Can Trump Win Over Bernie Sanders’s Supporters?

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Supporters cheer for Bernie Sanders at a rally in Stockton, California, on May 10. Donald Trump has said, “I’m gonna go out and I’m gonna get millions of people from the Democrats. I’m gonna get Bernie people to vote, because they like me on trade.” Max Whittaker/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Donald Trump says that he does not need to unify the Republican Party to win in November. “Does the party have to be together? Does it have to be unified? I’m very different than everybody else—perhaps that’s ever run for office. I actually don’t think so.”

So where is he going to get the voters to put him over the top? From supporters of self-described socialist Bernie Sanders.

Trump makes no secret of his strategy. “I think I’m gonna go out and I’m gonna get millions of people from the Democrats,” Trump said last weekend, adding, “I’m gonna get Bernie people to vote, because they like me on trade.”

It’s not just trade. From economic policy, to foreign policy, Trump has been tacking to the left in a strategy intentionally designed to appeal to Sanders supporters.

In the days since he secured the GOP nomination, Trump has repudiated conservative positions he took during the primaries on the minimum wage and taxes. In the fall, Trump declared that “we have to leave [the minimum wage] the way it is,” but this week Trump changed course and said, “I would like to see an increase of some magnitude.” Asked whether he was changing positions, Trump said, “Sure, it’s a change. I’m allowed to change. You need flexibility.”

That’s music to Democratic ears.

The same is true on taxes. In September, Trump laid out a supply-side tax plan that proposed reducing the highest income tax rate to 25 percent from the current 39.6 percent rate. Conservative economists like the Heritage Foundation’s Stephen Moore called it “Reaganesque.”

Now, Trump says that it was all just a starting point for negotiations, and that he’d be willing to raise taxes on the wealthy. “I am willing to pay more,” he said, “And you know what? [The] wealthy are willing to pay more. We’ve had a very good run.” 

(He later backtracked saying more than his proposal, not more than they pay now—but who pays attention to such minutiae, especially when everything is up for negotiation?) His switch is clearly designed to appeal to Sanders’s supporters.

Trump has also been echoing Sanders’s attacks on Hillary Clinton’s ties to Wall Street. The Washington Post reports on May 9:

At a campaign rally here in one of the most liberal towns in America, Donald Trump offered praise for an ­unusual party: avowed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders.

“Now, I’m no fan of Bernie Sanders, but he is 100 percent right,” Trump told a crowd here this weekend. “He is 100 percent right: Hillary Clinton is totally controlled by the people that put up her money. She’s totally controlled by Wall Street.”

Trump is also echoing Sanders when it comes to foreign policy. When it comes to Iraq, Trump says the Bush administration lied to get us into a war: “We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.” When it comes to Libya, Trump says: “Look at Libya. That was her baby.” He asserts that the world would be “100 percent” better with Muammar el-Qaddafi still in power.

This is almost indistinguishable from Bernie Sanders, who declares:

I voted against the war in Iraq.… Secretary Clinton voted for that war. She was proud to have been involved in regime change in Libya, with Qaddafi, without worrying, I think, about what happened the day after and the kind of instability and the rise of ISIS that we have seen in Libya…. What has happened in that region, as everybody knows, is there is massive instability, human tragedies beyond belief.

Trump also says we need to stop spending money and focus on nation-building here at home. Trump said in the December CNN debate:

We have spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that, frankly.… If we could have spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges and all of the other problems, our airports and all of the other problems we have, we would have been a lot better off—I can tell you that right now.

That too is indistinguishable from Sanders, who said on MSNBC:

We are spending $4 trillion on war in Iraq—by the way helping to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure—when what we should be doing is investing that money in our bridges, our roads, our sewer systems, our wastewater plants. We have crumbling infrastructure.

Trump believes that when Hillary Clinton secures the Democratic nomination, he can convince millions of Sanders supporters to defect and support him.

Is he right? A McClatchy/Marist poll last month found that “One out of four Sanders supporters—25 percent—say they would not back Clinton in a general election if she became the Democratic nominee for president, while just 69 percent say they would support her.” So clearly there is a significant number of gettable Sanders voters.

But can Trump get them? His positions and strident rhetoric on immigration, Muslims, and women are an anathema to the far left, and they throw into doubt whether many of those voters would cross over and support Trump.

Meanwhile, if Trump continues to tack left in pursuit of Sanders voters, he will alienate disaffected Republicans—many of whom say that may not vote for him. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in March found 47 percent of Republican women primary voters said they couldn’t imagine voting for Trump in November. And a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll shows that 4 in 10 Republicans aren’t sure whether they will vote for Trump.

If that many Republicans defect, Trump would have to win over a lot of Democrats to make up for it. And right now that’s not happening. The USA Today/Suffolk University poll shows that in a Trump-Clinton matchup, Clinton wins 90 percent of Democrats, while Trump’s gets just 5 percent. If those numbers hold, that would put Trump below Mitt Romney, who won 7 percent of Democrats in 2012.

Meanwhile, Trump has the support of just 80 percent of Republicans (compared to 93 percent for Romney in 2012)—a huge gap. And he’s not making it up with independents, either. They support Clinton over Trump 45 percent to 39 percent.

In other words, a strategy of appealing to Sanders voters while alienating his conservative base could backfire on Trump.

Marc Thiessen is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.