The Democratic Majority for Israel, a centrist group concerned about progressive Democrats’ increasingly vocal criticism of the Israeli government, is mounting a last-ditch effort to thwart Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ahead of the Iowa caucuses.
But rather than focus on Sanders’ interest in boundary-pushing policies ― like leveraging U.S. aid to change the Israeli government’s behavior ― or his embrace of pro-Palestinian surrogates, the group targeted the issue of his electability in a general-election matchup with President Donald Trump.
Its new 30-second ad features primary voters expressing concern about how Sanders’ “socialism” and his recent heart attack will land in battleground states ― a focus that reflects mainstream Democrats’ long-standing fears about his candidacy.
For all of the evidence that Sanders has crossover appeal with some independents and even Republicans, his campaign has done little to make the case for his electability in any conventional sense of the term.
Sanders has not always shied away from the argument. In September, he conducted a “Bernie Beats Trump” tour through six Iowa counties that had flipped from supporting President Barack Obama to voting for Trump. It was an explicit bid to persuade the party that he is uniquely capable of bringing the mostly white, working-class voters who have abandoned Democrats back into the fold.
But compared to his rivals, who are making their ability to beat a Trump a key part of their closing argument to Iowans, Sanders has been relatively quiet.
The Sanders television ads that have been airing in Iowa for the past month tout, among other themes, his reliance on grassroots donors, his championship of “Medicare for All,” and his support for abortion rights and pay equity, according to the media monitoring firm Advertising Analytics. But none expressly addresses Sanders’ electability against Trump.
And in a Tuesday night video responding to the news of the Democratic Majority for Israel attacking his electability, Sanders chose to treat the $680,000 TV ad campaign as merely the last desperate gasp of a billionaire class frightened of a working-class populist like himself.
“The billionaire class is getting nervous. And they should,” he said. “Under our administration, there will be real campaign finance reform so that billionaires will not be able to buy elections as they’re trying to do right now.”
The Sanders campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how it is making the case for his electability.
The senator does have a case to make. Trump himself has commented on how a Sanders vice presidential candidacy in 2016 would have hurt him.
In a video made public by an attorney for Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian American businessman implicated in Trump’s impeachment scandal, the president is seen talking with donors at a private meeting in April 2018. Trump argues that if Hillary Clinton had picked Sanders as a running mate, it would have been “tougher” for him because of Sanders’ opposition to international trade agreements.
“You know I got 20% of Bernie vote. People don’t realize that. Because of trade, because he’s a big trade guy ― you know he basically says we’re getting screwed on trade, and he’s right, and I’m worse than he is, and we can do something about it. I don’t know if he could have,” Trump said. “He was the only one I didn’t want her to pick.”
Opposition to international trade agreements that have cost the United States manufacturing jobs runs particularly high in some of the industrial states that handed the 2016 election to Trump. Sanders managed his upset victory against Clinton in the Michigan primary in March 2016 thanks in significant part to his clear opposition to NAFTA and other trade agreements. Trump went on to defeat Clinton in Michigan by 0.3 percentage points in the general election.
Polling also backs up Sanders’ electability in a hypothetical matchup with Trump. Sanders leads the president by 3 points on average, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of general election polls.
Those Iowa Democrats already in Sanders’ corner have little doubt he’d make a formidable candidate against Trump. Among Iowa Democrats supporting Sanders, 79% believe he would have the “best chance” of beating Trump ― a percentage second only to the 82% of former Vice President Joe Biden’s supporters who say he has the best chance, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll. Just 51% of the supporters of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and 49% of the supporters of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said the same of their preferred candidates.
On the campaign trail in Iowa, though, Democrats looking toward the Feb. 3 caucuses have occasionally told HuffPost that they’re nervous about voting for Sanders because of fears that he’s too left-wing to win a general election.
In a mid-January conversation at a Des Moines diner, Antoinette Shade, a Goodyear tire factory worker and member of the United Steel Workers union, was trying to decide between Sanders and Biden.
“I like Bernie’s ideas more,” she said, singling out his plans for making prescription drugs and college more affordable. “Biden, I like his experience. I think he has a better chance of beating Donald Trump than Bernie does.”
Travis Padget, a financial professional who attended a Buttigieg rally in Newton, Iowa, in mid-January, was deciding between Sanders, Biden and Buttigieg.
“I like his health care policy ― I think it makes sense,” Padget said of Sanders. “But I don’t know if he’s winnable. I want somebody who can beat Trump.”
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