There is no doubt supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) dominate social media. No doubt, also, that within the two major political parties of the United States, there is a rejection of the so-called "establishment". For Republicans, it is mostly a change of characters, from those "inside" the Washington power structure, to those outside it. For Sanders, this is not simply about being an outsider, or offering a new style or message. Rather, he seeks to change the entire dynamics of contemporary American politics and economics, wresting it from the established ways of both parties.
Running against the poster girl of establishment Democrats, Hillary Clinton, he has succeeded in attracting a huge swath of supporters and vaulting from political gadfly to serious contender for the party nomination. His campaign, much like that of Republican front-runner Donald J. Trump, attracts massive crowds at rallies, and communicates uniquely from other candidates of the more traditional political vein. Where Trump commands a large segment of the disaffected white working class, those "Reagan-Democrats" of old, Sanders' appeal rests with disaffected, yet idealistic, younger voters buttressed by the union-orientated white working class roots of the Democratic Party. This is a key difference between the two: Trump is ideologically unmoored, almost exclusively tapping into the fears and anxieties of his base, free to move in any direction on policy, whereas Sanders is a staunch progressive and pro-union democratic socialist, tapping into the idealism of his base, while locked solidly on the Left side of the ideological spectrum.
The Democratic Advantage
For the November 2016 general election, the Democratic Party has advantages baked into the manner presidents win election. In the United States, the popular vote does not determine the victor. Rather, each state sends "electors" to the Electoral College, with that vote determining who the next president is. I do not wish to get too lost into this, so if this is new to you, I suggest you read up on it. Whomever wins the popular vote in a specific state wins the "electors" of that state. Population determines the number of "electors" for each state. No state has fewer than three, while heavily populated states have the most. For example, California, having fifty-five "electors" up for grabs, leads the nation. The more populous states a candidate wins, the more "electors" they collect, and thus, the more likely they will win the presidency.
Most states are reliably "red" states (the popular votes go to Republicans, and thus their "electors" vote for the Republican candidate) or reliably "blue" states (those voting for Democratic candidates). A few are "swing" states, which flip from one party to the other from election to election. Candidates fight over these states. Big prizes include states like Ohio, Florida, and Virginia.
The map for Democratic candidates begins with more "electors" already safely in their camp, and thus it is a baked in advantage. That party can lose one swing state, yet pick up another and remain competitive. The tighter path to victory for a Republican candidate permits few losses. They must hold all of their "red" states and pick off most of the "swing" states. Democratic candidates can afford to lose a few, and still find a winning path to the White House.
Whomever wins the nomination of the Democratic Party will begin the general election campaign with greater room for error. However, they can still be beaten if they lose too many of those "swing" states, or worse for them, lose some of those safe, blue states. Who the candidate is, along with who their constituency is, becomes decisive.
In the United States, the younger the voter, the less likely they will vote. The same goes for poorer voters. Most electoral constituencies are older, more financially stable, and traditionally whiter. The American electorate has been growing more diverse from election to election, which helps the Democratic Party, whose base voting blocs are diverse, be it in their religion, age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. Likewise, it hurts the Republican Party, whose base is more homogeneous, older, Christian, and male.
For a Republican candidate to win, they must attract diverse voting blocs, or find ways to suppress voters inclined to vote Democratic. This may be done legislatively, such changes to voting regulations, or ensuring there is so much legislative gridlock and partisan rancor that large groups of the voting public simply turn off and drop out of politics, or by being a more inclusive and charismatic candidate. The advantaged Democratic candidate still needs to motivate their voters to show up on Election Day, meaning they cannot be gaffe-prone, completely boring, and so on.
In spite of the Democratic Electoral advantage, the matchup of who the candidates are will go far in determining who can win the general election.
The Sanders Revolution
Owing to his desire to change fundamentally the established political and economic status quo of Washington (and from not actually being a member of the Democratic Party), Senator Sanders seeks to change how Americans engage politics. He relies, largely by necessity, on more than the traditional Democratic constituency. As a progressive solidly on the Left, he may find trouble galvanizing some traditional Democratic voters, given the party is a "big tent" and includes voting blocs that are more conservative, and may not favor sweeping progressive changes, or simply being uncomfortable with some of his more radical views (in the context of American politics). To win the nomination of the party, he needs both to attract new voters while also poaching voting blocs otherwise inclined to support his opponent, Hillary Clinton - such as unionized working class white voters and minority voters. Two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, have already made their choice, with Sanders thus far succeeding in these two aims, though with one critical caveat: both of those states are homogenous, being overwhelmingly white. The next two states will tell us more of his chances, as they are more diverse, and are more representative of the base of the Democratic Party - Nevada (Latino voters) and South Carolina (African American voters).
Assuming he does well, and ultimately wins the nomination of the Democratic Party, he will A] finally become a member of that party and B] face off against whomever wins the Republican nomination in the general election.
The Trump Card
For the Republican Party, the ideological opportunist Donald J. Trump is in a good spot to win its nomination. Coming in second place in Iowa, he followed with a decisive win in New Hampshire, while leading the polls in the next states to make their choice. His opponents are factional and divided. For as long as he is running against multiples of candidates, he can avoid the debates of ideological purity, as seen between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. As his opposition remain split, he can continue winning with a plurality of the vote, rather than outright majorities. The more he looks like a winner, the more likely Republican constituencies will fall in line.
As an opportunist rather than a conservative, Trump avoids committing to any ideological corners
As an opportunist rather than a conservative, Trump avoids committing to any ideological corners. He has been playing the conservative, at least on common issues, in this election cycle; however, his public background belies any purity. Additionally, it is normal in American politics for candidates, upon achieving a party nomination, to move toward the center of the electorate. This move is easy for an opportunist already known to have held liberal views. In fact, given Trump has a record of supporting progressive policy goals, including Single-Payer Healthcare, it may be easy for him to move shamelessly into the Left on any number of issues. Wherever the winds blow, Trump will go.
A similar effort may prove problematic for Sanders. He is decisively on the Left, famously a self-described democratic socialist, and has been consistent in his progressive message for his entire public life. His consistency is one of the things making him very attractive to progressive voters, especially compared with Hillary Clinton, so it will likely prove too great a challenge to break from it. Any move toward the center may be out of the question.
Further, his desire to alter the nature of American politics fundamentally includes the manner conventional political campaigns raise funds. He and his supporters mercilessly beat this hammer over Hillary Clinton's head to great success. She has done what just about every other American politician has done (with two notable exceptions). She has raised millions from various industries progressives do not care for, such as those connected to Wall Street. She has a "super PAC" (a Political Action Committee that can raise unlimited sums from wealthy donors to finance a shadow campaign on behalf of their candidate). Exception Number 1 is Sanders, who raises the bulk of his money from small donations, takes none from the tainted industries, and eschews political action committees. While this critique hurts Hillary, it cannot work on Trump, who is Exception Number 2. He shares Sanders views on the issue of campaign finance, and has no political action committees. Unlike Sanders, he does not raise money from any human or industry whatsoever. Essentially, Sanders' political message on this issue, one of great value against Hillary Clinton, is already usurped and thus neutered by Trump.
The point here is that Trump may prove a significant challenge for Sanders. Sanders has a hammer he can wield against Hillary Clinton and continue wielding if facing any GOP candidate other than Trump. Trump can move anywhere he sees fit for the moment, while Sanders is stuck on one side.
Trumping White Voters
Unless and until Sanders can attract voters of color, he remains the candidate for white progressives. If he does turn this around, and were to win the Democratic nomination, this base of the Democratic Party will support him in the general election, though whether enthusiastically, we shall see. Donald Trump, being a nationalist and xenophobic candidate, would help ensure this Democratic base at least comes out strong to vote against him. However, given Trump already shares Sanders' views on campaign finance, and if the opportunist and ideologically unmoored Trump were to further usurp other Sanders positions that might poll well, what happens with the white working class voters supporting Sanders? Will white voters who have made campaign finance a paramount issue wobble in their commitment to Sanders?
If Trump were to become, for instance, the candidate that will "make America Great Again (for white people)" by defeating ISIL, building a wall with Mexico, embarking on the greatest ethnic cleansing project since the Second World War by rounding up and deporting over eleven million immigrants, ending "unfair" trade deals such as NAFTA, introducing tariffs on foreign imports, reforming the campaign finance system - all of which he currently promises to do - plus adopts potentially popular Sanders goals, such as offering Single-Payer healthcare and ensuring free college for all, will all of those white working class voters stick with Sanders?
Forgetting the white working class, even white progressives have shown, repeatedly, an ease at throwing their brethren of color under the bus. Wobbly Northern liberals were all for ending segregation... in the South. The minute integration schemes like school busing came North, they turned on a dime. Almost every issue one can find in American racial politics has examples where progressives turned on communities of color when immediate self-interests were in play. Examples are not ancient history. In 2008, when California voted to amend their constitution to ban same-sex marriage, the progressive Left immediately blamed black voters, who turned out en mass for Obama, rather than blame themselves for a poorly run campaign that made no efforts to reach out to black communities within the state. For another, white progressives curse gentrification, lament the loss of ethnic flavors within their adopted (AKA gentrified) neighborhoods, all while gobbling up more homes, displacing more people of color, with little, if any, concern for where they land.
Will anti-trade deal white working class voters stick with Sanders, or follow the bulk of their ethnic group and class, joining the Trump coalition? Will those who are most passionate about free college stick with Sanders? With a coalition uniting large groups of single-issue white progressives and working class white moderates, can he hold it together against a Trump who goes Left?
Where is that Revolution?
As noted, the Sanders campaign thus far relies on galvanizing young voters and uniting them with white working class voters, betting the farm they show up and change the system. Against Hillary Clinton, this has been successful. When asking, "where is the revolution?" one can easily point to New Hampshire, where Sanders stomped Clinton. Against Hillary Clinton, there may indeed be a revolution! However, there is another stomping going on seemingly overlooked.
For this progressive revolution to succeed, it must defeat Clinton in the primaries and caucuses, yes, but it must also defeat the Republican nominee in November. Locked on the Left with little room to move toward the center, Sanders must have this revolution carry him over the finish line, as well as pressure congress to act on his policy goals.
Trump, especially, but also other Republican Party candidates like Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Governor John Kasich (R-OH), can move toward the center for a general election. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is more like Sanders, albeit stuck on the Right. In spite of the baked in Democratic advantage in the general election, Sanders must have his revolution to counter the likely GOP move toward the center of the American electorate.
With that in mind, we must look at the first two elections this cycle for insight. In Iowa, 185,000 humans turned out to participate in the Republican caucus - a record turnout for their party. In the Democratic caucus, 171,000 turned out. This may sound like a fine showing for Democrats, but compare that to the 240,000 who turned out for them in 2008. In New Hampshire, over 270,000 humans voted in the Republican primary, and over 230,000 voted in the Democratic primary, which again we may compare with the 284,000 voting Democratic in the 2008 primary. Independents (those not belonging to a political party) in New Hampshire broke toward the GOP primary this year, which is a flip from how they voted in 2008.
These numbers could be an ominous for whoever the Democratic nominee is, however it is terrible for any claims of a revolution and, especially, if relying on one. While then-Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) never campaigned on any ideas of revolution in 2008, it is the foundation - the core path - to progressive success envisioned by the Sanders campaign. If this is a progressive revolution against anything other than Hillary Clinton, why is Democratic turnout peanuts compared to Democrats in 2008 and, more worrisome for Democrats, the Republicans this year?
It is, of course, important to note that turnout is far greater in the general election than in a primary or caucus. However, there is a correlation in non-incumbent election years between turnout in a primary and carrying the state in the general. The Democrats crushed the Republicans in turnout in both Iowa and New Hampshire in 2008, all with no rhetoric of revolution, and repeated that success on Election Day.
Iowa and New Hampshire have been "blue" states for Democrats over the past few presidential election cycles. They are not as solid for that party as states like New York or California are, but they have been consistently voting Democratic. If these vote totals were instead general election numbers, then the Democrats were just stomped by the Republican Party in two erstwhile "blue" states - states they should win. The Democratic Party has been stomped in elections where one candidate is depending on a massive revolution to propel him to the White House and pressure a Republican congress to help institute radical progressive changes to the nation.
If this is the revolution, and one that will translate into progressive Democratic victory in the November general election and beyond, it may prove helpful for Democrats to beat the other team while on their home turf.
This all said the Sanders revolution against someone other than Hillary Clinton is entirely possible. I have no dog in this hunt, sans one thing: my greatest concern for my human friends in the United States, as well as the human world at large, is a Trump victory in the General Election. If Sanders does win the Democratic nomination, and Trump wins the Republican nomination, the simple fact that Sanders has less liberty to move toward the electoral center, and Trump can move anywhere, raises the stakes on how critical it is for Sanders to pull off this revolution. It demands he can hold his coalition together. Persuasive evidence that there is a there there remains lacking. On to Nevada and South Carolina for more!