Donald Trump believes the chaos and sporadic violence that have become an integral part of the show at his campaign events benefit him politically. In a Republican primary, he’s probably right—as Damon Linker wrote at The Week, “when anarchy spreads, it’s the toughest, most authoritarian candidate who benefits, since he gets to sell himself as the only one capable of restoring law and order.”
But on March 15, another candidate may have gotten a boost from four days of nonstop coverage of protesters being assaulted as they were hauled out of Trump events, clashing with Trump supporters and being pepper-sprayed by police. Hillary Clinton outperformed expectations on “mini-Super Tuesday,” winning all five contests as of this writing (she leads by a slim margin in Missouri, which may be heading toward a recount). And it’s entirely possible that the increasingly fascistic nature of Trump’s movement, and the hate crimes it appears to have incited, made Democratic primary voters who might have been inspired by Sanders’s compelling vision for the country’s future more risk-averse. It’s possible that some of them decided to go with the candidate they perceived as a safer bet in November.
Sanders’s campaign, and many of his supporters, are certain that the senator would be a stronger general election candidate in November. They have head-to-head polling to back them up. The counterargument is that Sanders hasn’t faced the onslaught of negative attacks that he surely would in a general election campaign. Clinton’s supporters also point to a Gallup poll conducted last year that found fewer Americans saying they’d be willing to vote for a socialist than a Muslim or atheist.
Exit polls show that on March 15, Clinton’s argument won the day with primary voters. Across all five states, two-thirds of them said that Clinton was the better bet to defeat Donald Trump, and Clinton won the support of 80 percent of those who said that electability and experience were the most important attribute in a candidate.
The way those numbers varied across the five states also tells a story. In Florida, where Clinton won a blowout, three-quarters of Sunshine State voters said that she would be more likely to defeat Trump in November. Missouri, where the two candidates battled to a virtual tie, had the largest share of voters—40 percent—who thought Sanders would be stronger in a head-to-head matchup with Trump.
Voters in the March 15 primaries also valued electability more than those who participated in Super Tuesday contests two weeks earlier. Exit polls found only around half of those who voted in nine states on March 1 naming experience or electability as their top attribute in a candidate. The only state in which that wasn’t the case was Sanders’s home state of Vermont, where three-quarters of the electorate named “honesty or empathy” as the most important attribute for a candidate, and the senator won in a landslide.
Throughout the campaign, Sanders’s unapologetically progressive agenda has inspired millions of Democratic base voters, while Clinton has run on her experience and competence. For many in the party’s increasingly liberal base, it’s been a contest pitting a candidate of the heart against a candidate of the head. As it’s become more likely that Trump will be the Republican nominee, and as his campaign has taken an increasingly ugly turn toward naked authoritarianism, it’s likely that some liberal voters decided that they’d go with the candidate that they saw as a safer bet.
The good news for the progressive wing of the party is that while Sanders’s road to the nomination got a lot harder on March 15, he remains well funded and will continue to draw new people into his movement as he pushes the party to the left. Clinton may be benefiting from voters who are spooked by the nastiness surrounding Trump, but the Bernie Sanders political revolution is far from over.