Bernie Sanders was a surprise in 2015 to say the least. The obscure, New Deal style Senator from Vermont announced he was running for President and had very little name recognition, no money and no party support…going against a candidate who had all those in abundance. He shocked everyone with the strength of his polling, crowd sizes and fundraising ability. More importantly, he shocked everyone (Republican and Democrat) with the popularity of ideas written off by most as extinct since Reagan, and too out there for the US.
Despite dedicating a huge amount of resources in Iowa, Clinton won by just .2% taking 23 delegates to Sanders’ 21. Sanders then won New Hampshire by 22% the largest, non incumbent, NH victory in the Democratic Primaries since JFK in 1960. Nevada, which was supposed to be Clinton’s firewall, turned out to be a 6 point victory, with the delegate split being 20-15. Polls have shown Sanders closing the gap nationally, and that he has the support of voters under 45, and especially under 30 (which he wins consistently by over 80%). While acknowledging all this, most dismissed Sanders simply because he had no chance anyway.
Indeed, after Clinton’s big win in South Carolina it was declared over. People, pundits, and articles all spoke about how Clinton had it in the bag, noting constantly her large lead with African American voters, and the dominance of African American heavy states on Super Tuesday would seal the deal.
Sure enough, Clinton won Super Tuesday 7 states, (and American Samoa) to Sanders’ 4 with massive leads in the southern states. It has been declared over, or at least unofficially over and we just need to wait for the inevitable. She also has a massive lead in Super Delegates, which basically gives her a 400 delegate cushion.
While Sanders faces an uphill battle, it is far from over. I think he has a realistic chance to take his fight all the way to the convention, and have a very strong showing while doing so. A path to the nomination may be slim, but it does exist. Here’s how.
First, let’s note Super Delegates are “soft” meaning they are not locked in. They can change their vote whenever they want, and vote for whoever they want want the convention. As has been widely reported, Clinton and Howard Dean held super delegate leads in 2008 and 2004, just to have them all move to Barack Obama and John Kerry.
In terms of “hard” delegates, those won in the state primaries and are locked in to their candidate, Clinton leads 608-413. Large, but far from the 1000-400 picture that is often painted by including super delegates, and there are still 35 states to go. In fact, now that Super Tuesday has passed, the map gets a lot more favorable for Sanders. The map becomes a lot more white, liberal and rural/blue collar.
Super Tuesday proved Sanders can win big in both these types of states. While he did poorly in the south, as expected, it wasn’t reported that he did better than expected in the other states. Vermont was no surprise, but he won quite handily in Minnesota, Colorado and Oklahoma, by 23, 18 and 10 points respectively. Oklahoma’s result, at least the size of victory, was particularly surprising, and shows Sanders can do well even in very conservative states.
Also of note from Super Tuesday. It seems Sanders did very well with Hispanic voters in Colorado. Courtesy of the New York Times:
This syncs up with a poll that had Sanders lead among Hispanics, and also Nevada where it seems he also performed well with that demographic. Also evident from this picture: Sanders did well in places that favored Obama over Clinton in 2008, which also syncs up with results from Iowa, NH and Nevada.
Keeping all this in mind, let’s look ahead. March 5 & 6 has 4 states: Nebraska, Kansas, Louisiana and Maine. It’s very possible Sanders can win 3 of these states, Nebraska, Kansas and Maine, and by solid margins. This would chip into Clinton’s delegate lead a bit, and give Sanders some momentum going ahead, which could be helpful for March 8. Mississippi is likely to be a large Clinton win, but Michigan has 130 delegates, and is more favorable to Sanders. His message about creating jobs, boosting wages and railing against trade bills that send our jobs overseas, could play very well in the state. While a win would be spectacular, a strong result would at least be very beneficial both for delegates and chipping away at Clinton’s “inevitability” image.
March 15 is another critical day with 5 states voting, all delegate heavy. The day doesn’t look favorable to Sanders at the moment, so the key will be picking up as many delegates as possible. He can have a good day delegate wise, Florida has a solid amount of white liberals, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio all have solid to large numbers of white working class voters. A win, Ohio and possibly Missouri are likely candidates, will be spectacular for Sanders’ media image, but more importantly he will need to win as many delegates as he can on this day to keep Clinton within realistic striking distance, and to pad his numbers because the map becomes very favorable after this.
Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming are all states either Obama won in 2008 or look favorable to Sanders’ demographics, especially if he continues to do well with Hispanics in the west and working class whites. During this time are two states with a lot of delegates, Wisconsin and Washington, that look very good for Sanders. Winning these states by large margins, which is very possible, would give Sanders some good delegates, capping a span where he can win most of the states.
Then comes New York. A state that is favorable for Clinton, (not only her home state but the New York City area is a base of strong support) but it does also have a high number of white liberals, as well as working class voters. Sanders will need to win as many delegates as possible, possibly by doing very well in upstate NY taking working class voters.
April 26 has 5 northeast states, 3 of which Obama won in 08: Delaware, Connecticut, Maryland while Clinton took Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Sanders can compete in all of these states, with a strong chance to win some. Pennsylvania will be particularly important, given it’s large amount of delegates and it’s very large white, working class population. Outside of Philly and it’s suburban area, much of the state is rural and blue collar, Pittsburgh still has a strong labor tradition, and lots of the state has been hard hit by loss of jobs where Sanders’ message can resonate. This is a state Sanders should focus on, a strong result or even win would be huge.
After this are several states that could be favorable for Sanders: Oregon, North & South Dakota, and West Virginia. Oregon is clearly a strong fit, a white liberal state that went for Obama in 08, and even in July 2015 a poll showed Sanders within striking distance…while polling out of West Virginia shows Sanders very much alive if not leading. A very white, working class state that has been badly hammered by job loss, could be a big win for Sanders. Montana is a white rural state, with a populist streak that Obama won in 08 and the last poll from there indicated a strong support for Elizabeth Warren. Kentucky and Indiana are very conservative states, but white and rural, not far off from Oklahoma. New Mexico is a fairly liberal state, and if Sanders can continue to do well with Hispanics in the west this could be another big win.
Much of these states are small however. There is one state that could be essential, if Sanders was to build momentum in this way described above:
The state has 475 delegates up for grabs, and has large numbers of liberals, college students and Hispanics. In 2008 Clinton won the state 51.5% to 43 and results show Obama did well in the coastal areas, as well as some inland counties, while Clinton took the rest of the state, and won the Hispanic vote with 65%. The liberal vote, (51% of the state in 2008) was split 48-48% between them.
It’s very possible Sanders can win Obama’s support in 2008, and by bigger margins. It’s also possible liberals comprise a bigger number, as has been the case in much of the US. The liberal coastal area alone makes the state tighter for Sanders, and if he can maintain and ideally expand this support among Hispanics, get strong youth turnout, and continues to win Independent voters, California could be a big win for Sanders. If Sanders can make it all the way to California, perhaps even in a good position by successes in earlier states, this could be the state that decides the nomination.
So, after surviving Super Tuesday the map becomes a lot more favorable for Sanders going forward, with some large states that could be in play for him. He can win the majority of states starting tonight going forward, which would help his momentum and image. The biggest hurdle Sanders faces, is how widely it’s reported the nomination is over. As well as other discouraging tactics such as reports including super delegates to lessen the strength of his victories in places such as New Hampshire and Colorado. If Sanders can win states and keep doing so, it can help erode these media portraits, and bring more name recognition to his campaign, helping in bigger states where it will be critical he can win delegates. Voters in a state may like Sanders, but if they feel the campaign is already over, it of course doesn’t matter. This could be come a self sustaining cycle either way. If he finds continuing success, it will continue to strengthen his polling numbers, making him seem more likely, etc etc
Momentum, name recognition, turnout especially from youth and less general appearance of impossibility will be critical for Sanders taking advantage of the demographically favorable states coming up.
One quick note about super delegates. As mentioned earlier, they can change their vote at any time for whoever. Super delegates have never decided a primary, they always back the leading candidate. This is why Sanders must do well as possible going forward. If he has the delegate lead entering the convention, super delegates will back him. If Clinton has the lead, they will back her. Some worry the party may refuse to back Sanders, but I find this unlikely. It would be dangerous to go against the candidate with the lead, and if it was done could be even more dangerous given the unfair treatment and roadblocks many Sanders supporters feel the Democratic Party has given him, and their already voiced concerns about the super delegate itself. There are also over 230 super delegates left unpledged at the moment. If Sanders was to win the majority of states going forward, including some big wins, and continue to strengthen his polling both against Clinton and Republicans (which already look favorable) it’s possible more Super Delegates will pledge for Sanders, a few may even jump from Clinton to him.
Which leads me to a final point: Electability.
Many worry about Sanders’ electability, but this should not be a concern. Sanders can absolutely win the Presidential Election.
There are several factors to keep in mind.
1: Anyone can vote in the general election. This means Independents, who seem to strongly back Sanders.
2: Youth. Sanders has very strong support with the under 30 crowd, and while youth turnout is famously low, they did come out in record numbers for Obama in 2008, and given the fervent support Sanders enjoys, its possible that at lest a small bump in youth turnout will happen, which could be enough to ensure some states on the fence are tipped his way.
3: The blue states will vote blue. The red states will vote red. As always the election will be decided by the swing states. Can Sanders win these states? I think the answer is yes, and this leads to my next two points.
4: The republican candidates. The one with the most broad appeal, John Kasich, has a near 0 chance of winning the nomination. Even if he did, his platform of increasing defense spending, cutting entitlements, and general support of Reaganomics may not play very well, especially against Sanders. His elimination of estate taxes while raising the cigarette tax in Ohio, pushing for increased military spending while cutting entitlements, writes the Sanders “working people paying for the rich” campaign line for him.
Trump and Cruz are intensely disliked outside the Republican Party. Even if every Republican came out to stop Sanders, moderates are no guarantee to support either, some Republicans may just not vote at all if they have Cruz or especially Trump as their nominee. An Independent Trump run would only help Sanders, as would be Republicans get siphoned off to him. Rubio pushes standard Republican economics which again may not fare well against Sanders’ campaign about the working and middle class, creating jobs and boosting wages. “Socialism” as a political attack is nothing to be worried about. It may strengthen Republican support, but it may do very little outside of the party. Recent polls have shown increasing numbers of Americans embracing the word socialism.  I feel perhaps the tactic is actually backfiring on conservatives. When a word is over used it loses its impact, and now that a candidate is no longer running away from the word, even embracing it, as people look at Sanders they may think “Hmmm this is Socialism? I kinda like this guy”. It’s looking very likely that socialism as an insult is losing its impact.
5: Sanders’ ideas. Bernie Sanders has run a campaign dedicated to the middle class. Specifically the erosion of it thanks to jobs sent overseas and stagnant wages. He’s attacked Wall Street excesses, and money in politics. He wants to create 13 million jobs rebuilding the US, boost wages, tax Wall Street speculation to fund tuition free public college and fund Social Security by asking the wealthy to pay into the system. He’s railed against the too big to fail banks which are now even bigger, and Citizen’s United which polls show 80% of Americans disapprove of. Many areas of the US, even conservative ones, do have a deeply populist and anti elitist streak in them.
Will this let Sanders win states like Oklahoma, Utah, Kansas and Alabama? No. However, it will play very well in more moderate, working class states, that will vote Democrat, especially ones that have seen jobs sent away. States like Ohio, Iowa even West Virginia which was a Democratic stronghold into the 90s though has gone increasingly Republican due to increased liberalism, and abandonment of labor, by the Democratic Party. States that some feel could be in play like Pennsylvania or Michigan will almost surely back Sanders and his strongly pro labor, union and working/middle class campaign. Can Sanders platform win in states like Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia and Florida? Absolutely, and he wouldn’t need all. Certain combinations would do the trick, Ohio and Iowa could do it, Florida alone would be enough.
So, does Bernie Sanders have an uphill battle in the Democratic Primary? Yes. He needs to start winning states tonight, win the majority going forward and pick up some large ones. Is it impossible? No. The map favors him and name recognition/momentum could take him a long way. Some of the large states do have demographics in his favor. Bernie Sanders has an uphill road in front of him, but the nomination is not already over, and in fact he can take a legitimate fight all the way to the convention. If Sanders could force a 2008 type primary, perhaps even in a loss he (pushed by supporter campaigning) could be given a cabinet position, as happened in 2008. Sect of Labor Sanders could push his jobs program and wage hikes, perhaps bring in some more progressive economists such as Robert Reich and Joseph Stiglitz. At the very least, be a voice for the progressive movement in the cabinet to keep the Democrats honest. It would surely influence the Democratic Party, with a growing progressive movement and Elizabeth Warren in the waiting.
Sanders campaign was like that of Ron Paul in 2012: Hoping to influence the party, but probably understanding there was a slim chance of winning. Sanders has surpassed everyone’s expectations, perhaps even his own. He will go to the convention and try to leave a lasting imprint on the party, this I am sure of. However, he has the potential to go farther, and it starts this weekend with Maine, Nebraska and Kansas.