Sanders' Biggest Strength Is His Biggest Weakness

Sanders' Biggest Strength Is His Biggest Weakness
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Part of the core of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s appeal is that he’s been consistently progressive for his entire career. It only takes a quick YouTube search to find videos of him from the 1980s and 1990s talking about exact same issues he’s talking about today.

But the exit polls from Monday’s Iowa caucuses reveal a downside to his longstanding progressive record: He doesn’t do well with moderates or conservatives. And if Sanders wants to upset Hillary Clinton and win the Democratic nomination, this big deficit with ideological moderates could be an insurmountable obstacle.

The map below shows the percentage of Democratic primary voters who self-identified as conservative or moderate in 2008. (There was no exit poll data available for the gray states.)

For Sanders to win the nomination, he probably has to win outside the liberal (often Northeastern) states – and this map shows why that will likely be difficult. Clinton is widely expected do to well in the South due to her solid support from African-Americans. But this map suggests that she might also have an advantage in some less racially diverse Midwestern and Appalachian states (e.g. Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana) where the electorate is more moderate.

There are also obstacles to a Sanders surge in some of the more liberal states. In addition, there aren’t many moderates in the Southwest, but there are large Hispanic populations there. Clinton is popular with Hispanics – she carried them throughout her 2008 primary fight with Barack Obama. So it’s tough to see exactly where Sanders would expand his appeal when you combine his well-documented difficulties with nonwhite voters and his ideological liberalism.

Sanders’ options for fixing this problem are limited. He could attempt to drive up Clinton’s unfavorable ratings by referring to some non-ideological issue such as her email server problems. But that attack might fail – Clinton is a known quantity and many of her flaws are already baked into voters’ perception of her. More importantly, that sort of an attack might damage Sanders’s positive, “happy warrior” image.

Or he could shift some of his policies toward the center to appeal to moderates, but that would seem inauthentic. Sanders is attractive to liberals precisely because he’s a consistent progressive.

He could also try to overwhelm Clinton’s advantage with moderates and conservatives by driving up his margins with liberals. But that might also be difficult. Sanders presented his vision of free college for all, universal health care, campaign finance reform and a crackdown on Wall Street nonstop while campaigning for the last nine months, and yet he won liberals in Iowa only by four percentage points. He lost moderates and conservatives by 20 points.

Sanders has also mentioned using a class-based strategy. There’s evidence this might work. In Iowa, he won voters who make under $50,000 by nine points. But something like Newton’s Third Law – that every action has an equal and opposite reaction – often applies in politics. Clinton won voters who made more than $50,000 by 10 points.

This doesn’t mean that Sanders has no chance. A big enough win in the Granite State could shake up the race by undermining Clinton’s perceived electability. But if Sanders fails to score that big win and then loses in Nevada and South Carolina, his one victory would likely be written off as a fluke.

The Democratic primary electorate has become more liberal, which does give Sanders one advantage. In recent decades, Democrats have lost rural, Southern and Appalachian white voters while gaining ground among urban whites and racial minorities. Those trends haven’t stopped under Obama, so there will likely be more liberals and fewer moderates and conservatives in this cycle’s Democratic primary. This trend already surfaced in Iowa’s results. In 2008, 46 percent of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers were conservative or moderate and only 32 percent fit those categories this time.

That being said, a 20-point disadvantage with even a small group can be tough to overcome. If a state was split 60-40 between liberals and moderates/conservatives and Clinton won the moderates/conservatives by 20 points, she would only need a little over 43 percent of the liberal vote to secure a majority in the state.

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at dbyler@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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