One thing has become clear over the last few days of the campaign: Donald Trump wants Bernie Sanders to help him win. Not in any direct sense, of course — it’s not like he’s asking Bernie to work the phone banks for him in California. But in other ways, Trump is clearly trying to leverage Sanders’ popularity to help himself defeat Hillary Clinton in November. Trump's reasoning is understandable, but the plan has zero chance of working.
In Tuesday’s primaries, both Trump and Clinton came very close to locking up their parties' nominations. Trump, the kindhearted guy that he is, encouraged Sanders to mount a third-party candidacy.
“I think Bernie Sanders should run as an independent,” Trump helpfully suggested. “I think he’d do great.” He later echoed this sentiment on Twitter, explaining that Sanders “has been treated terribly by the Democrats” and “should show them, and run as an independent!”
The next day, Trump announced that he’ll soon be aping Sanders’ campaign rhetoric. “Bernie Sanders has a message that’s interesting,” Trump said on MSNBC. “I’m going to be taking a lot of the things that Bernie said and using them.”
It’s pretty blindingly obvious what’s going on here: Trump wants to figure out a way to use Sanders’ supporters to his own advantage. This doesn’t necessarily mean winning them over, although that’s one possible route. More broadly, Trump simply wants Bernie supporters to bend down, hunch over, and let the real estate magnate climb onto their backs, over the White House fence, and into the Oval Office.
The suggestion that Sanders should run as an independent was transparently, shamelessly self-serving. Trump doesn’t give a hoot how fairly Democrats treated Sanders in the primary. He simply wants a third candidate in the general election to play spoiler, bleed votes away from Hillary Clinton, and hand Trump the presidency. Trump is not the slightest bit concerned with how fair the Democratic Party’s nomination process is.
The part about how he’s going to be taking elements of Sanders’ stump speech is only slightly less transparent. If Trump does this, it'll be because he wants to actually win over Sanders supporters and get them to pull the lever marked "Donald" in November. That is, after all, the only reason politicians ever start borrowing opponents’ campaign rhetoric: to entice their foe’s supporters to switch sides. The only puzzling thing here is that Trump openly admitted he was going to do it. Usually, candidates try to enact this strategy with a bit more subtlety.
Alas, Trump’s grand plan to leverage Sanders’ support is almost certainly going to fail.
For one, Sanders ain’t running third-party. Take it to the bank. He’s said so on several occasions, and after Trump revived the possibility recently, the Vermont senator's wife, Jane, shot it down pretty definitively.
“Bernie will not be running as an independent,” she told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “We’ve been very clear right from the beginning that we will not play the role of spoiler. We cannot afford a Republican in the White House. We cannot afford a Republican appointing Supreme Court justices.”
Politicians flip-flip all the time, and if Sanders had given a different reason for avoiding a third-party candidacy — say, that it would be too expensive — his campaign could potentially backtrack later on down the line. But here, Jane Sanders is saying very explicitly that doing anything that helps put a Republican in the White House is a non-starter for her and her husband. In other words, Team Sanders’ electoral goal is diametrically opposed to Trump’s.
What about winning over Bernie’s voters directly? Might Trump be able to pull that off? No. The idea that a chunk of Sanders supporters might be convinced to vote for Trump has been floated throughout this campaign, but there’s not a shred of evidence to support it. In a recent poll, only 8 percent of Sanders supporters listed Trump as their second choice for president. That’s probably because — and this can’t be stressed enough — Sanders and Trump supporters have opposite policy views. Just because they're two old guys from New York doesn't mean they're basically the same.
It makes sense that Trump would want to poach Sanders voters in November. But the two candidates have wildly different policy goals, and so do their supporters. It’s not going to happen, Donald.