With Hillary Clinton making electability the closing argument of her bid for the Democratic nomination, the campaign of rival Bernie Sanders is confronting head on his perceived weakness on the issue by making their own electability argument.
In the final month before the initial 2016 nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton has sought to raise the stakes of the presidential election and invited voters to question whether they really want to risk the accomplishments of the Obama presidency and control of the Supreme Court with an untested candidate like Sanders.
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"Now let me ask you all to think hard about this job that you're interviewing for,” Clinton said in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Tuesday evening. “Think hard about the people who are presenting themselves to you, their experience, their qualifications, their positions. And particularly for those of us who are Democrats, their electability.”
Sanders’ campaign recognizes their vulnerability on this issue and knows they’ve so far lost the perception game on electability. But they disagree with, what they see as, the false media narrative that Clinton is the stronger general election candidate.
“The choice of Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee puts the party in a much stronger position to defeat Republicans,” campaign manager Jeff Weaver said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “As the race goes along, people are going to begin to internalize that.”
Sanders and his aides made three arguments to support the claim.
First, polls testing hypothetical general election matchups often show Sanders beating Republicans by a larger margin than Clinton. "In perpetual matchups we do better than Secretary Clinton in defeating [Donald] Trump,” Sanders said late last month in Iowa.
Spokesperson Michael Briggs pointed to a December Quinnipiac poll showing Sanders beating Trump 51-38 percent, compared to 47-40 percent for Clinton. Sanders beat Sen. Ted Cruz by 10 percentage points, compared to Clinton’s 5, and he bested Dr. Ben Carson by 6 points versus Clinton’s 3 points.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from October found that Sanders outperformed Clinton in general election matchups in Iowa and New Hampshire almost across the board.
Second, his campaign argues that he is uniquely capable of driving massive voter turnout in November, implying that Clinton would fail to motivate voters.
“I think it’s pretty clear that a low-energy, low-turnout election in November would be disastrous for Democrats. But by energizing and engaging young people, which I think everyone has seen [Sanders do] across the country, and voters that do not often participate in elections, we can create the type of wave that will create big gains for Democrats in the Congress and at the state level while continuing us having a Democrat in the White House,” Weaver said on the call.
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And third, they argue that Sanders, the longest-serving independent in Congress, is better positioned to reach out to Republicans and independents than Clinton.
“He has a proven track in Vermont of appealing to Republicans, and particularly rural Republicans,” Weaver explained. In Vermont, it’s not uncommon to see a yard sign for Sanders sharing space with one for a conservative Republican candidate. And his campaign is making a real effort to reach out to people interested in Trump, after finding there are a surprisingly large number of voters attracted to both populist candidates.
So far, Democratic primary voters — including some Sanders voters — are far from convinced. A CNN poll from last month of New Hampshire Democrats found that 70 percent believed Clinton had the best chance of winning in the general election, compared to just 17 percent who picked Sanders.
Political scientists also say general election matchup polls, like the one Sanders cites, are not predictive or particularly meaningful at this point in the election.
And while Sanders has been able to fire up young and apolitical people, he's had a harder time exciting African-Americans and other minorities, who will be crucial to any Democrat's chances of winning the general election in November.
Either way, Sanders is not ready to concede the electability argument. “Of course electability matters,” Briggs said in an email.