Could Bernie Sanders Have Won? Part 2: The Vote Types

This second post in a series on whether Bernie Sanders could have won the election will look generally at the three “types” of voters in 2016: Bernie Supporters, Hillary Supporters, and Trump Supporters. After talking about those three voters, we will explore the general electorate through the lens of general political theory and the current political climate.

(see the first part of the series here.)

Why vote trump?

Many postmortems already exist about Trump’s winning coalition and the multitude of reasons for Hillary’s loss, but at least a cursory look at this data will be necessary to understand if Sanders would have been able to flip those attitudes and values. There are four main factors regarding Trump I want to look through: 1) Trump supporters and the relationship to authoritarianism, 2) Committed Trump supporters who were viewed as more “locked in”, 3) Low overall favorability that didn’t seem to hurt Trump and 4) Negative stories that did not seem to phase the most committed Trump supporters.

1) Trump supporters lean authoritarian. Politico ran a story entitled The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter in which Matthew MacWilliams found that “education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate.” The only statistically significant variables were “authoritarianism, followed by fear of terrorism, though the former was far more significant than the latter.” He conducted the study by asking people questions about their parenting style and mapping it to whether that style followed an authoritarian model.

2) This interesting story out of five-thirty-eight, if the results can be applied generally, suggest that Trump had a “net gain” of 2.3% from people in the Midwest who weren’t with him in October while Clinton lost 1.7% of those who were with her in October (89% of the people in the Panel Survey did not change their preference). The other important finding, however, was that:

While no one moved from Trump to Clinton, 0.9 percent of our respondents moved from Clinton to Trump. Although that 0.9 percent isn’t a lot, those changes are especially influential, since they simultaneously reduce Clinton’s tally and add to Trump’s. If there were a comparable swing in the national electorate, 1.2 million votes would move to Trump.

Nate Silver, as a result, suggested that the Trump voter was locked in while the Clinton voter was not and also highlights the high degree of friction necessary to move a Trump voter toward any other candidate. Bernie would have faced an uphill battle flipping Trump voters.

3) Pundits like Harry Enten were quick to admit their folly after the election when Trump’s historically high unfavorables didn’t seem to matter. Enten noted that although “they both have terrible favorability ratings . . . we’re now at the point in the campaign when that difference suggests Clinton has a clear advantage.” Pundits continue after the election to tout Trump’s historically low approval ratings (although some note that he does seem to have a floor to that disapproval which he never goes under), but we should continue to heed Enten’s warning about whether Trump’s negatives matters in this age of Trump.

4) Accusations of rape, tapes of him using the word pussy, workers that he underpaid or never paid, and Trump University never seemed jto hurt Trump. Why, time after time, did these stories never cripple Trump’s presidency?

Why vote hillary?

We must also look at the support of Hillary to understand if Sanders could have done something that Hillary did not do to swing the campaign. Let us look now at the data behind Hillary’s supporters. There are a few traits: 1) they tend not to be loud or in your face about their Hillary support and this group tends to be extremely diverse, 2) They tend to be pragmatic about their goals, 3) stories about Hillary supporters tend to go underreported.

1) As Matthew Yglesias writes in his story for Vox that the Hillary Voter constitute a new “silent majority.” Written {obviously) before the election Yglesias opines that:

Clinton crowds aren’t as big, and her voters aren’t as loud or as interesting to the media. But there sure are a lot of them. And it’s about time we acknowledge them and their emergence as a new silent majority that reelected America’s first black president and is poised to elect its first woman. . . .

Data from the Pew Research Center shows that Republicans enjoy the allegiance of the vast majority of white voters without a college degree — a trend that Trump will, if anything, accelerate. Democrats, meanwhile, enjoy overwhelming majorities among people of color, who now comprise almost 40 percent of their party — a trend that Trump will, again, accelerate. White Democrats these days are mostly college graduates, and mostly women. And while white male Democrats will back Clinton over Trump, they went pretty overwhelmingly for Sanders in the primaries. Clinton’s core coalition is composed of racial minorities and well-educated women, especially unmarried ones.

Clinton also enjoys the support of more than 70 percent of LGBTQ Americans and is trouncing Trump with Jewish voters by higher margins than any 21st-century Democrat.

2) Also from the Yglesias article, we find that the Hillary voter tends to want “candidates who will advance their interests in concrete, specific ways.” Hillary supporters do not favor rhetoric, but rather care about what can be accomplished and want to see the steps necessary to accomplish soecific, measurable goal. They shoot not for the moon, but will back “a candidate who is offering specific forms of assistance — middle-class tax cuts, more subsidies for child care and higher education, immigration reform, policing reform, etc. — rather than holding out for someone who will deliver an overwhelming message of cultural solidarity.”

3) In an article similar to Yglesias, Eric Sasson for New Republic makes an interesting assertion that:

We never hear that Hillary Clinton has “momentum”—what she has is a “sizable delegate lead.” No one this cycle has described Clinton supporters as “fired up”—it’s simply not possible that people are fired up for Hillary. No, what we gather about Clinton from the press is that she can’t connect. She has very high unfavorable ratings. People think she is dishonest and untrustworthy. She is not a gifted politician. She is a phony. Hated by so many. The list goes on.

Considering that narrative, one would expect Clinton to be faring far worse in the primaries. Instead, she currently holds a popular vote and delegate lead over Sanders that far surpasses Obama’s lead over her at this point in the race in 2008.

This is no accident. An examination of Clinton voters and their motivations might reveal that the narrative that most media outlets have been feeding us this election cycle is dubious at best. Because if the biggest vote-getter of either party is Hillary—by a large margin—then that suggests the electorate is not necessarily as angry as pundits claim. It further suggests that perhaps some people are tired of hearing about how angry they are, and are quietly asserting their opinions at the ballot box.

Why vote bernie?

1) Bernie did better amongst the young crowd. Describing the Bernie voter is somewhat of a conundrum because the one common theme appears to be age. While Clinton did better among Black and Hispanic Americans, young Black and Hispanic Americans voted in larger numbers for Bernie. Young coalitions — as pointed out by Philip Bump in the Washington Post — don’t vote in high enough numbers to create a winning coalition. The cross-currents about race, however, cut sideways when considering that many influential black thinkers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, and Cornell West voiced support for Bernie while the majority of black Americans threw their support behind Hillary (although, to be fair, Coates said that he should not be construed as a “supporter” of Bernie’s in an interview). Black intellectuals seem tired of backing candidates that “need a black friend” (so to speak) and are on the lookout for real change in the candidates they support. For more on the ideas of intellectual blacks, read the following excerpt from Vox:

Christopher Whitt, a professor at Augustana College in Illinois, summed up the black intellectual critique before the Nevada caucuses, at a Las Vegas event called “Political Revolution: a Discussion of History and Black Politics.”

“We have allowed ourselves to become a commodity too many times,” Whitt said to an assenting crowd. “We have to reeducate ourselves. We have to take the lead of the young people, when they shout ‘Black Lives Matter’ instead of” picking timidly at politicians. “Think about it. Whenever we have an opportunity to shake things up, we have to shake things up.”

2) Which leads us to the second aspect of Bernie voters: they were irregular voters. According to data from fivethirtyeight, even when accounting for those who would not have been able to vote, “Clinton voters were still 5 percentage points more likely to have voted in 2012 and 9 percentage points more likely to have voted in 2014 than Sanders voters.”

3) Bernie supporters most obviously and vocally voice their love of progressive policies. You can often hear the Bernie supporter talking about the inequality of the 1%, socialism, and wall street reform. Writing for The Nation, Heather Gautney said it best by:

Bernie Sanders broke that consensus by reviving the New Deal of FDR Democrats. Hillary Clinton, of course, went on to win the majority of delegates. But heading into Philadelphia, she still needs to win over a significant portion of Sanders’s base supporters. Sanders was clear early on that his campaign aimed to fortify a grassroots movement, not himself as a candidate. He identified the platform as a way to register the Democratic Party’s commitment to a progressive agenda—a kind of peace treaty between the DNC and the political revolution, but also an historical marker of dissent from the party’s neoliberal agenda.

Bernie supporters anger points to what they view as a rightward turn of the democratic party in the 90s under the Clinton regime. The Bernie supporters call for a more progressive America more responsive to the needs of the poor and the downtrodden. While some Hillary supporters might argue that Clinton’s campaign platform mirrored Bernie’s new consensus, Bernie supporters often see themselves as the purest version of progressivism unscathed by voting for the Iraq War or pursuing hawkish policies in Syria as Clinton did as Secretary of State.

Young voters and the issue of “labels”

Nate Silver analyzed an interesting study on many young voters that I want to bring up here before I totally close the book on the Sander’s voter. Young voters enjoy labels and two of the most popular labels are “socialist” and “libertarian.” While the two terms seem like polar opposites, Silver did an assessment of the General Social Survey and found that when you put the numbers on a 100 point scale, young people never “fall far from the tree” (so to speak) in their views from other Americans on income redistribution. Here is the graph:

[Image: https://herohighschool.quip.com/-/blob/SLMAAAtj9yl/hHT5RnIndy4Er6tuNVvEWA%5D Silver notes that “The cynical interpretation of this is that the appeal of both “socialism” and “libertarianism” to younger Americans is more a matter of the labels than the policy substance. Relatedly, it’s hard to find all that much of a disagreement over core issues between Clinton and Sanders, who voted together 93 percent of the time when they were both in the Senate from 2007 to 2009.”

The electorate in general

We must also consider the electorate in general before we can make an informed decision as to whether Bernie might have swung the election in either direction. The generally accepted view of politics, also know as “the folk theory” of democracy, espoused by Christopher H. Achen & Larry M. Bartels in their book Democracy For Realists claim that what people see and what people believe do not always align. To take from the book of Achen and Bartels:

direct primaries ultimately made both major parties’ presidential nominations “more democratic” in crude populist terms while diluting the influence of political professionals, whose firsthand knowledge of the competing candidates’ strengths and weaknesses had helped to weed out amateurs and demagogues.

The reference here to the direct election of senators (as a result of the 17th amendment) stated that Senators would now be chosen by “the people” instead of a group of party insiders in smoke-filled backrooms. Such a destruction of secret political party meetings might seem like a win for democracy, but, in fact, the average person tends to be uniformed about the important policy decisions that presidents make. People — from Plato to modern times — argue that purer democracies do not necessarily lead toward better governments. To take another excerpt from their book:

The performance of the economy over the course of a president’s entire term—which provides a better measure of changes in voters’ welfare, and presumably provides a more reliable benchmark of the incumbent’s competence as well—is almost entirely discounted by voters when they go the polls.

Furthermore, they cite a 1996 survey that stated even though the deficit decreased during the Clinton years, more Republican believed and found evidence that the deficit increased:

. . . for Republicans the lack of information was compounded by a partisan desire to see a Democratic administration in a negative light. Indeed, moderately well-informed Republicans had less accurate beliefs than the least informed; a modicum of information was sufficient to discern what they should want to be true, but not enough to discern what was in fact true. They sounded like they were thinking, but no one should be fooled. Democrats behaved in much the same way on other issues.

These findings help to illustrate my first point about the electorate:

1) The electorate was highly partisan (and this partisanship is not a relatively new phenomenon). I created this graph from ANES data to show the partisanship in America over the last 60 years.

[Image: https://herohighschool.quip.com/-/blob/SLMAAAtj9yl/5df98f0Ni83r-1z-fl6fgg%5D

While the overall amount of partisans (both strong and weak) make up a smaller percentage of the electorate than they did in the 1950s due to an increase in voters that lean independent, the overall makeup of the electorate still ranks highly partisan with 62% of the population leaning either weakly or strongly partisan in 2012 — down from 74% in 1952. There appears to be a slight correlation between the increase in those who lean independent with a decrease in strong partisans in the sixties to the mid seventies.

We can say that it would probably take a large “degree of friction” to change roughly 65-75% of the population from their usual voting patterns (the weak and strong partisans). Another quarter or so tend to lean one way or another (this is how I understand those who “lean independent”) — swing voters that tend to vote one way. They might vote one way in one election and another way in another election. Only somewhere between 10-15% even say they are truly independent (the blue line in the graph).

While a large amount of blame for the election on social networks went to fake news, most people don’t go out of their way to read news that disagrees with their preconceived notions. Think back to the last time a news story actually fundamentally changed your point of view. Because of our own biases, we often tend to discount stories that seem to have a partisan bent different from our own. In other words, flipping voters on message alone or through propaganda from the outside rarely changes public opinion for those already viewed as “locked in.” A confluence of factors impact who we vote for, but we must admit from the outset that many of those who regularly read the news do so from a partisan point of view.

2) The debate between filter bubbles in the electorate should not be a “liberal vs. conservative” bubble, but rather an “informed vs. uninformed” bubble. I know as a politics junkie that my Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of articles from Politico, Breitbart, New York Times, Washington Post, Southern Poverty Law Center, and many others (including U.S. representatives whom I’ve “liked” on facebook). Many of my friend’s facebook feeds do not have these same stories. They might sometimes get a news story, but it would be the exception rather than the rule.

3) Rather than viewing politics as a rational argument between opposing sides, I think we ought to view politics as a “quasi-religious commitment.” The “quasi-religious” idea is also borrowed from Achen and Bartels’ book where they state:

In our view, the ideal of popular sovereignty plays much the same role in contemporary democratic ideology that the divine right of kings played in the monarchical era. It is “a quasi-religious commitment,” in Stimson’s terms, a fiction providing legitimacy and stability to political systems whose actual workings are manifestly—and inevitably—rather less than divine.

Human minds tend to try and find patterns in the random events of the universe and where no patterns exist. Humans tend to invent fictions that help us make sense of randomness. Without these essential schema, our minds would not be able to categorize or process all the stimuli that flies by us every hour. The less informed find themselves more susceptible to strong personalities and more likely turned off by candidates they do not view as exciting change bearers. Labels, which young people view with exhilaration and excitement, help to get out the vote among young voters who will vote for the [insert any label] candidate to make a statement.

4) The electorate had a higher number of undecided voters. When we discuss whether Sanders could have won the election, we will need to consider the undecideds and whether he could flip those undecided votes.

5) Over the long term (since the 1980s), party affiliation seems to be relatively flat. There have been changes, but the numbers as a percent of the population appear to stay flat over the past 30 years, as outlined by this data take from ANES data:

[Image: https://herohighschool.quip.com/-/blob/SLMAAAtj9yl/dVb0X0OpEfSIHNw4nS8NGg%5D

Analysis: What does all this say about Clinton and Sanders?

While the debate still remains largely speculative (as do most horse race analyses), the data here shows that while Clinton did not have a loud majority or a catchy slogan to take down the 1%, she did relatively well if you take fundamentals seriously. So why did such a media narrative exist? I believe that the narrative existed for reasons similar to Hoover’s unpopularity after his first year in office. Walter Lippmann famously pointed out in Harpers that there is a judgment of public officials beyond what would normally be judged of a private citizen — a character which “the public ascribes.” Lippmann’s description of Hoover’s campaign could very easily have been written in a 2016 post-mortem of Hillary:

Mr. Hoover’s first year of office. For to a greater degree than would be true, I think, of any other President, his reputation is a work of art. Mr. Hoover’s ascent to the Presidency was planned with great care and assisted throughout by a high-powered propaganda of the very latest model. He is, in fact, the first American President whose whole public career has been presented through the machinery of modern publicity. The Hoover legend, the public stereotype of an ideal Hoover, was consciously contrived.

Lippmann continues to argue that building up such a propaganda machine inevitably pushes the expectations for candidates through the roof. Lippmann goes on to say that “It is depressing to be elevated too high” or to be “a supreme economist at the tail end of a bull market.” To Lippmann it is better “to be admired, like Mr. Coolidge, for your deficiencies than to have to wear the hairshirt of your own idealism.” The parallels continue when you consider that Hoover’s strong belief in the American system mirrored Clinton’s belief that America is fundamentally good alongside the fact that both Hoover and Hillary had credentials that made them extremely qualified to be president. Hoover boasted of a technocratic background not dissimilar to Clinton’s as Secretary of Commerce and a leader of government running humanitarian efforts after World War I. Like Clinton he believed the country could be saved by complex government programs (they would differ, of course, in the implementation. Hoover preferred voluntary associations while Clinton championed government interventionism both as first lady and as Senator) which could be orchestrated through government coordination.

While Clinton never sat on the presidential throne of America, both Hoover and Clinton faced unprecedented change candidates. FDR ran on a platform of remembering the forgotten man and painted Hoover as an out of touch bureaucrat (sound familiar?). The forces that killed Clinton’s campaign may vey well be the same forces that killed Hoover’s. To quote Lippmann once more before moving on to Sanders:

In his [Hoover’s] world there must be a remedy for every problem; there must always be something to do about everything. He may not know the remedies and solutions, he may find it inexpedient to apply them, but he believes they can and will be found. He is a devotee of the religion of progress, of the faith that man can be master of his fate by studying, inventing, and arranging things. There have been other reformers in the White House but none, I think, who has had his peculiar reliance upon the power of applied intelligence: the traditional American reformer is an apostle of ancient righteousness like [Theodore] Roosevelt or of the messianic hope like Wilson. The popular acclaim which greeted the advent of an “engineer” to the Presidency was a recognition that at last a man had gone to the White House who believed that politics could be conducted by the kind of intelligence which has produced such excellent motor cars, airplanes, and refrigerators.

If you exchange references from Hoover to Clinton and change the messianic message of Wilson to the apocalyptic message of Trump, one might understand why, in the current climate, Clinton lost the election. She talked about building metaphorical motor cars and airplanes when people wanted a messiah. Granted, her message did appeal to more Americans than Trump, but apparently where it mattered, in the land that still elects apostles, Clinton’s message of technocratic government rang just hollow enough to cost her the election. In a world 1 to 3% different, Clinton’s technocracy would have been praised and we would have heard about Trump’s over-reliance on the Midwest. We would be hearing a narrative of how the Midwest, while shifting red, still favors the democrats. Funny how 1 to 3% can change the narrative so much.

So now to the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Did Sanders represent the Christ figure that Michigan longed for? I am of two minds on this matter. Because of the Clinton campaign’s razor thin margins, there is a part of me that believes that Sanders, with all things equal, would have pushed things over the edge. Sanders could have probably blunted Trump’s message of a rigged economy with his own message of an economy rigged against the 99%. Sanders could have probably also answered Trump’s railing against Trans-Pacific-Partnership with anti-trade talks of his own about NAFTA and everything else. He may have gotten those purists who went third party rather than “dirty themselves” by voting for another Clinton. These are all excellent arguments, especially since there were so many postmortem editorials that showed evidence that just enough democrats stayed home to cost Clinton the election.

On the other hand, Clinton’s wide coalition across the country gave her a win in the national popular vote — no small feat — and we should consider if Sanders would have done as well in a popular vote. I think that another post that looks at the history of populist candidates would be helpful in this regard, so expect part three of this series to look at the history of populist presidential candidates. For now, let us suffice it to say that Sanders would have been fighting the same uphill battle that Clinton faced due to the highly partisan nature of the American electorate outlined above. He would have faced in the general an older electorate that is not so easily swayed by the label of socialism which boosted his numbers in the primaries. The socialist label would have probably hurt his favorability ratings as he would have become more well known in the general election. He had ties to communist leaders which would have hurt him in Florida and he apparently wrote a story validating rape (whether satirical or not misses the point). His stance on gun control would have upset a lot of Clinton supporters who historically poll more stringently anti-gun. It is hard to know exactly how all of these things would have played out because each effect would have further affected more variables as the race played out. Let’s leave it here for now and come back for part three of the series.


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