By all accounts, Bernie Sanders should have lost his bid to become president by now. A guy who praises Fidel Castro and other communists should not be able to win the nomination of anything more than the Communist Party USA.
Yet Sanders won the popular vote in the first two Democratic primaries, in Iowa and New Hampshire, and then won the latest by a blowout landslide in Nevada. He has already far surpassed the predictions of his detractors.
Only Joe Biden, struggling and nearly broke, stands between Bernie and the nomination. Mike Bloomberg, who has never shown even statewide appeal, has fizzled.
Talk show pundits are baffled, and Democratic insiders are dismayed. Republicans are cheering a possible nomination of Sanders, just as they thought a Barack Obama was unelectable in 2008.
The experts are missing how Sanders’ style fits these times, and could be a formidable adversary for Republicans in November. Due to his style more than his political views, Bernie Sanders has long been the most popular senator in America, which his naysayers fail to recognize.
Bernie presents himself as an ordinary guy, who does not want to be a billionaire or a celebrity. It is his trademark style which fuels his remarkable political ride, which no one yet has been able to derail.
It is difficult to ridicule an ordinary guy who has no pretensions. And focusing entirely on attacking his leftist views misses the point of why he is popular.
It is not a new enthusiasm for socialism which makes Bernie the frontrunner. Rather, it is how his genuineness tracks the swing of the political pendulum in this presidential year.
Donald Trump’s candid style was the perfect reaction to the phony politically correctness of Barack Obama. The Teleprompter President Obama was a master of smoothly saying nothing of substance, and doing even less.
Obama was a windup toy for the elite, with remarks that were trite and predictable. Voters then thirsted for something substantive after eight years of superficiality.
Enter candidate Trump, whose flair for the politically incorrect was a breath of fresh air. “We don’t want to be politically correct,” he roared to one of his massive crowds last December, in response to a delay in removing a female protester.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, Isaac Newton explained in his First Law of Motion. Successful presidential candidates have styles which tap into reactions by voters to what went before.
The ordinary Georgian peanut farmer Jimmy Carter thrived on the political reaction to the incumbent Gerald Ford after Ford pardoned the man who appointed him, Richard Nixon. Next the charming, telegenic Ronald Reagan was the answer to the bumbling, mundane Carter.
Ideas surely matter too, but presidential elections are typically decided by low-information voters who care more about style. A very small chunk of the electorate in a presidential election watch cable news, and most voters may not even know what it means for a candidate to be a socialist.
Polls show that many voters do understand certain issues like abortion and gun control, and Sanders is as wrong on both as Obama was. But Vermont is one of the most pro-Second Amendment states in the country, and Sanders is immensely popular there.
Sanders is anti-Wall Street in addition to being anti-elite, which is a powerful combination that appeals to the roughly 50 percent of Americans who do not own much stock. A Hollywood actor running as a Democrat would have trouble being elected, but Sanders as the antithesis of that glitz is hitting a chord with voters.
Sanders is not trying to be politically correct like Obama, and voters do not want a candidate like that now. Joe Biden attempts to carry on for Obama, but that approach has not worked particularly well for Biden, even though he may squeak by in South Carolina.
Sanders’ ruffled look gives him a Teflon coating against criticism of his far-left political positions. He is difficult for even Trump to mock, though Trump has been masterful in ridiculing other opponents.
In style, Sanders has what Hillary Clinton lacked: connection with voters. By Election Day, not enough voters in key states felt they knew or liked her.
But Bernie is connecting with voters, both in his rural state and in diverse states across the country. Ideological arguments by Republicans against Bernie may fare no better than they did against Obama.
The giddiness among GOP advisers about a nomination of Sanders is reminiscent of cheerfulness among Democrats in 1980 at the nomination of Ronald Reagan as their opponent, thinking he could be easily beaten based on ideology. Instead, Reagan won in a landslide.
A campaign against Sanders based on his leftist ideology should attract many votes. But underestimating how his style is resonating would be a mistake.
Andy Schlafly is an attorney and teacher who works with Phyllis Schlafly Eagles on grassroots political efforts.