Super Tuesday has confirmed the front-runner status of the two most disliked people in presidential politics this year. That’s according to a CNN poll released the morning of March 1. It showed Hillary Clinton with a 42%-to-55% favorable-unfavorable rating, surpassed only by Donald Trump at 37%-to-60%. Even among Democrats, only 36% find Clinton “honest and trustworthy.” The image is unfair, but it’s dogged her for decades and looms heavy this year.
The only candidate who’s liked by more than half the voters is Bernie Sanders, at 57%-to-33%. But he’s unlikely to make it to November. Primary results so far show him running ahead of Clinton among white Democratic voters, but not enough to compensate for her overwhelming advantage among black Democrats.
For a certain subset of American Jews, this realization may come with a special sting: “Our guy” — the guy who embodied Yiddish socialism, who made Jewish political history, who could have been this country’s first Jewish president — is all but done for.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that few will feel this sting. The Jewish voters most likely to support Sanders — younger, more liberal, less religious — are precisely the Jews least likely to feel the tug of ethnic pride at the success of “our guy.” The Jews most prone to that sort of ethnic loyalty are, for the most part, the ones least likely to feel the Bern.
Here’s a greater irony: The front-loading of Southern states on March 1 allowed Clinton to solidify her lead by running up overwhelming majorities of Democratic primary voters in a string of states the Democrats have no chance of winning in November. Sanders managed to win four of the 11 state primaries that day. To some degree, looking at the map, you could say he largely swept the Democratic-leaning North. But he lost the state with the greatest symbolic importance for him, Massachusetts. Famously liberal and next-door to his home state of Vermont, the Bay State should have been an easy win for him if he hoped to go the distance.
As it turned out, he won a narrow majority among white voters, but Clinton won such a lopsided majority among black voters, some 15% of the state’s total, that she managed to eke out a 2% margin of victory. As in Iowa, they virtually tied in delegates, but she won the trophy — and the momentum going forward.
This wasn’t what Sanders’s team had imagined. Since last spring, he’s been promising what he calls a “political revolution.” What this means, he’s told numerous skeptical interviewers, is a mobilization of political newcomers previously alienated from the system: young people who haven’t bothered to vote before; working-class voters who’ve given up on the system, and even Reagan Democrats who moved to the Republican column years ago but would rally to Sanders’s message of economic fairness. All this was supposed to create a mass movement in the streets, pressuring a reluctant Congress to enact his promised reforms, from free college to Medicare for all to a $15 minimum wage. And, unlike traditional Democrats, they’d show up for the midterms.
So far, there’s little evidence of any such mobilization. On the contrary: With a handful of exceptions, Democratic primary turnout has been markedly lower than it was in 2008, the last time Democrats had a contested primary. Yes, Sanders has turned out huge crowds for rallies around the country. He’s captured imaginations, especially among young people. And that’s generated momentum. But the stadium crowds haven’t spawned masses of new primary voters. In fact, working-class whites are turning out for Trump, not Sanders. It’s hard to imagine how Sanders will bring his brigades out to the streets in a prolonged battle for universal health care if he can’t even get them to vote.
Of course, Sanders vows to soldier on. He intends to take the fight all the way to the convention in Philadelphia, which begins on July 25. His insists the battle has just begun. He was registering barely 3% in the polls when he entered the race last spring. Now he’s nearly even with Clinton. Following that line of thinking, he could be trouncing her by the time California and New Jersey vote on June 7. But he won’t have that long. More likely, she’ll have snared a majority of convention delegates by the end of April, when New York, Pennsylvania and Guam vote.
A greater danger is that the Clinton-Sanders rivalry could become a racial battle for control of the Democratic Party. Clinton represents the party that’s evolved over the past two generations. It wins narrow majorities in presidential years by turning out minorities and white liberals. No Democratic presidential candidate has gotten more than 43% of the white vote since 1964, with the sole exception of Jimmy Carter’s 47% in 1976.
And Democrats stay home in droves in midterm years, crippling the party in Congress and statehouses. The 2010 elections saw 10 million fewer Republicans voting than in 2008, but 20 million fewer Democrats.
Sanders’s campaign was supposed to win back working-class whites by emphasizing economics and downplaying identity. He wanted to break the equilibrium between the two parties, return Democrats to majority status and eventually recapture the House of Representatives. Clinton’s massive advantage among black voters in the primaries, as much as it shows the black community’s loyalty to the Clintons, suggests that the Democratic coalition won’t give up control of the party to Sanders’s revolution without a fight.
That could be the larger significance of Sanders’s defeat. His campaign was, at heart, a long-shot bid to restore Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition of working-class whites, minorities and affluent liberals. It was an alliance that hitched the aspirations of gradual justice for dispossessed minorities — historically including both blacks and Jews — to a strong engine of economic empowerment for the majority.
Barring a major upset in the weeks ahead, it looks like the party’s now-dominant coalition of liberals and minorities will remain at the helm. There will be a certain nod, mostly rhetorical, to Sanderist progressive economics in deference to the ground he won. But the end result, looking ahead over the next few years, will at best be more of the same: a political system caught between evenly matched and mutually loathing factions. Occasional liberal victories like Obamacare and marriage equality. Unending trench warfare to slow the steady regression on voting rights, reproductive rights and church-state separation — the very issues most highly valued by the reigning Democratic coalition. And, dare we add, steadily rising sea levels.
And that’s the best-case scenario, assuming a Democratic win in November. The worst-case scenario? Well, what’s the English word for “Il Duce”?
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).