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Could Bernie Sanders Have Won the White House? What About Joe Biden?

As we parse the results of last week’s election, it’s worth remembering that the alternatives were not obviously better.

By Seth Masket


Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders embrace during a campaign rally at Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek on November 3rd, 2016, in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Could a Democratic nominee other than Hillary Clinton have won the 2016 presidential election? Could Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden or Martin O'Malley or someone else have defeated Donald Trump?

The obvious and most honest answer is that we have no idea and never will. But, in this case, some speculation may be useful, especially as we examine some of the evidence from this election. So, allow me to make a few observations.

First, this election saw one of the biggest campaign mismatches in the history of presidential elections. Clinton outspent, out-advertised, out-organized, and out-maneuvered Trump all year. She defeated him in three lopsided debates. She had at least three times his field offices and used them to deploy one of the most sophisticated turnout efforts in history. She enjoyed a substantial convention bounce while his convention seemed to turn people against his party. She did virtually everything one could hope a candidate would do.

By contrast, Trump did virtually everything one would hope a candidate would not do. He persistently offended key groups of voters — including women, Latinos, Muslims, prisoners of war, Gold Star families — candidates usually go out of their way to avoid alienating. He ran a shoddy, under-financed campaign with frequent shifts in leadership. He wasted time and resources in uncompetitive states. He threatened to undermine American alliances abroad. He vowed to jail his opponent should he win and to contest the election if he lost. He went out of his way to disqualify himself for the job.

And he won.

Now, there are a few ways to interpret this. One is that the campaign just did not matter at all. The average of political science forecast models from this past summer was that Trump would get 49.9 percent of the two-party vote. According to results so far, that’s almost exactly what he has. These models, which largely ignored the candidates and their campaigns and just focused on political fundamentals, did a much better job than polling did.

Just to offer an example, below is a simple scatterplot showing the relationship between economic growth (using per capita real disposable personal income) and the incumbent party’s share of the vote. Clinton’s vote share was right on the line.


It’s worth noting that 90 percent of Republicans, and 89 percent of Democrats, voted for their parties’ nominees. Despite all the weirdness of this year, party identification proved to be a great predictor of the vote. So maybe it really didn’t matter who ran. You would’ve gotten basically the same results from a Sanders-Bush race or an O’Malley-Rubio race. Or maybe this finding is peculiar to Clinton and Trump, both of whom have been household names for a quarter century. People had such a full picture of the candidates that the campaigns just didn’t tell them much they didn’t already know.

Another possibility is that Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate undermined the strengths of her campaign, while the strengths of Trump as a candidate made up for his campaign’s failures. That is, had Democrats nominated someone with less association with scandals (real or imagined), that person might have done better.

Let’s go with that for the moment. Sanders certainly has a cleaner reputation. Could he have gotten more votes? Well, it seems fair to say that the Trump team wouldn’t have run the same campaign against Sanders that they ran against Clinton, and the media wouldn’t have covered him the same way. Being crooked is not seen as his weakness; being too left wing is. We never really saw this in the primaries, but a negative campaign against him would have focused on his being a self-described democratic socialist. The thinly veiled anti-Semitism employed by the Trump campaign probably would have been used more, possibly to greater effect. Maybe Sanders’ rhetoric would have played better in the Rust Belt states than Clinton’s did, but maybe he would have been even more vulnerable. And it’s not at all obvious his general election campaign would have been anywhere near as well-funded or competently executed.

Could Biden have pulled this off? Maybe, but again, let’s remember his past. He has run for president either two or three times before (depending how you count 2016) and come up short every time. He relishes a good fight with Republicans, and he is surely a beloved vice president, but he has vulnerabilities that would have been exploited.

I’ve heard many pundits explain away Trump’s victory by claiming that he was a “change candidate in a change year.” It’s a tired saw, but it contains the basic nugget of truth that voters tend to turn out the incumbent party after two terms in office. Could Sanders or some Democrat other than Clinton have been the “change candidate” this year? It’s unlikely. In 1952, Harry Truman chose to retire rather than face a difficult re-election, and Democrats hoped that voters would see Adlai Stevenson as the change candidate. It didn’t work. The same thing happened in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson stepped down in favor of Hubert Humphrey. When voters want change, they look for a new party, not just a new face.

Now, from that graph above, it’s not clear that it really was a “change” year. Economic growth predicted a 50–50 race. And but for a few tens of thousands of voters in a handful of states, Clinton would be president-elect today. This was about as close to a coin-flip as one gets.

It’s certainly understandable for Democrats to be analyzing the results and trying to figure out what they got wrong. And no candidate looks worse than the one who just lost a close race. But it’s worth remembering that the alternatives were not obviously better, they might well have been worse, and, most likely, they might not have made any difference at all.