It is often said that Democrats fall in love, while Republicans fall in line. And perhaps there is a logic to the love Democrats feel for their presidential candidates. Democratic voters are challenged time and again to settle for the safe choice, but establishment picks for the presidency almost always lose.
The classic case is Vice President Humphrey in 1968, who lost the Democratic ticket at the high tide of American liberalism, following the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Establishment candidates like Vice Presidents Mondale in 1984 and Gore in 2000, as well as Senator Kerry in 2004, have also flamed out and lost. In fact, it is arguable Democrats have not brought a single candidate to the White House, who did not inspire widespread love and admiration, since at least the time of Woodward Wilson, over a century ago. This bodes ill for Hilary Clinton.
Inspiring candidates tend to be far more successful, but we tend to underestimate their potential. The most recent case is that of President Obama, who stole our hearts and cruised to victory, amid Bill Clinton’s bluster about his “fairy tale” candidacy. Once an inspirational candidate himself, Bill should have known better. When the Democrats choose candidates who represent hope over fear, they almost always win, with Kennedy sailing to victory in 1960, Carter in 1976, and Clinton himself in 1992. The exception is the inspirational George McGovern, who flopped miserably in 1972, an exception that proves the rule.
Running an inspiring Democratic nominee may not be a sufficient condition for winning the White House, but it seems to be necessary. Inspiring candidates win in general elections because the Democratic Party is largely a coalition of marginalized groups, blacks and Hispanics, women, students, and the poor. And these groups often stay home on election day. It takes an inspiring candidate to get them to the polls, which also helps Democrats win more governorships and legislative seats.
Much as was the case with Obama in 2008, there is a practicality to the hope of a Sanders victory. Bernie crushes Republican contenders in head-to-head polls, winning by double-digit margins and is only getting stronger. He even thumped Trump in the last NBC/Wall St. Journal poll by 18 points. Sanders even sustains similar leads against Trump in key swing states, like Ohio and Illinois. Meanwhile, Clinton is losing to Cruz, with her numbers looking worse by the week, while her lead over Trump is in continual flux.
Pundits and plutocrats dismissed Sanders after a short string of losses in the Midwest, but the primary system is biased in favor of conservative Democrats, with most of the early primaries occurring in the South and Midwest. In normal elections, this helps Democrats to choose a candidate that can appeal to the center. But this is no ordinary election, and most of these states have now voted, with the remaining states in the Northern Midwest, West, and East Coast either favoring Sanders or holding the potential to do so.
The Sanders campaign is pressing forward and is expecting wins in several of the next primaries. The delegate math will be difficult to achieve but can be accomplished if Sanders continues his current rate of growth in popularity. If he can make it to the general election, Sanders will represent not the audacity but rather the practicality of hope. In closely watched elections integrity trumps power. And it would be beautiful to watch Sanders, the Socialist, trample America’s own, postmodern-Mussolini in a live televised debate.
But there is a deeper reason why inspiring candidates matter. They redefine the Party’s vision, bring Party elites in line with their base, focus attention on new goals, and draw in a new generation of activists. Inspirational candidates are the lifeblood of the Democratic Party not just because they tend to win, but amid the compromises and corporate influence, they restore our faith in the political process and the remind us why democracy matters.
When we, as a society, love and trust our leaders, we are more likely to pull together. Humans are primates, who tend to organize themselves around strong leaders, after all. Trustworthy leaders make it easier for us to find our place in the group. They restore our faith in the political process and make us feel we are all in it together. Even if we hate the policies of a Bernie Sanders, or a John Kasich from the Republican side, we can at least begrudgingly respect their conviction. And perhaps this is why inspiring presidents, like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, are so often remembered as great presidents.
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Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Michael Vadon