So what would a race between Democratic nominee Sanders and Republican candidate X look like? As a Vermonter, I’ve seen Bernie attacked by big(ish) Republican money a few times. He does have some tricks up his sleeve.
In 1990, when Bernie ran against a Republican incumbent for the U.S. House, the RNC threw some money at Vermont, running TV ads that not-so-subtly red baited Bernie: e.g., an “ordinary Vermont woman” establishing her plain-folks status while stacking wood in her yard, in the final seconds of the ad, turns to the camera and says, “Bernie scares me.” Bernie defeated the incumbent by a margin of 56% to 40%. In his first run for Senate in 2006, Bernie went up against a very popular moderate Republican businessman, Rich Tarrant, who used his own fortune to turn the contest into the most expensive political campaign in Vermont’s history. Tarrant, struggling to make headway in the polls throughout the campaign, towards the end listened to his consultants and went sleazy/negative, using Bernie’s House vote on a spending bill to claim that Bernie supported child molesters. Sanders won by an approximately 2-to-1 margin.
In each case, the dirty attacks and red-baiting failed, and probably boomeranged on the Republicans. Not all Vermonters are Birkenstock-wearing former hippies — we elected a popular Republican governor repeatedly 2002-2010 — but folks knew enough about Bernie (from, e.g., his efforts on behalf of veterans and the like) to know that the sleazy attack ads were just that. Bernie is not only scrupulously consistent and honest about his policies and principles, but he knows how to communicate them. In 2004, he got a higher percentage of the Vermont vote than John Kerry, which means there were a number of Vermonters voting simultaneously for Bernie and George W. Bush.
In the unusually substantive strategic discussions amongst liberals this past few weeks, one fear Bernie-skeptics have raised is that as the Democratic nominee he would be faced with a temporarily reunited Republican Party machine: a no-holds barred, massively funded, merciless attack replete with dog-whistle themes and other shameless techniques. Fox News would craft the nasty memes, and CNN would lap them up. Krugman and others have pointed out that Bernie has not faced that kind of attack yet on the national stage, and so polls showing him doing well in a head-to-head with various Republican candidates do not mean much. This is all true.
Bernie’s approach to campaigning is to stay away from spin, and with enormous sincerity repeat a handful of artfully crafted points, doggedly sticking to them in the face of constant efforts by opponents and journalists to get him to play the sound bite game. (Think of how he has consistently taken the high road with regards to HIllary’s emails and Bill’s peccadilloes, and how effectively that plays.) He is a control freak about this: Bernie is not going to do what Howard Dean did in 2002-03, and start taking his policy cues from his grass roots followers rather than the other way around. But we’ve seen already how Bernie can effectively disarm cynical journalists and politicians by just calling them out and sticking to his principles. “Idealism” in his hands is good strategy.
That said, whether they are going after Hillary or Bernie, the post-convention Republican machine is likely to be ferocious, perhaps like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Whoever the Democratic nominee, they are going to need our help.