More than eight months still remain until the election, but it isn’t too early to consider how various matchups between the two parties’ ultimate nominees might shape up. A year ago, such thoughts centered on Bush v. Clinton, and Jeb and Hillary still might end up with their party’s nods. But at this admittedly early point in the campaign, Donald Trump is the clear leader for the Republican nomination, and Bernie Sanders is far from an implausible candidate to end up as his opponent.
So, what would that race look like? Which candidate would be favored? How would the country be defined by the election of either?
The race would be curious, to say the least. Both men attract passionate crowds, although for different reasons. Mr. Trump is a glib and seemingly undisciplined speaker who says whatever he feels at the moment. Some of his comments are clearly intended to be incendiary (the idea of denying all Muslims entry to the country comes to mind); others may just be a reflection of who he is (the casual use of profanity, certainly). His followers don’t seem to care so much what he says as that he speaks without regard for political correctness. They like his seemingly anti-establishment tone, even if some of his statements are decidedly non-Republican (e.g., praising Planned Parenthood and vowing to protect Medicare and Social Security).
Mr. Sanders is far more disciplined, almost to the point of being tedious. His pitch is that gross income inequality has resulted from a corrupt economic system fed by an undemocratic political system. His supporters are also enamored of his anti-establishment message and his populist approach. They are not put off by his self-proclaimed socialist identity, focusing instead on his specific promises to make health care a wholly government-run right for everyone and to provide tuition-free college education at all public institutions.
National polls have consistently shown Mr. Trump to have the support of a solid one-third of voters who are Republicans. The numbers for Mr. Sanders on the Democratic side have been climbing steadily, perhaps now even close to fifty percent. But Trump is also high on disapproval polls, with as many as thirty percent of Republicans indicating they could never support him. That kind of antipathy doesn’t appear to exist for Sanders among Democrats.
But those poll numbers would probably mean little in a general election between the two men. Assuming that their respective vice-presidential candidates were a wash in terms of enhancing their election prospects, the race between the two could turn on which one could scare the electorate more about the other.
Trump would appear to have the initial advantage in that regard. Using his “just wondering” line of attack, he would “ponder” about what Sanders means by calling himself a “democratic socialist” and why his opponent never acknowledges God as his beacon (or some such thing), thereby creating the impression that Sanders is either a communist, an atheist, or maybe both. (Never mind that he is also Jewish, which might not matter as much to voters as it once would have.)
On specifics, Trump would claim superiority on economics, hitting hard on Sanders’ plans to tax heavily to pay for his massive government programs. He would also call Sanders weak on defense, while continuing to assert that he (Trump) would completely destroy ISIS. In fact, on many issues, Trump would have an easier time moving to the center. He has sounded a populist theme of his own in his campaign so far, and he would continue that line without sounding radical (socialistic) in the process.
To counter Trump’s efforts, Sanders would need to remind voters that they have much to fear in a Trump presidency, starting with his outlandish campaign pledges (deporting all eleven million undocumented immigrants, building a giant wall on the Mexican border that Mexico would pay for) and then building on Trump’s seeming impetuousness and his lack of substantive knowledge and experience. To make the latter attack, Sanders would need to prevail against Trump in the debates, a challenge that Trump’s Republican opponents have thus far been unable to mount with any real success.
In a word, Trump is a bully. He outshouts his debate opponents, ignoring civility and protocol by speaking out of turn and commanding center attention just by the force of his personality. Sanders, on the other hand, seems far less impressed with himself than he is with his ideas. He is an acquired taste, or would have to be to endure and ultimately vanquish the onslaught of attacks that Trump would unleash.
In the end, the country would be faced with a stark choice, between a candidate seeking to move the nation decidedly towards a European style quasi-socialist state and one who would be a complete uncertainty and, for that reason alone, more than just a little scary. Which way would the balance tip?
The answer might well depend on the perceived state of the nation and the world next fall. Trump would probably be more favorably viewed if the terrorist threat escalated. His bluster would sell well in times of perceived international crisis. Sanders would be the beneficiary of a less volatile international climate, when he could point out the irrationality and irresponsibility inherent in Trump’s most outlandish claims.
And what would the country look like under either’s administration? A Sanders administration would seek vast new economic initiatives that would stand no chance of gaining support from the current Congress. But a Sanders victory might mean a flip of the Senate, at least, and perhaps the House as well (were it a true landslide). In such a setting, Sanders could well chart a new course for the country, one that would feature far more government activity and involvement in the working of the society.
A Trump administration would likely be a pot-luck affair, with some initiatives (strengthening Social Security, for one) seeming left of center and others (immigration “reform” for sure) taking the country far to the right.
In the end, it would be a fascinating campaign, one that would be better even than reality TV.