Bernie Sanders hopes to convince working-class voters who were drawn to Donald Trump in 2016 that they will find a lot to like with his brand of economic populism.
Sanders plans to take this strategy for a trial run on Monday with a “Bernie Beats Trump Tour” of four Iowa counties that went for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and to Trump in 2016. The goal is to prove that he is the candidate best able to woo back working-class voters in Rust-Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, longtime Democratic strongholds that were captured by Trump and that are key to winning the presidency.
The self-described democratic socialist and the billionaire New York real estate tycoon are almost as far apart on the ideological spectrum as is possible in American politics. But when it comes to the economy, they share some striking traits: They both claim to speak for working-class and middle-class Americans who have felt left behind in recent years and both condemn the special interests that have distorted the system and the “elites” they say are behind damaging policies such as free-trade pacts.
“I think that older working class voters may not be as into democratic socialism or Medicare for All necessarily, but I do think that they’re much more open to his economic populist argument,” said Eddie Vale, a partner at New Paradigm Strategy Group and former AFL-CIO spokesman. “If they actually see him in person and hear some of his economic policies, they might realize that there is more agreement there than they thought.”
Still, Sanders faces a tough slog in Iowa, even among Democrats. He lost the 2016 contest to Hillary Clinton by the slimmest margin in the history of the caucuses. But, this time, he is facing competition for the progressive mantle from Elizabeth Warren, who has surged ahead of him in polls.
A Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa poll released Saturday showed Sanders had slipped to third place in Iowa with the support of 11% of likely participants in the caucuses. That was down from 16% in June, when he was in second place. The poll showed Warren unseating Joe Biden in the lead with 22% support, up 7 percentage points from June. Biden had 20%, down slightly from June. Though the result is in the poll’s 4 percentage point margin of error.
The picture is no better nationally. According to the RealClear Politics polling average, Biden is in the lead with 28.8%, followed by Warren at 18.3% and Sanders in third place at 16.5%.
Vale says the Iowa tour is part of a broader effort to answer critics who contend Sanders’ leftist policies make him unelectable. “While Biden is trying to own the electability argument, they’re trying to make the bigger picture point that by doing well with working class and Trump voters, Bernie is also able to beat Trump,” Vale said.
One of the biggest challenges of Sanders’ strategy will be convincing voters who switched to the Republican Party to register to participate in the Democratic caucuses.
Kim Nadler, a professor of political science at California State University, Sacramento, agreed that Sanders voters have a lot of crossover with Trump voters. Both groups are predominantly white, male, concerned about economic inequality and strong supporters of government programs such as Social Security and Medicare. And those who switch between parties aren’t usually as engaged or knowledgeable about politics.
“It’s harder to get through to them on any message, and a lot of times what it really boils down to is the persona of the individual they’re voting for,” Nadler said. “Those that gravitated toward the Trump combative persona may also be swayed by the combative tone that Sanders takes as well.”