Bernie Sanders Wins Indiana – And The Political Debate

Robert Borosage

Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist insurgent, won Indiana convincingly Tuesday night – 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent – over Hillary Clinton, the establishment moderate. This is a remarkable victory, a statement of the extent and scope of the Sanders surge.

Indiana is a Wonder bread state – Midwestern, centrist, largely white, religious. It gave us the blond and bland Evan Bayh, the former New Democrat governor and senator who thought Barack Obama was too liberal. Its current senators – Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Dan Coats – are centrists. Sanders has been already been counted out in the mainstream media. But young voters, liberals flooded into the polling booths and swept Sanders to victory. Picking up a net of five delegates, Sanders may not be winning his struggle against the delegate math, as the mainstream media keeps reminding us, but he is winning the political debate.

Sanders’ victory was completely overshadowed by Trump’s romp on the Republican side, which led Ted Cruz to “suspend” his campaign at the end of a sonorous, cliché-ridden, insufferably pompous concession speech. In both parties, insurgents took Indiana, and the party establishments lost. Suddenly the presumptive nominee of his party, Trump couldn’t rise to the occasion, but managed to say nice things about Cruz and his family while vowing to “go after Hillary.”

Sanders’ victory followed the template that the Democratic race has settled into. Exit polls show he won white voters 58 percent to 42 percent, while losing African-Americans 74-26. Sanders won men 57-43 and split women 50-50. He won young voters big (74-26 under 29) and lost seniors, 66-34. He won independents 72-28 (and in an open primary they were 22 percent of the voters). Two-thirds of the voters considered themselves liberals and Sanders won those 56-44.

Interestingly, Sanders won union members by a larger margin than nonunion members, despite Clinton’s union endorsements. Clinton appealed to those most concerned about experience; Sanders to those most concerned about honesty and trustworthiness (80-20) and a candidate who cares about people like them (70-30). Clinton won those who wanted to continue President Obama’s policies two to one; Sanders won those who wanted more liberal policies three to one. Nearly half of the voters (47 percent) thought trade takes away jobs, and Sanders won those 54-46. Nearly two-thirds thought Wall Street did more to hurt than help the economy, and Sanders, of course, won over 60 percent of their votes.

After Clinton’s victories in the “Acela primaries,” Sanders has been drowning in stories that the race is over. His fundraising fell off; his campaign laid off some staff members; Clinton supporters urged Sanders to get out of the race. But Indiana shows that the Sanders campaign still has juice. Eleven primary contests remain; millions of voters have yet to vote, Sanders is still drawing big crowds, driving the debate and, as Indiana showed, can still win primaries and pick up delegates. Three out of four Democrats in Indiana think the primary contest is energizing the party, not dividing it. He will and should continue to press his case.

Clinton has called for Democratic unity, saying to Sanders voters that “more unites us than divides us.” But she’d be well advised to be listening to Sanders rather than dismissing him.

Clinton has won against Sanders by making herself the candidate of continuity, wrapping herself around Barack Obama, who is popular in the Democratic Party. She uses her social liberalism to consolidate the Obama coalition of people of color, single women, and professionals, but that hasn’t been enough to win over young people. She presents herself as an experienced manager prepared to do a difficult job. She’s uncomfortable and not particularly credible in speaking to the populist spirit of the time. Omitted from that coalition are not only the young, but white working people, particularly men. Clinton now polls as unfavorably among men as Trump does among women.

Sanders is demonstrating the force of his challenge to the New Democrat neoliberal economics – on trade, Wall Street and financialization, climate change, public investment and progressive taxation, lifting the floor under workers, extending shared security from tuition-free college to universal health care. He’s indicting the failed policies of regime change and endless wars without victory. Trump echoes some of the Sanders themes, denouncing our trade policies, our failed interventions, calling for rebuilding America, scorning big-money politics.

Trump is the most unpopular nominee of a major party in the history of polling. One quarter of Republicans say they won’t vote for him. He’s unprepared to have a policy debate with Clinton or Sanders, so will launch a campaign of insult and character assassination. Assuming Clinton is the nominee, we’re headed into what will be an unappealing brawl in the gutter.

Americans aren’t going to elect Donald Trump president. But Trump will assail Clinton’s record as a competent manager of the status quo. The Democratic nominee would be far better advised to present a bold agenda for change, than to be painted as a defender of our corrupted politics and our rigged economy.

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