Why Trump Fears Bernie Sanders

Donald Trump’s escalating attacks on Bernie Sanders show that he’s starting to realize something that still escapes most pundits: Sanders would be his toughest opponent to beat in November.

US president Donald Trump waves as he walks along the West Wing Colonnade before departing from the White House on January 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson / Getty

Bernie Sanders has been in a tough fight with his fellow Democratic nomination contenders for nearly a year. But with polls showing him leading ahead of the Iowa caucuses next month, Sanders has become the target of a new round of attacks from none other than President Donald Trump.

Repeatedly bringing him up during a rally last week in Toledo, Trump and his campaign also sent out two emails blasting Sanders, with one describing the Vermont senator as a “wealthy, fossil-fuel guzzling millionaire” who “lectures Americans on how to live their lives while doing the exact opposite.” In a statement to Buzzfeed, Trump’s campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh also took aim at Sanders for his position on Iran: “Bernie Sanders is dangerous. He believes that taking out the most vicious terror chief on the planet sets a bad ‘precedent’ and he uses the same talking points as the Iranians and Russians by calling it an ‘assassination.’ He cannot be trusted to keep Americans safe.”

On its own, this line of attack is mostly uninteresting: a replay of the same basic schtick Republicans have used against Democrats for decades.

But the pivot nonetheless suggests a marked shift in a campaign that has hitherto seen the president spend far more of his time attacking Joe Biden. As some would have it, Trump’s latest salvos against Sanders are part of a cryptic game of chess designed to elevate his campaign ahead of a general election matchup that would be a cakewalk for the president. Even a relatively straightforward piece of reporting from NBC News, for example, contained the sentence: “As Trump’s attacks are likely to do more to help Sanders than hurt him with Democratic voters, it’s an indication the [Trump] campaign is trying to put its finger on the scale in the weeks before voters begin weighing in.”

Expressing what is probably the consensus view among centrist Democrats, former Obama staffer Jim Messina (who incidentally had a hand in Theresa May’s 2017 electoral train wreck in the UK) recently speculated that Trump would prefer to face Sanders’s politics in an election to those of more conventional liberal politicians like Biden or Pete Buttigieg. As with much of the hostility directed at Sanders from elite Democrats, there’s probably some fusion of Messina’s own political preferences and his prognostications at work here (when you don’t personally want a candidate to win, it becomes a lot easier to convince yourself that they can’t).

Nonetheless, they doubtless reflect a view widely held among political professionals and journalists that the key to any Democratic general election victory consists in appealing to an idealized middle-of-the-road voter while winning over a handful of moderate Republicans and Independents. Something like this assumption undergirds most discussions of “electability,” and for that reason, a candidate like Sanders is easily written off by the high priests of Beltway orthodoxy as a gift to Donald Trump.

The claim, however, doesn’t hold much water. In fact, as Meagan Day and Matt Karp recently argued, there’s good reason to believe Sanders actually has the best shot at beating Trump of any Democratic candidate in the field. The path to Trump’s shock 2016 electoral college victory, after all, ran through Rust Belt states where voters who had previously backed Obama either switched to Trump or stayed home. Recent polling in Michigan and Wisconsin suggests both Sanders and Biden have the edge over Trump when it comes to winning back erstwhile Obama supporters. And, as Day and Karp elaborate:

The real kicker is that in the 206 counties that went for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then Trump in 2016, Sanders has out-fundraised all of his competitors — by a long shot. By September 2019, he pulled in 81,841 individual donations from 33,185 donors in these flipped counties. That’s roughly three times as many as Biden, Warren, or Pete Buttigieg.

Though this is admittedly an early indicator, it suggests that grassroots enthusiasm for Sanders in critical states could drive turnout in the very places it’s most urgently needed — many of which saw it plummet in 2016. Which brings us back to Trump, who won states like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, thanks to depressed Democratic turnout and voters who flipped from the Obama coalitions of 2008 and 2012. While racism undoubtedly played a role in Trump’s victory, there’s also no denying that a critical bloc of voters found his economic message — which, among other things, took aim at NAFTA and the bipartisan consensus around trade issues — appealing.

More than any other candidate in the Democratic field, Sanders has both a lengthy record of opposition to unpopular trade deals and a policy agenda that explicitly aims to ameliorate the many hardships wrought by low wages and outsourcing. Enjoying high levels of support from younger voters, he would likely drive them to the polls across the country like never before — presumably one reason among many he’s been crushing Trump in hypothetical general election matchups for over a year.

Indeed, Trump would probably have a difficult time running the same campaign against Sanders that he deployed so effectively against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Unlike Clinton (or the president), Sanders is a genuine populist with a record of championing the American working class and its interests that is unrivaled in Washington. Unlike Clinton or rival candidate Joe Biden, he does not have a habit of hosting gilded, closed-door fundraisers with wealthy donors or cozying up to Wall Street. Unlike your average Democratic presidential hopeful, his most enthusiastic constituency arguably consists of low-wage earners employed at places like Starbucks and Amazon. It should really come as no surprise that, as The Daily Beast reported this week, Trump has been asking his advisors “about Sanders’ prospects even in the absence of a current public or internal poll on the matter” for the past two months.”

For decades, Republicans have successfully painted the Democrats as meek, coastal elitists whose policy agenda hurts the poor and the middle class. One of the reasons this messaging has sometimes been so effective is that it has often rung true. That Trump’s current line of attack on Sanders is basically a cut-and-paste version of the standard GOP narrative about liberal politicians suggests that the Republican Party might well leverage the same strategy it deployed against Clinton in 2020. If Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee, he’s less likely to be vulnerable to it than any of his primary opponents — and he would be a candidate unlike any the GOP has had to run against before.