention yet.
That reality can be an argument in favor of nominating Sanders and Kasich. If you believe Clinton, Trump and Cruz are damaged goods, at least Sanders and Kasich are not yet damaged. They may be able to keep their unfavorable ratings below 50 percent.
Anything is possible. But you can’t base the argument on springtime poll data. The most striking example of a poll-based mirage was the 1988 Michael Dukakis campaign. By mid-May, Dukakis was beating George H. W. Bush by 10 points. After the Democratic convention, Dukakis was up by a whopping 17 points. Only then did the barrage of opposition research come crashing down on his head, sending him to an eight-point defeat.
Both Sanders and Kasich suffer from a form of chicken-and-egg problem: Voters can’t know how well they would weather the general election firestorm until they get close enough to winning the nomination to attract general election-style attacks.
Around this time of the year in 2008, Democrats got an unusual chance to see how an untested Barack Obama could handle a “live fire” simulation when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons and Obama’s “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion” comments surfaced. His poised responses assured Democratic voters he could handle any future attacks and kept Democratic super delegates from abandoning him.
Various flaps have happened on the Sanders and Kasich campaign trails – such as when Sanders said, “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto,” or when Kasich said he once won support from “women who left their kitchens.” They haven’t sparked the same sort of media firestorm because neither one is leading the race. In turn, voters can’t tell how good they would be at putting out the flames, or how effectively they handle more obvious attacks on their respective policy positions, like Sanders’ tax increases or Kasich’s record of restricting abortion access in Ohio. It may be that they both would handle matters just fine, but it’s simply an unknown.
We know this much: Neither Sanders’ mild version of democratic socialism nor Kasich’s brand of sunny, soft-edged conservatism gets dismissed out of hand by the general electorate, and that’s no small achievement. But neither candidate has unequivocal evidence of support that runs broad enough and deep enough to prove he is the best possible option for his party’s electoral prospects.