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Nate Silver has the Bernie Sanders campaign figured out. Ignore what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire, the “data-driven” prognostication wizard wrote back in July, when Sanders was polling a healthy 30 percent to Clinton’s 46 percent in both contests. That’s only, Silver says, because “Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa and Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire are liberal and white, and that’s the core of Sanders’ support.”
Silver has a chart. It shows that when you multiply the number of liberals and whites among state electorates, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Iowa rank first, second, and third. Texas is near the bottom—a place where Bernie Sanders should feel about as welcome as a La Raza convention at the Alamo, right?
I have a new friend who begs to differ.
It’s July 20, and my airplane seat mate asks what brought me to Texas. He is a construction company sales executive from Houston. He’s watching Fox News on his cell phone. He tells me he considers himself a conservative. I tell him I’m a political reporter covering the Bernie Sanders campaign. He perks up: “I like what I’ve heard from him. Kind of middle of the road.”
Eleven days later, I’m at a Bernie Sanders house party in the depressed steel town of Griffith, Indiana, in a state that places in the bottom quartile on Silver’s chart. I approach a young man in his twenties wearing a thrift store T-shirt. I ask him what brings him here tonight.
“I’m just helping out my friends because they asked me to help out,” he tells me. He adds that he’s a conservative: “But I approve of some of the stuff that Bernie stands for. Like appealing to more than just the one percent and just trying to give everybody a leg up who’s needing it these days.” Data-driven analysis is only as good as the categories by which you sift the information. If you’ve already decided that “liberals” are the people who prefer locally sourced arugula to eating at McDonald’s, or are the people who don’t watch Fox News, it is a reasonable conclusion that there aren’t enough “liberals” out there to elect Bernie Sanders. Yet political categories shift. One of the things the best politicians do is work to shift them.
Sanders has been extraordinarily clear about the kind of shift he’d like to effect: Republicans “divide people on gay marriage. They divide people on abortion. They divide people on immigration. And what my job is, and it’s not just in blue states. . . [is] to bring working people together around an economic agenda that works. People are sick and tired of establishment politics; they are sick and tired of a politics in which candidates continue to represent the rich and the powerful.”
The theory that economic populism unites voters is hardly new. Lyndon Johnson, in New Orleans and about to lose the South to Barry Goldwater in 1964, expressed it in one of the most remarkable campaign speeches in history. A Southern Democratic politician was on his deathbed, Johnson said. “He was talking about the economy and what a great future we could have in the South, if we could just meet our economic problems. . . ‘I would like to go back down there and make them one more Democratic speech. I just feel like I have one in me. The poor old state, they haven’t heard a Democratic speech in 30 years. All they ever hear at election time is n****r! n****r! n****r!’”
Rick Perlstein is the author of “The Invisible Bridge,” “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” and “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.” He is also the national correspondent for the Washington Spectator.