Following a grueling year of Democratic presidential debates, campaign suspensions, and occasional gaffes, the Iowa Caucuses have nearly arrived. As of this moment, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders holds a narrow lead in the polls, having clawed his way to top past former-Vice President Joe Biden and small-town-mayor Pete Buttigieg, both of whom appeal widely to moderate white voters needed to secure the state. In most recent presidential elections, winners of the Iowa Caucus have gone on to secure their party’s nomination and, often, the presidency a few months later.
With Bernie’s successes heading into Monday and his likelihood of clinching close-to-home New Hampshire as well during its primary, his “electability,” his ability to sway those in all corners left of the aisle and secure a broad, successful coalition coming into November, certainly warrants discussion. Bernie’s brand as an idealistic democratic socialist, at first glance, does not seem to enhance those chances. But defenders of his movement like to reference his successes as a far-left mayor of the most populous town in (then) ruby-red Vermont. Clearly, by continuously bucking the ideological bent of his state and ascending to one of its Senate seats, he can easily turn other Republican strongholds throughout the nation blue, right?
Well, not so fast. While it is undeniably true that Bernie’s mayoral reputation was not the most conducive to the state’s Republican nature, his successes in Vermont politics make a lot more sense when observed through two main factors: Vermont’s changing political demography, concurrent national trends, and Sanders’ fiercely libertarian attitudes.
First, Vermont’s transformative political changes in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Despite the fact that Donald Trump couldn’t even secure 30% of the state’s vote in 2016, when considering every presidential election since the founding of the GOP in 1854, Vermont is actually the reddest state in the nation, having consistently voted for the Republican presidential contender throughout the Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and New Deal Era. One reason for this political consistency was Vermonters’ unrelenting isolationism, strongly objecting to Democratic Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt’s interventionist stances in both world wars. With the exception of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory of 1964, this trend continued with ease in light of the Vietnam War and the tribulations of the Nixon administration.
Yet something changed in 1980, as America, suffering from stagflation and the Iran Hostage Crisis, prepared to usher in a new chief executive. What the country saw in former California Governor Ronald Reagan – charisma, piety, and conservatism – Vermonters saw a new, more dangerous face to the Republican Party they had cherished for so long. And so in that year’s presidential race, every state shifted right in comparison to 1976 – except Vermont. An 11-point victory for Gerald Ford turned into a meager 6-point plurality win for Reagan in Vermont (many liberal Republicans here cast their ballot for independent John B. Anderson instead). The Reagan administration’s hawkish conservatism only further antagonized Vermonters, and in 1988, they voted for pragmatist VP George H.W. Bush by a disappointing 4 percent. When Clinton won the state four years later by a resounding 16-point margin, the state never turned back, and today stands as one of the bluest states in the nation.
It’s important to understand that by this point, the national GOP looked quite different than in previous decades. Historically dominated by liberal northern Protestants, southern religious conservatives now held power over the party, with the likes of Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell Sr. dominating the party platform by the time of the 1992 GOP convention. Having voted Democratic in presidential elections as recently as 1976 and with the Democratic Party seeming to move left on social issues, these evangelicals saw an opportunity to transform the GOP into a movement far more suitable for them, a more socially-conservative party fighting back against the liberal social initiatives that had taken root in the previous decades, including Roe v. Wade and the second-wave feminist movement (empowered by Betty Friedan’s revolutionary work The Feminine Mystique). This diversion away from economic pragmatism and social libertarianism proved anathema to Vermont, helping to push its political identity strongly into the blue column in the years to come.
With this in mind, Bernie Sanders’ political career begins to seem more plausible in late-20th century. Among liberal Vermonters of both parties, his libertarian stances on recreational drug usage, gay marriage, and gun rights strongly resonated. He was unwilling to kowtow to the political establishment of either party, remaining firm in his convictions. After a failed attempt in 1988, Sanders finally defeated Republican Peter Plympton Smith for Vermont’s at-large congressional district, largely because of popular resentment at and subsequent NRA funding against the congressman for voting in favor of sweeping gun-control measures. In similar vein, when Republican-turned-Independent Senator Jim Jeffords retired in 2006, it was the prime time for Sanders to fill that seat, which now constitutes his platform for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
What does this mean for Sanders’ prospects? One one hand, Sanders has received significant crossover support in all his federal campaigns, even as an ardent democratic socialist. But today’s national Republican Party is not even remotely similar to the traditional Vermont GOP (or the traditional GOP in general). The national GOP continues to lurch to the social right, so his likelihood of receiving millions of crossover votes in 2020 is unlikely at best. To achieve overarching success and popularity on the national level with support from both parties, to render himself the Democrats’ most “electable” candidate, Bernie’s game will have to change – big time.