Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic presidential nominee, but a poll has shown the socialist senator from Vermont running close to Hillary Clinton in Kentucky, where Democrats vote May 17.
Donald Trump won Kentucky’s Republican caucuses last month, but my bet is that he won’t win the GOP nomination and will mount an independent campaign that could find favor in Kentucky.
Though neither of these outsiders will be president, their surprising successes in the primaries and caucuses have demonstrated a great unhappiness with the nation’s political system. Political leaders must pay attention to these voters and respond not only in the interests of getting re-elected.
Those leaders include Kentucky’s senior senator, Mitch McConnell, whose position as Senate majority leader is all the more at risk from the prospect that Trump or the leading GOP alternative, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, will prove to be dead weight for Republican senators seeking re-election.
Trump’s main appeal has been economic, arguing that trade deals have been bad for the country and a disaster for people working in manufacturing. That, coupled with his outsider role and shameful immigration rhetoric, have given him a strong base among people who haven’t been to college. That’s a majority in Kentucky.
Trade deals are easy to campaign against because big layoffs and factory closures are much more visible than the effects of lower tariffs on American exports, which tend to add jobs in small, low-profile increments in smaller businesses.
The folks who track both the little increments and big layoffs found in 1998, five years after the North American Free Trade Agreement, that Kentucky had gained more jobs from NAFTA than it had lost. And that pattern has probably continued, as the state has become the No. 3 auto-manufacturing state and a leader in making aerospace equipment. Exports also help farmers.
NAFTA was a deal with Canada and Mexico, whose economies are small in comparison to China’s, so the much more important change was the 2000 vote in Congress to normalize trade with China and admit it to the World Trade Organization. Chinese exports to the U.S. boomed, and low-skill manufacturing jobs in this country suffered. Estimates of manufacturing job losses as a result of the China deal are as high as 10 million. A better estimate is about half that, but that’s still a lot.
The China deal and NAFTA were passed mainly by Republicans in Congress but with the key support of then-President Bill Clinton – and heavy lobbying and campaign contributions from business interests. The deals have probably accelerated the growing inequality of incomes in America, a trend that began in the 1970s.
Which brings us to Bernie Sanders.
He has talked less about trade than those who expanded it – the Wall Street interests that are easier than ever to attack because of the 2008 financial collapse – and about their role in a political-finance system that the Supreme Court has rewritten for the rich (at the behest of Mitch McConnell).
Sanders may be a socialist with a Brooklyn accent, but he offers a strong dose of populism, which has always appealed to many Kentucky voters.
That’s probably one reason he was breathing down Hillary Clinton’s neck in a March 1-2 poll of self-defined likely voters in Kentucky’s Democratic presidential primary.
Clinton had 43 percent and Sanders 38 percent in the survey by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, N.C. The results have an error margin of 4.4 percentage points, so Clinton didn’t even have a clear lead.
The results seem more driven by dislike of Clinton than knowledge of Sanders. Clinton led among liberals, while the more liberal Sanders led among conservatives, who made up 27 percent of the sample. She had a small lead among moderates, who were 31 percent of the total.
Sanders won younger voters, but Clinton won seniors by a lot more. They are more likely to vote, and many voters probably don’t know much about Sanders yet, so don’t expect him to pull an upset here.
The poll’s greater import was that it showed Trump’s potential as an independent, third-party or write-in candidate. He got 37 or 38 percent among Democrats in a matchup with Sanders or Clinton.
Trump won 36 percent of the Republican caucus vote, so that and the poll suggest Kentucky might be one of the states he could carry as an independent. He might not get on the ballot in enough states to win, but his name is easy to write in and his candidacy seems mainly about ego.
If Trump carried enough states (Tennessee? Arkansas? West Virginia?), he could keep Clinton or the Republican nominee from getting an Electoral College majority and force the election into the GOP-controlled House, which would elect the Republican. That’s a little-noted caveat to the conventional wisdom that Trump making a three-way race would elect Clinton.
As Republican leaders deal with possible scenarios, and Cruz plots a second- or third-ballot convention strategy, McConnell has publicly been out of the fray, but Cruz is seeking the help of the man he called a liar on the Senate floor. If he gets such help, that would make a McConnell hat trick of strange GOP bedfellows, along with Rand Paul and Matt Bevin.
McConnell may prefer a brokered convention that nominates a more traditional candidate, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had the second spot last time and has been vetted. Cruz and Trump supporters warn that if the nomination goes to someone who didn’t run this time, the party will lose its most enthusiastic voters and be doomed to defeat. But if Trump mounts another campaign, that impact would be felt anyway. What McConnell and his senators don’t want is someone at the top of the ticket who turns off or even scares a broad swath of voters. Cruz could do that, too.
As McConnell ponders, let’s hope he has in mind the good of the country, not just his party.
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column previously appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.