In Sunday night's debate, Anderson Cooper asked Bernie Sanders about how he'd approach a general-election match-up against Donald Trump. The Vermont senator didn't have to think much about the answer
"I would love to run against Donald Trump, and I'll tell you why. For a start, almost, not all, but almost every poll has shown that Sanders vs. Trump does a lot better than Clinton vs. Trump. "Right here in Michigan there was a poll done, I think yesterday, or today, had me beating Trump in Michigan by 22 points. Secretary Clinton beat him as well, but not by so much. And, that's true nationally, and in many other states."
There's simply no denying the accuracy of Sanders' boast. The polling data is publicly available, and most of it looks exactly the way the senator described it: both of the Democratic candidates lead Trump in a hypothetical general election, but Sanders' advantage is larger.
Just yesterday, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll
reinforced the thesis with national results that showed Clinton leading Trump by 13 points, but Sanders ahead by 18 points. The latest Washington Post
/ABC News poll
showed similar results. So did the most recent national USA Today
. So did the most recent national Quinnipiac poll
If one or two of these showed outlier results, it'd be easier to question the reliability of the numbers, but when there's polling unanimity, the observation is much tougher to question.
And so, Sanders and his supporters point to these polls, loudly and repeatedly, as a way of deflecting questions about the Independent senator's electability. And really, who can blame them? Most voters are reluctant to throw away a vote on a candidate who's bound to lose, and the Vermonter and his campaign allies appear to have quantifiable proof that he's a safe choice --perhaps even the safer choice.
But some caveats are in order. The problem isn't that Sanders' argument is wrong -- the data clearly backs him up -- but rather, that the argument is incomplete in a broader context.
For example, while general-election polling at this stage is interesting for establishing baselines, it's also unreliable. Vox published a piece
last week pointing to the available political-science research.
In an interview, [Robert S. Erikson] told me that general election polling from this time of year is "pretty meaningless," and said he was surprised his work had been cited to argue for Sanders's general election chances. "Bernie can look good in some polls, but I don't think anyone who follows politics thinks those would hold in November," Erikson said. It is for this reason that some, like Seth McKee, a political science professor at Texas Tech University, regard such early polls as "absolutely worthless." Relatively few voters have made up their minds this long before the election, McKee says.
Even if you put this aside and take the early polling very seriously, there are other areas of concern. Revisiting our discussion
from a couple of months ago, Hillary Clinton has been a high-profile national figure for many years, and her public reputation has been shaped in part by attacks from Republicans who've hated her, on a professional level, for the better part of a quarter-century.
Sanders, in contrast, has never sought national office and has never been subjected to the full weight of the GOP Attack Machine, in part because his re-election bids in Vermont have been so easy. Indeed, much of the public, which is not yet engaged in the presidential campaign, probably has very little idea about who the senator is and what he believes.
And so the question for Democrats is not just which candidate has a poll advantage now, but also which candidate seems likely to withstand the onslaught of attacks that would inevitably come in the fall.
Sanders obviously wants voters to believe he's that candidate. It is, however, a speculative question -- no one can say with certainty whether or not he's correct. That said, experts can make educated projections. GW political scientist John Sides noted
last month that Sanders' views and ideology "creates the risk of a penalty at the ballot box."
He highlighted a Gallup report
published last summer that asked Americans, without mentioning any candidates' names, whether voters would be comfortable with different kinds of presidential candidates. For example, 93% of Americans said they're fine with voting for a Roman Catholic, and 92% of voters are on board with supporting a woman.
Further down the list, just 60% said they could vote for a Muslim, and atheists did a little worse, at 58%.
Socialists, however, finished dead last at 47% -- the only group that finished below 50%.
If you're a Sanders backer, you might make the case that the senator's message is so compelling, he could change voters' minds about the dreaded "s" word. That may be true. But if there's a discussion underway about the general-election viability of national candidates, horse-race snapshots from early March only show us part of a bigger picture.