Heartburn Over Sanders and Trump

Democrats worry about trip wires for Clinton, and Republicans fret that their down-ballot candidates may get shellacked.

Donald Trump speaks during a rally last Thursday in San Jose, Calif.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 6, 2016, 8 p.m.

Two of the most pressing questions in American politics right now are whether and how Bernie Sanders will make things difficult for Hillary Clinton in the coming weeks, and how much of a problem Donald Trump will be for Republican candidates down the ballot. Any Democrat not worried about the former or Republican not fretting about the latter is whistling past the graveyard, blinded by a serious case of denial.

A lot of very smart and seasoned Democrats are deeply concerned that Sanders will not go quietly into the night after Clinton obtains enough delegates Tuesday to effectively nail down the presidential nomination. This is especially so if Sanders wins the California primary. Their nightmare is that the Vermont senator and his Sanderistas will wreck havoc at the July 25-28 Democratic convention in Philadelphia and prevent the party from coming together in a way that enhances its chances of winning the general election.  

The main reason that the last round of polls showed the contest between Clinton and Trump effectively tied is that a fifth of Sanders supporters are so far not committed to Clinton in a general-election matchup against Trump. Now that all of Trump’s nomination rivals have stepped aside, Republicans have, to a large extent, come home, but the battle between Clinton and Sanders has prevented Democrats from wholeheartedly rallying behind the presumptive nominee. 

While Trump is hardly the antidote the Sanderistas seek to a government controlled by special interests and favoring the rich, many are independents and not committed Democrats. They have a strong antiestablishment streak, a trait many share with first-time-candidate Trump but not with Clinton, who has been a fixture in national politics for 24 years.

Conversely, Republicans have reason to fear that Trump will serve as a millstone around the necks of Republican candidates for the House and Senate, much as Barry Goldwater was for Republicans in 1964 and President Jimmy Carter was for Democrats in 1980. Whether disillusioned partisans simply choose to stay at home or swing voters pull the Democratic lever, the GOP faces the potential loss of its Senate majority and half of its majority in the House.

A month ago, when Trump was trailing Clinton by as much as 13 points in a CNN poll, Republican strategists and activists were about to jump out the window. When the race tightened up, they began to cautiously breathe again. But in recent days, with Trump dancing around an open flame while waving a gallon jug of gasoline, many are back to DEFCON 1, bracing themselves for Armageddon.

A new round of polls will be out soon, notably one from CNN, and it will be interesting to see if Clinton benefits from Trump’s intemperate claims that an Indiana-born, Mexican-American federal district judge and Muslim judges in general would be biased against him.

Sanders is currently promising to take the fight all the way to the convention, which of course candidates in his position often say, but he may well mean what he says. Anyone who has watched him in the Senate knows he has a stubborn, cantankerous nature. Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont and 2004 presidential contender, told The Washington Post that “Bernie didn’t grow up thinking he was going to be president” and consequently, “to come as close as he has, it’s damn hard to let go.”  

It’s easy to suggest that Sanders got into the race with the intent of shaping the debate and dialogue, putting a spotlight on issues of importance to him like income and wealth inequality, but when he got a taste of winning primaries and became a pied piper for the Left and the young, his reason for running changed. He wants to win, not just get issues on the Democratic platform.

My own hunch is that after this week, Sanders will begin to be less relevant, his every word and action less scrutinized and publicized than before. This will let Clinton focus on the general election and largely ignore Sanders himself while reaching out to his supporters, using Trump as a tool of persuasion.

For Trump, the hatred that most Republicans have for Hillary Clinton is so intense that I suspect he will retain the support of upwards of 85 percent of the party faithful, but short of the 93 percent that Mitt Romney won in 2012.

As for the narrow sliver of voters who are truly undecided, I suspect most will swallow their distaste for Clinton and get in her column on Election Day. As screwy as this year has been, things may not be as volatile over the next five months as most analysts once thought.

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