2016 Elections

A Guide for Voters Torn Between Trump and Sanders

These two agree on the problems. New Hampshire voters will know them by their solutions.

New Hampshire sorts it all out.

Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

It's primary day in New Hampshire, and more than a fifth of voters tell pollsters they're still undecided. Believe it or not, some voters there and in other early-voting states can't make up their minds between Donald Trump, the poll leader among Republicans, and Bernie Sanders, who has a big edge among Democrats.

The candidates share qualities that are major motivators for voters in this presidential election: outsiderism and freedom from the influence racket that ties lawmakers' hands. Corporate donors, lobbyists and Wall Streeters have no claims on their campaigns. Domineering super PACs have no chains on their souls.

But there are huge differences between the bombastic billionaire and disheveled socialist. Immigration is a good example. Sure, they agree that the middle class has been dealt a bad hand, and blame porous borders that have let low-paid immigrant workers flow in and displace Americans from good-paying jobs.

But their solutions are like night and day. Trump pledges to build a wall to keep migrants out (which Mexico would somehow pay for) while also deporting 11 million or so undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. In his view, a lot of the Mexicans and Central Americans coming across the border are drug dealers and rapists.

Sanders would let the 11 million illegals remain and eventually earn citizenship. He would install high-tech movement sensors and cameras to protect borders, but he says that building a wall and militarizing the border would be boondoggle expenses. 

Both candidates have a protectionist dislike of free trade. They oppose the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal that President Barack Obama struck last year with 11 other countries because the pacts encourage corporations to close factories in the U.S. and send jobs abroad.

But they part ways on solutions: While Trump would use punishing tariffs to keep out products from low-wage countries -- he told the New York Times the rate should be 45 percent on goods from China -- Sanders would rewrite trade policies so they are "fair and equitable." By that he means he would stop the exodus of jobs by making sure workers are paid decent wages in their home countries (though he's quite vague on how he'd do that).

Climate change may be the issue of starkest disagreement between the two. Trump says "global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax," and has no policies to limit greenhouse gases. (In fact, he wants to slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency -- "what they do is a disgrace.") Sanders believes "climate change is the greatest challenge mankind faces," and has an elaborate proposal to phase out fossil fuels by taxing carbon emissions, banning fracking and stopping offshore drilling. He would expand tax credits to promote wind and solar energy. 

The gulf separating them is wide on social issues, too. Trump opposes same-sex marriage while Sanders has been an enthusiastic supporter of it. Trump, who once described himself as pro-choice, now says he is anti-abortion except for "the caveats" -- in cases of rape or incest or when a pregnancy endangers the mother's life. Sanders says women have a fundamental right to control their bodies and opposes state efforts to restrict abortion access.

Trump favors giving parents taxpayer-financed vouchers to send their children to private schools. Sanders stands with teachers' unions against vouchers, claiming they undermine the public-school system. 

On the issue of gun rights, their positions have moved further apart in the course of their campaigns. Trump has used stronger language to convey his support of guns: "I'm a very big Second Amendment person."  He brags of carrying a handgun on occasion and argues that if more people were armed, there would be fewer victims in mass shootings.

Sanders straddles the gun debate. He thinks gun control should be largely a state matter,  supports stronger background checks and an assault-weapons ban, but opposes holding gun makers liable when their products are used in crimes.  

The odd couple shares an outlook -- and little else -- on military affairs. Trump would outsource the Syria problem to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He would leave other Mideast problems to the Saudis and other wealthy monarchs. In Trump's mind, his strongman demeanor would intimidate enemies, but lately says he's open to sending in troops if U.S. interests are threatened. Sanders, conversely, is a consistent dove. He famously voted against the first Gulf War in 1991 and against invading Iraq in 2003. His foreign-policy goal is to commit neither blood nor treasure.

Trump says he would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which he calls a "complete disaster," with "something terrific." Yet he seems to favor universal coverage, which he'd achieve through competing private plans and government financing (and which sounds a lot like Obamacare).

Sanders implies that his "Medicare for All" proposal would also replace Obamacare. Under his single-payer approach, the government would pick up most of the health-care tab, supplemented by means-tested premiums and tax increases on those earning more than $250,000. But unlike Trump, Sanders would end private insurance.

Trump and Sanders differ in many other ways as well. Yet the voters who see similarities between them aren't dreaming. Both thunder against the status quo and declare that moneyed special interests are a threat to the middle class's future.

And neither can say how he would achieve most of what he proposes, let alone deliver on the promise to create a new American nirvana. They also recognize that, in this presidential election, those omissions have mattered little to voters in either party so far.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.