"Republicans are being nice to Bernie Sanders because we like the thought of running against a socialist. But if he were to win the nomination the knives would come out for Bernie pretty quick," said Ryan Williams, a former spokesman for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney's campaign. "There's no mystery what the attack on him would be. Bernie Sanders is literally a card carrying socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union. There'd be hundreds of millions of dollars in Republican ads showing hammers and sickles and Soviet Union flags in front of Bernie Sanders." "Hillary Clinton is a much more centrist candidate in comparison," Williams said, and she would have a better chance of winning over moderate and undecided voters, despite numerous polls showing that many Americans, even in the Democratic Party, don't view her as honest and trustworthy. "Bernie's numbers are better than hers right now because she's been in the political arena for 30 years getting beat up," he said.
When Bernie Sanders says current polling shows him as a strong general-election candidate, a point he emphasizes in nearly every speech, interview, and public appearance, he's 100% correct. The polling data is readily available, and it says exactly what he claims it says. Political scientists are quick to point out that the evidence isn't quite what it appears to be, but for Team Bernie, those details don't negate the survey results themselves.
And yet, Republicans can see the same polling results as everyone else, and they appear to be convinced that Sanders would be vastly easier to defeat.
Indeed, Republicans aren't just operating under those assumptions, they're acting on them. Karl Rove's Crossroads operation started boasting in February about its efforts to boost Sanders, and other Republican outfits have launched similar efforts to help the Vermont senator. In January, the RNC's chief strategist conceded he was eager to "help" the Sanders campaign.
So, what explains the discrepancy? With so many polls showing Sanders faring better than Hillary Clinton in general-election match-ups, why would Republicans go out of their way to try to line up a race with the candidate who appears stronger?
Bloomberg Politics reported yesterday that Republican operatives "are chomping at the bit to face Sanders," because they believe it would be easy to change the trajectory of those polls.
Former RNC spokesperson Doug Heye added that Republicans look at some of Sanders' success "with bemusement," because they think it would be easy to define Sanders as "out of the mainstream."
The Bloomberg Politics piece quoted a Sanders campaign official saying that Republicans are simply wrong -- and that may very well be the case. The underlying question is inherently speculative and there's no way to prove definitely who's correct. It is, in fact, possible that Republicans underestimate Sanders' appeal, just as it's possible that Sanders could withstand the ferocity of the Republican Attack Machine, which the Vermont senator has never faced.
The fact remains that some of the more controversial aspects of Sanders' record and platform are not widely known to the public at large -- love her or hate her, Clinton is already a well established figure -- and we don't know for sure how the race to "define" the senator would unfold.
But while we can't see the future, we can see the present, and right now, Republicans would look forward to a general election against Sanders -- even if they shouldn't.