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Sanders has never won anything that really matters outside of Vermont, and all the available data shows his brand is a flop in red and purple states.

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In 2018, a top adviser on the Bernie Sanders campaign published a book called “How Bernie Won.” Its audacious title drove a story line about the 2016 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton: Sanders hadn’t lost, not really. Rather, he had won in the states that mattered most, and his ideas were proven to be winners.

This is a fairy tale — and a dangerous one. If Democratic voters, hungry for a winner, buy into that myth and believe that Sanders is the most “electable” candidate, they will be making a grave mistake that could hand the presidency back to Donald Trump.

Let’s start with the actual results in the 2016 primary. It was not remotely close. Sanders lost by 3.8 million votes, 57-43%. She won 34 states and territories to his 23.

Still, Sanders’ team contends that the 2016 results augur well for him, because he dominated in the Midwest, where the presidency is often decided. In particular, they claim that he is popular in the former “Blue Wall” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which turned red in 2016 and delivered Trump his victory.

Trump will rightly call Sanders socialist

In fact, Sanders lost to Clinton by more than 200,000 votes in the nine states of the Midwest. In the three onetime Blue Wall battleground states, she topped him by over 45,000 votes, though he beat her in Wisconsin and edged her by a point in Michigan. In Ohio, Clinton won by 14 points and nearly 166,000 votes. The best you can say about this Sanders argument is that he didn’t lose as badly in the Midwest as he did elsewhere. 

Indeed, in the Sunbelt, the other area that Democrats hope to make a general election battleground in 2020, Sanders got absolutely crushed. He lost Florida 64-33%, Arizona 58-40%, North Carolina 55-41% and Texas 65-33%. Taken together, Clinton trounced Sanders in those four states by more than 1.2 million votes. 

And of course, those were only primary voters. What would the general electorate make of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.? We know that the Trump campaign will seek to label any Democratic nominee a “socialist” — a regular Republican tactic that usually goes nowhere because Democratic nominees have never really been socialists.

Sanders is different, though. As he said in a 1983 political debate: “I am a socialist; of course I’m a socialist.”

The charge would stick, because this is an identity that he himself has proudly trumpeted. And most Americans view socialism negatively, by a margin of 42-55%. That would be quite a weight around a nominee’s neck in a general election.

The potency of this pending attack is also underscored by Sanders’ central policy proposal: "Medicare for All." His plan would hand the government control over nearly a fifth of the American economy. It doesn’t take much Trumpian demagoguery to label that “socialized medicine.”

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When voters outside the liberal base learned more about this plan over the course of last year, initial curiosity, driven by its bumper-sticker name, collapsed. November polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Cook Political Report found that “large shares of swing voters in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin" say a national Medicare for All plan is a bad idea.

And we don’t have to speculate about the political impact of Medicare for All. It was tested in the 2018 midterms when, as a University of Virginia study recently found, it cost Democrats in swing districts who embraced it nearly 5 points.

Ideas that can't win outside blue zones

Worse, Sanders' overall record since 2016 guts his case. On the very day in 2017 that The New York Times published an op-ed he wrote entitled, “How Democrats Can Stop Losing Elections,” his favored candidate in the Virginia gubernatorial primary got blown out by moderate Ralph Northam, who went on to trounce the Republican in the general election.

In 2018, Sanders waded into the Michigan governor's race and backed Abdul El-Sayed, a young, far-left candidate. El-Sayed lost every county in the state to the more mainstream Gretchen Whitmer. She went on to soundly beat the Republican by promising not a “revolution” but rather to “fix the damn roads.”

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This pattern repeated itself throughout the country. Sanders and his political organization backed candidates at every level, to little or no avail. Their endorsees did not flip House seats from red to blue in 2018, proving that his ideas work only in safely Democratic places.

All of this means that “How Bernie Won” is basically a book of fiction. Sanders has never won anything that really matters outside of Vermont, and all the available data shows that his ideas are politically toxic. Yet a week before primary voting begins, he is surging in Iowa, New Hampshire and California.

Democrats now face a monumental choice. Deciding which presidential candidate should go head to head with Donald Trump is the paramount political calculation of our lifetimes. In the past, when Bernie Sanders has declared himself and his ideas to be “winners” in red and purple areas, it has turned out to be demonstrably false. Democrats must not be fooled by him now.

Matt Bennett is executive vice president and Lanae Erickson is senior vice president of Third Way. Follow them on Twitter: @ThirdWayMattB and @LanaeErickson

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

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