Bernie Sanders is Clinton’s secret weapon

She doesn’t know it yet, but the Vermont senator is the best running mate she’s got.

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Last week, I discussed how Donald Trump may not be as weak of a candidate as previously thought. Recent general election polls have revealed that voters dislike both Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, to an unprecedented degree, but Mr. Trump has opened up a considerable lead among independent voters—who rate Mrs. Clinton poorly on her trustworthiness—and has made significant gains with millennials. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, Mr. Trump has improved his standing with millennial voters by 17 points, which puts him neck-and-neck with his Democratic opponent among young people.

That young voters are not overwhelmingly supportive of Mrs. Clinton at this point in the race is a major cause for concern. Strong millennial support provided a major boost to President Obama in close swing states, where turnout among young voters approached 60 percent, the largest in recent history. Millennials also comprise a reliably liberal segment of the electorate and have become more liberal in recent elections. Pew Research surveys conducted in 2014 revealed that a majority of millennials lean toward or identify with the Democratic Party, whereas only about a third see themselves as Republicans or conservative-leaners. And in the 2012 presidential election, President Obama crushed Mitt Romney by 37 points among young voters, while John Kerry in 2004 only managed to muster a 10-point victory against Republican George W. Bush among the same demographic.

President Obama did a remarkable job of whipping up enthusiasm among millennial voters in 2008 and 2012. But Mrs. Clinton is neither youthful nor charismatic, traits that made President Obama a powerful turnout driver. In many ways, she is the exact opposite of the person she seeks to replace. Where Mr. Obama had scarcely served a single term in the U.S. Senate prior to becoming president, Mrs. Clinton has spent her entire life in public service, building an extensive—but dull—resume over decades of work in government. And where Mr. Obama pressed a campaign message built on platitudes of “hope and change,” his former secretary of state has pinned her aspirations for the presidency to appeals to policy details and political expertise. Coupling Mrs. Clinton’s blasé public persona and detail-driven campaign strategy with the growing public perception that she is untrustworthy, it becomes increasingly clear that a millennial generation frustrated with the gridlock and opacity of today’s political world is unlikely to warm to her candidacy as it did to Mr. Obama’s. In one striking poll taken in late April, though 61 percent of millennials pledged their support to Mrs. Clinton in a one-on-one matchup with Donald Trump, over half viewed her unfavorably. These numbers—which have since soured considerably—portend a depressed turnout among young voters and are illustrative of the dearth of enthusiasm among millennials for her candidacy.

Independent voters are even more important, having decided presidential elections for decades, but Mrs. Clinton trails her Republican opponent badly among these voters, especially with respect to favorability. One poll found that Mrs. Clinton’s net favorability rating—the percentage of voters who view her favorably subtracted by the percentage who do not—among independents was an abysmal -51 points, while Mr. Trump’s stood at only -17 percent. Without a significant improvement to her favorability numbers among this critical segment of the electorate, Mrs. Clinton will struggle to win over moderates and will likely suffer a stinging defeat in November.

Selecting Bernie Sanders as her running mate will resolve both of these problems. On the favorability front, the Vermont senator is the only candidate whom more voters like than dislike. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll taken in mid-May, his net favorability rating among registered voters was +7 points, while those of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton were -29 and -20 points respectively. And contrary to the argument which is often made by his critics, these positive sentiments are not simply the result of Mr. Sanders’s relatively low name recognition among the general election electorate. Among survey respondents who expressed strong feelings about the candidate—those who view Mr. Sanders in either a “very positive” or a “very negative” light—the Vermont senator is just about even, while Mr. Trump (-31 points) and Mrs. Clinton (-25 points), by the same metric, are intensely disliked. And crucially, Mr. Sanders’s likability would help the candidate command strong support from independents in a general election campaign. According to a CBS poll taken this month, Mr. Sanders would win a majority of independents in a one-on-one matchup against Mr. Trump. Though the power of his appeal to independent voters would certainly diminish as a mere vice-presidential candidate, Mr. Sanders’s presence on the ticket would convey a powerful endorsement of Hillary Clinton and bring his progressive, independent base of supporters to the ballot box in November.

A Clinton-Sanders ticket would also ignite the passion of liberal millennials who distrust the former secretary of state and find themselves in lockstep with Mr. Sanders on policy matters. Mrs. Clinton has utterly failed to draw young voters to her fold. In the Pennsylvania primary, where she won by double-digits, Mr. Sanders drew 83 percent of support among voters aged 18-29. And in a one-on-one national contest with Donald Trump, he crushes the real estate mogul by over 40 points within this same age group, while Mrs. Clinton cannot even secure a majority of youth support.

These remarkable levels of support indicate that millennials trust Mr. Sanders to represent them and strongly identify with his anti-establishment message. The septuagenarian senator, impassioned and vigorous on the stump, has railed against the “millionaire and billionaire class” for attempting to turn government policy to its advantage and has proposed several drastic campaign finance reforms designed to sharply limit the influence of big money donors in elections. Along these same lines, Mr. Sanders has denounced the growing income inequality which exists in the United States, demanding that the wealthy pay more in taxes in order to fund a significant expansion of government aid and safety net programs, and advocates for a national single-payer health care program which would provide comprehensive medical coverage to every American family for free. For young progressive millennials, Mr. Sanders’s policy proposals are bold steps to repair a political and economic system which is stacked against them at every level, while Mrs. Clinton’s—though also politically liberal—appear pusillanimous by comparison. Nowhere is this perception more validated than in the contrast between the Democratic candidates’ plans to increase the minimum wage. Where Mr. Sanders has campaigned ferociously for a 15 dollar federal minimum wage, Hillary Clinton supports a less ambitious increase to 12 dollars per hour.

To many of Mr. Sanders’s supporters, Mrs. Clinton selecting Bernie Sanders as her running mate would amount to a tacit endorsement or—at the very least—an acknowledgement of the progressive ideas the Vermont senator has pressed throughout the course of his political campaign. It would also signal openness to taking up some of his proposals and including them among the central foci of Mrs. Clinton’s general election campaign. As the Vice Presidential nominee, Mr. Sanders would have a platform from which to continue hammering on the main messages of his own campaign, and his community of donors—most of whom are small-dollar donors who so far have given far less than the federal contribution limit—would provide Mrs. Clinton with yet another source of funding for the general election campaign.

Choosing Mr. Sanders would have its drawbacks. First, it is unlikely that the Vermont senator, who has built his candidacy on a critique of the moneyed political elite and super PACs, would be able to convince his most devoted supporters to vote for Mrs. Clinton, who has built her entire career and much of her wealth on the back of her and her husband’s formidable political machine. Some of Mr. Sanders’s backers would inevitably criticize him as a sell-out for associating himself with Mrs. Clinton and would refuse to support any kind of unity ticket. It is important to note, however, that these people are a small minority within Mr. Sanders’s base of support and would be drowned out by the vast majority of supporters who view their candidate favorably and would be glad to see him have some say over policy decisions as the vice president in a Clinton White House.

Second, Mr. Sanders’s radical policy positions might alienate some right-leaning moderate voters, who would otherwise view Hillary Clinton as an acceptable alternative to Donald Trump. But considering how unfavorably moderates view Mrs. Clinton at the present time, choosing someone as likable as Mr. Sanders is just as likely to produce the opposite effect and make her look better to this group of voters.

Broadly speaking, Bernie Sanders provides balance to the Democratic Party ticket in a way other candidates will not. Playing it safe and selecting a relatively unknown old-school Democrat—someone like Virginia Senator Tim Kaine or Labor Secretary Tom Perez—will only isolate Mrs. Clinton on the ticket and throw her most unlikable qualities into sharp relief. Similarly, selecting a young candidate such as Julian Castro—the current U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development—would be unnecessarily risky, as there is no telling just how much voter enthusiasm and millennial support such a candidate, who has not been vetted on the national stage and is nationally unknown, can ultimately produce. By contrast, Mr. Sanders has proven his ability to fire up the progressive base of the Democratic Party and millennials, who have eagerly embraced his populist rhetoric and have turned out for him to a degree rivaling the unprecedented groundswell of youth support for then-Senator Obama in the 2008 presidential election. He would also contribute a strong, relatively well-known personality to the ticket, one that would help compensate for Mrs. Clinton’s glaring lack of charisma.

If Hillary Clinton wishes to mount the most serious challenge possible to Donald Trump in November, she would do well to select the only candidate who can effectively neutralize her most glaring flaws as her running mate. That candidate is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.


A version of this article originally appeared in the Claremont Independenta journal of campus news and political thought serving the colleges of the Claremont Consortium.

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