What If Bernie Sanders Is the Left's Ben Carson, Not Its Donald Trump?

Mike Blake / Reuters

Pretty much all the pundits agree: Hillary Clinton won the first Democratic debate. (I said so, too.)

But what if Bernie Sanders won, too? The media tended to dismiss Sanders’s performance as shouty, grumpy, and unpolished. That’s all got some truth, but those qualities have also propelled him into a real race with Clinton. As I discovered last month, going to a Sanders rally is extremely impressive—he gets huge crowds of true believers who are fired up.

I think maybe the problem isn’t that reporters are in the tank for Clinton. (It’s a funny idea, though.) It’s that they don’t know how to assess him, because he’s not a typical candidate. So even though the press anointed Clinton the winner, Fox News and Fusion focus groups rated Sanders highly, and he hauled in $1.3 million from his performance. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him gain in the polls, given the huge national exposure he received in the debate.

Throughout the campaign, people have been drawing comparisons between Sanders and Donald Trump—two angry outsiders who seem to crystallize discontent with the political parties. But what if Sanders is actually more like Ben Carson?

Carson’s performance in the first GOP debate was also widely panned—he seemed sleepy, disengaged, and lugubrious, the press said. Republican voters disagreed: They rated him a winner, and his campaign took off. Carson’s reviews after the second debate were far more positive—not because he changed his approach, but because commentators started looking at him the way his supporters did. Sanders could be delivering a Democratic carbon copy of that phenomenon.

(I see Andrew Prokop makes a similar version of this argument, but he actually thinks the press knows Sanders too well: “Political commentators like me have been covering Sanders for months, and his message is old hat to us at this point,” he writes. “So we give him no credit for repeating those basic themes that have made him so popular on the left.” I think the media’s consistent underestimation of Sanders suggests that most reporters have actually never really grasped what makes Sanders so popular on the left.)

Like Carson, however, Sanders still faces a tough road to actually winning his party’s nomination. (Both men also rely heavily on small-dollar donors.) Sanders’s persona—calling it a shtick would suggest he’s calibrated it, when all indications are he’s just being himself—plays extremely well in a large arena filled with true believers. But when he’s on stage next to Clinton, it helps her look poised, calm, and leaderly, which in turns makes it harder for him to build on his core of support to get the nomination.