Sanders' Hopes Look Dashed, But Sanders-ism Isn't

Sanders' Hopes Look Dashed, But Sanders-ism Isn't
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Story Stream
recent articles

Is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders the future of the Democratic Party?

The question might seem odd. Democrats won the last two presidential elections in part by nominating a young, charismatic, African-American candidate who ran up the score with non-whites, women and young voters. Sanders -- a 74-year-old Jewish man who represents a state that’s 94 percent white -- doesn’t exactly reflect those demographics.

But a candidate similar to the professed socialist might be able to win the Democratic nomination in the not-too-distant future. Delegate math and demographic data show that Sanders will almost assuredly lose to Hillary Clinton this cycle, but recent trends and the demographic breakdown of Sanders’ support suggests that Democrats could soon choose a candidate who closely resembles him ideologically and (in some ways) stylistically.

Sander Isn’t Going to Win the 2016 Nomination

Before we can talk about the future of the Democratic Party, it’s important to nail down what’s going on right now: Clinton is leading the primary by a solid margin and will almost certainly win her party’s nomination. Some simple demographic and delegate math demonstrates why.

According to the latest estimates, Clinton has 1,243 pledged delegates and Sanders has 980. The delegates from the March 26 contests haven’t been fully allocated yet, but it looks like Sanders will need somewhere around 57 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to catch up to Clinton before the convention.

This is a high bar for him because, as Clinton strategist Joel Benenson repeated multiple times on a conference call with reporters Monday, Sanders is “running out of real estate.” In other words, he doesn’t have many more large, favorable states left on the calendar.

This table shows the date, number of available pledged delegates, contest type and modeled Clinton vote share for the upcoming contests. Note that the last column is not a prediction. It shows the results of a simple demographic model based on statewide results so far -- think of it as a baseline that lets you look at which states favor which candidate demographically.

If you’re interested in the details of the statistical model, read this paragraph -- if not, skip to the next one. The simple linear model uses black percentage of the population, Hispanic percentage of the population, the percentage of Obama’s 2008 vote that came from moderates, the percentage of Obama’s 2008 vote that came from liberals and whether the state was a caucus or primary to predict the vote shares in contests up to this point. The model had an R-squared (a measure from one to zero of how well the model explains what it’s supposed to explain) of 0.88, which is not bad considering we’re only using a few explanatory variables and state-level rather than county-level data. Vermont was excluded because Sanders had a home state advantage there. Territories are also excluded. The data come from the American Community Survey, 2008 exit polls and official election results. The model was inspired by similar ones done by Alan Abramowitz and Nate Silver.

Two features in this table jump out.

First, almost none of the upcoming contests are caucuses. Sanders does better in that format, which typically involves low turnout, town-hall style events where his devoted, liberal, activist base can help him win. There simply aren’t that many caucus states left, and the biggest remaining states (e.g. California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Wisconsin) are primaries -- where Clinton often performs better.

Second, the big delegate hauls mostly come from more racially diverse states. Of the five most delegate-rich upcoming contests -- Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California -- only one (Wisconsin) clearly favors Sanders demographically. That’s because the other four states are more racially diverse (Clinton typically does well with African-Americans and Hispanics) and hold primaries.

This all makes getting to 57 percent of the remaining delegates very difficult for the Vermonter. Democratic delegates are allocated roughly proportionally, so Sanders would need to get about 57 percent of the overall vote in the upcoming contests. And if he ends up losing four out of five of the biggest ones, it would be extremely difficult to hit that mark.

The Sanders campaign has also talked about getting super-delegates to shift their support to him at the convention. If he can catch up to Clinton in the pledged delegate race, he might be able to do that. But most of the super-delegates are already in her camp, and it would take a serious shock (e.g. a criminal indictment) for them to decide it’s necessary to overturn a clear primary win for the front-runner.

But Sanders’s Voters Could Be the Foundation for a Future Coalition

Sanders’s delegate woes are a symptom of a larger problem: His coalition simply isn’t big enough. He’s won a bit over 40 percent of the popular vote so far -- that’s not enough to grab the nomination, but if a future candidate were able to appeal to his base and add one or two of Clinton’s factions to it, that candidate might be able to snag the nomination while proposing one of the most liberal platforms in decades.

If a very progressive candidate wanted to follow Sanders’s path, he or she would likely want to woo young voters. They make up a huge part of Sanders’s support.

This graph shows what percentage of the Sanders vote came from 18-29-year-olds compared to the percentage of the electorate that was 18 to 29 years old in a given state (according to the exit polls). The line is a sort of break-even point (e.g. if, in some state, 10 percent of Sanders voters were 18-29 years old and 10 percent of the electorate were 18-29 years old, then that state would be on the line), so points that are farther above the line indicate a more youth-dependent coalition.

In many states, young voters gave Sanders somewhere between a quarter and a third of his votes, despite never making up more than a fifth of the electorate. This matters for future primaries because these voters aren’t going anywhere – physically or politically.  

At the risk of stating the obvious, most younger voters are not going to die in the next four to eight years. That means almost all of Sanders’s voters will be around for the next contested Democratic presidential primary. Clinton’s voters, on the other hand, tend to be much older and some might be slowly replaced by younger, more liberal voters between now and the next campaign cycle.

Also, young voters might stay liberal. Political science research has shown that events in someone’s late teenage to early adult years can have a lasting impact on their long-term political preferences. It’s impossible to tell the future, but events in this primary and general election could cement these younger voters’ liberalism for years to come.

Sanders’s appeal to young voters -- an appeal a future candidate might mimic -- is partially based on policy. Many young people were rocked by the Great Recession and have no Cold War era gag reflex when it comes to terms like “socialism.” That makes voters this age warmer to very liberal economic policies. But I would bet -- and I’m stepping out of the data and into my own experience for a moment -- that Sanders’s style also plays a role. People my age have been the target of a ceaseless stream of ads (TV, Internet, etc.) since birth, and most of them (including many political ones) reek of 50-year-old advertising pros who think millennials buy anything that has a meme and some Internet slang attached to it. I would guess that Sanders’s unvarnished, on-message, issues-only style appeals to people my age by providing a break from that. Some future progressive candidate might do well by imitating that style.  

A future liberal candidate would also want to win liberal voters -- some of whom are young, but some of whom are older. Not surprisingly, Sanders has done very well with this group.

This graph has the same format as the one above, but it tracks how Sanders performs with liberals instead of young voters.

Two clear patterns emerge here. In most states, liberals make up a somewhat larger share of the Sanders coalition than they do the overall electorate. Also, liberals make up a high percentage of the overall electorate. This is a relatively recent change that bodes well for very progressive candidates.  

This table shows the difference between the percentage of Democratic primary voters who identified as liberal in 2008 and in 2016 (where exit polls were available). Needless to say the increases here are large – most often in the double digits. There are many possible reasons for this change – the term “liberal” is less toxic now because of changing attitudes towards marriage equality; liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats have continued to exit their respective parties, etc. – but these numbers do suggest that a very liberal candidate has a much easier path to the Democratic nomination today than in the 1990s or 2000s.

This isn’t to say that a democratic socialist will definitely win the next contested democratic primary. I have no idea how that primary will pan out or even who the candidates will be, but Sanders’s performance shows that a very liberal candidate who manages to woo just one more group (maybe African-Americans, Hispanics or a larger number of women) could make a serious play for the next contested Democratic nomination.

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

Show commentsHide Comments