Friday, June 24, 2016

Trump winning over Sanders’ supporters isn't as crazy as you think

Near the beginning of Donald Trump's nationally televised anti-Hillary Clinton speech today was a short pitch to Bernie Sanders fans asking for their support. And Trump even made sure to quote some of Sanders' harsher slams against Mrs. Clinton later in the address.

So that begs the obvious question: Can Trump actually win over Sanders' supporters?

It seems like a long shot based on the facts. Trump may be a different kind of Republican, but it's hard to believe anyone from the ardently progressive/socialist Sanders camp would get behind Trump. And Sanders has even said many times that he will work as hard as possible to ensure that Trump is not elected.

The real answer isn't that simple. For the Sanders supporters who really researched and liked his specific proposals, Trump has no chance to win them over. But for the significant number of people who were attracted to Sanders because of the legitimate changes he was calling for, it's a different story. That's because love him or hate him, Trump now stands alone as the "change candidate" in this election. And when the public wants change, the change candidate almost always gathers together a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't be voting together.

Trump will grab some Bernie supporters if he maintains this image; it's just a question of how many and in which states. Bernie's voters in the primaries were demographically a lot like Trump's supporters in two key ways; they were white and not necessarily earning high incomes. In swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, they are winnable votes for Trump now.

But to understand why that's true, you have to understand how strong the change movement is in America right now. Consider the fact that third party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are collectively polling at or above 10 percent in most polls. That's extremely unusual and something we haven't seen the likes of since Ross Perot's first run for the presidency in 1992. Remember that Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote that year in the strongest sign of all that Americans wanted change that year.

My fellow conservatives who still believe Perot's support "stole" the election from President George H.W. Bush don't get it. He didn't steal anything. What he did was prove that people wanted a new president, and had he not run, Bill Clinton would have won a bigger majority, not a smaller one. By comparison in 1996, when the voters weren't so hot for change, Perot only polled 7 percent of the popular vote.

A key part of Trump's "change message" that resonates with some of Bernie's "change voters" is free trade. Sanders and Trump have sounded eerily the same about trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP for more than a year. Trade deals are usually not very exciting to talk about and carry none of the emotional cache you need to win voters.

But Trump and Sanders have both successfully made these deals emotionally charged issues, conjuring up images of millions of unemployed Americans suffering at the hands of Wall Street-controlled Washington fat cats. There are plenty of facts to separate Sanders and Trump voters forever, but this emotionally-charged issue of trade unites them in a way more powerful than dry facts.

Another emotionally charged issue that binds Trump and Sanders supporters is a visceral dislike for Hillary Clinton. Trump has been unloading on Clinton exclusively for weeks now, focusing mostly on the kind of financial chicanery and ethical questions Sanders raised throughout the primaries. This will resonate emotionally for at least some of the people who were very literally "feeling the Bern."

And one more final factor to consider is that Trump has a very low bar to meet here. He doesn't need to win over most of the Sanders supporters, half of the Sanders voters, or really even 25 percent of them. 10 percent of the newly registered and mobilized Sanders army going over to Trump in even just two or three swing states could make a huge difference and Trump knows it.

You know the old saying: Politics makes strange bedfellows. It's a popular saying because it's true so much of the time. And it may not seem stranger than a joining of Sanders and Trump voters, but it could happen again and tip this election to a place not many thought possible.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch."

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