In the aftermath of a shocking election, professional and armchair pundits alike seem eager to identify where the Democratic party went wrong. A common explanation blames Hillary Clinton for failing to appeal to the white manufacturing class in the Rust Belt. Many proponents of this theory seem convinced that Bernie Sanders would have won the election, had the Democrats nominated him instead of Clinton. It's an understandable theory that has already resulted in an I-told-you-so moment for many Sanders voters. I also believe it is wrong.
This explanation — that white turnout in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania would have been higher because blue-collar employees would have chosen Sanders' trade policies over Clinton's, winning those states and ultimately the election — assumes that no other aspect of the election would be different. In reality, I believe the GOP would have geared up for a very different fight against Sanders, and it's one it may easily have won.
Yes, there are polls that show Sanders could've beaten Trump. One conducted by Gravis Marketing on Nov. 6 showed Sanders would've beaten Trump by a hefty 56 to 44 percent. However, such polls don't factor in for how the general election would have evolved if Sanders, not Clinton, had won the Democratic nomination.
Firstly, there was the not improbable option that former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg would have run if Clinton didn't get the nomination. Jonathan Alter reported for The Daily Beast in February that "sources close to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that he will almost certainly run for president as an independent if Republicans nominate Donald Trump and Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders." Bloomberg has both business savvy and outsider status, and he was wealthy enough to finance his own campaign. Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast suggested that the "mainstream media would have loved [Bloomberg], hailed him as the sensible choice," and that Bloomberg's polling thresholds would have earned him a spot at the debates and on the ballot in all fifty states.
Moreover, I would argue that much of the polling of a hypothetical Sanders-Trump matchup doesn't adequately take into account that Sanders wasn't "vetted by the media" during the primaries the way that Clinton was. That means that the public was generally unaware of the potential ammunition the GOP would have used against him. However, I don't think this would not be the case in a general election, and Republicans would have had plenty to work with.
In 1998, for example, Sanders attempted to have a large amount of nuclear waste transported from Vermont to a low-income, minority-majority community in Texas. "The real costs of generating nuclear energy for Vermont, Sanders made clear, would be borne by a small, poor, majority-Hispanic community in Texas," Eion Higgins wrote in the Huffington Post. The Texas state legislature rejected the proposal. Another topic that could certainly have been problematic, as Time noted in a larger piece, is that Sanders "penned essays in his twenties arguing that sexual repression causes cancer in women."
The Clinton campaign did not emphasize these issues, but I tend to think that the GOP certainly would have.
Even the socialism that made Sanders popular amongst left-leaning Millennials was extremely unpopular amongst general election voters. His claims to anti-establishment credentials would evaporate in the face of an attack from Trump reminding voters that despite collecting paychecks from Congress for 25 years, Sanders only passed three bills in his entire career. Two of those bills, by the way, renamed post offices. No wonder Slate's William Saletan called Sanders "the perfect target for Republicans."
To claim that Sanders would have defeated Trump because of his popularity in the few areas where Clinton struggled ignores the fact that the entire campaign would have been completely different. Hindsight is often considered perfect, but not when it comes to thinking Sanders would've saved the race for Democrats.