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Why Sanders As The Democratic Nominee Terrifies The Center-Left

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Bernie Sanders had a strong showing in Iowa, a primary victory in New Hampshire. He is acting and sounding like the Democratic front-runner, and based on results so far, why not? To his supporters, Sanders inspires hope for a progressive political revolution; to his detractors within the Democratic Party, he inspires fear, anxiety - to our next guest, it's outright terror. That is a word that Matt Bennett has used. He is co-founder of Third Way, a Washington think tank that promotes center-left policy ideas. He's in our studios this morning. Hi there, Matt.

MATT BENNETT: Hey.

GREENE: What are you so afraid of?

BENNETT: It isn't his policies; it's his prospects that - what terrifies us is that if we nominate Bernie Sanders, he is likely to lose to Donald Trump, and there is nothing more scary to a Democrat than that.

GREENE: But that's not what the head-to-head polls show. I mean, I was looking at most of them, and they all have Sanders beating Trump in a general election. Why are they not convincing you?

BENNETT: Well, those polls have any Democrat beating Trump. And just keep in mind that the polling at this stage in, say, 1984 showed Walter Mondale beating Ronald Reagan (laughter). He lost 49 states. So that polling's not very reliable. What we're looking at is what is most likely to bring onside the voters that we lost in 2016 because this is going to be a very close election no matter who we nominate. And it seems to us that the worst possible person to win those voters back is somebody who is a self-described socialist.

GREENE: What evidence do you have of that? I mean, have you actually - like, are their polls of voters who you consider really crucial, who say I would never vote for a socialist? Or, like, is this just in, you know, theorizing and - you know, based on what you know?

BENNETT: No, no, it's much more than a gut feeling. So there's a bunch of things. First of all, Gallup just last week came out with a poll where they asked people about various attributes and whether or not that would prevent them from voting for an otherwise well-qualified candidate for president. They've tested things like atheist or gay, and the numbers are actually quite small of people say - no, I would not vote for a well-qualified candidate just because they're atheist. Those have been shrinking. The one attribute that keeps a majority, 55% of people from saying, yeah, I would not vote for that person is socialist. That is just a toxic political term.

So there's that evidence, and then there's also all kinds of evidence about what demographers call negative partisanship, which is to say people come out to vote against someone much more aggressively than they do to come out to vote for somebody that inspires them. So this whole notion that Sanders is going to jack up turnout on our side but not have impact on the other side is wrong.

GREENE: But let's talk about who he has energized. I mean, I was looking at one poll out of New Hampshire, a CNN exit poll, that showed that Sanders won over more voters under 30 than all of his Democratic competitors combined. I mean, couldn't bringing out new voters, energizing - especially younger voters in your party, offset whatever losses you might see in some of the voting groups you're talking about?

BENNETT: You know, that's one of the oldest myths in Democratic politics. People have always said, cycle after cycle, if only we can find the inspirational candidate that will bring the young people out. The problem is, it just doesn't ever work. Ruy Teixeira, who is a demographer at the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress, had a piece in The Washington Post last week laying this out in great detail with the numbers. The other thing to keep in mind with Sanders is, turnout in Iowa was flat; it was the same as it was in 2016...

GREENE: Although an uptick among younger voters and caucusgoers.

BENNETT: Yes, among younger voters. But the problem is that younger voters are not reliable voters; older voters are very reliable voters. And what we've seen is in both Iowa and New Hampshire so far, we really haven't seen any increase in overall turnout.

GREENE: I got to ask this - if you are a Sanders supporter and you see the moderate establishment working aggressively to find a way to stop Sanders from getting the nomination, how should they not see that as the party machine trying to steal the nomination from the will of voters?

BENNETT: I mean, voters are the ones who are going to decide this election. People like me can say, look - we would prefer someone else. But ultimately, it's going to be up to the people who go out to the polls and vote.

GREENE: I mean, the DNC has access to money and can decide which candidate and what support goes where. I mean, obviously, there's influence in the establishment.

BENNETT: Indeed. But Sanders has plenty of money. He has more than anybody else in the race besides Mike Bloomberg. And the DNC rules actually have helped him in - the debate rules that they put on, there was no doubt that Sanders was going to be on the stage for every debate - where you look at people, moderates like Steve Bloomberg (ph), the governor - sorry - Steve - pardon me, the governor of Montana could not make the debate stage because of the debate rules because he didn't have enough donors. Somebody like Sanders, that really helped him.

GREENE: Would you support him if he gets the nomination?

BENNETT: Absolutely. But I'm a professional Democrat. People like me will support him. Lots of other people will not.

GREENE: Matt Bennett is the co-founder of Third Way in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much, Matt.

BENNETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 17, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous online summary of this story incorrectly referred to Matt Bennett of the think tank Third Way as David Bennett.