Bernie Sanders’ Southern Whitewash

The Sunday before the raucous Democratic  debate in Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulos to discuss the race and his conviction that he is the better general election candidate than Hillary Clinton. As he was channeling his inner Bob Dole to make the point that “Bernie Sanders is the stronger candidate,” Stephanopoulos interjected to point out that Clinton is getting more votes than him. Sanders paused briefly before brushing off the point by saying “Well, she’s getting more votes. A lot of that came from the South.”

On its surface, this seems like a curious retort. In a national primary, it doesn’t matter which region a candidates’ support comes from; all that matters is how many votes and delegates they win. Sanders, however, followed up on this line of thinking in the debate four days later, saying that the South is “the most conservative part of this great country”  before downplaying Clinton’s large margins there. While minimizing your opponent’s victories is no political novelty, there are two problems with this argument. The first is that it is completely misleading; the conservative voters Sanders is alluding to are not voting in a Democratic primary. The second is that he’s diminishing the vote of black Southerners, the most historically disenfranchised group of voters in the country.

Contrary to the talking points of Sanders and his surrogates, the voters who turn out in the southern primaries are not conservative representatives of the “Old South.” In the Mississippi primary, 71 percent of voters were black, and African-Americans also accounted for the majority of voters in the Alabama, Georgia ,and Louisiana contests. In every southern primary, the share of black voters participating is substantially higher than their overall share of the population, and in all these states Clinton won at least 80% of their vote.

Sanders is surely aware that these primaries are dominated by black voters, particularly since his campaign essentially ceded most of them to Clinton due to his poor poll numbers with that group. It’s unlikely of course that Sanders, who was a civil rights organizer, is attempting to sound the alarm about black voters. Instead, he’s trying to capitalize on more general cultural prejudices about the south. Given the crimson red conservatism of many southern states, voters naturally assume that their primaries would reflect that to some degree and Sanders is likely trying to evoke the image of Confederate-clad Southern conservatives marching to the polls in support of Clinton. Unsurprisingly, a quick a look at the exit polls shows that Sanders did far better with southern whites than he did with minority voters. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it belies his disingenuous insinuation that Clinton is winning the south because of its conservative bent. Perhaps Sanders should focus on broadening his coalition instead of diminishing voters who aren’t supporting him.

The Fading Revolution

Since his New Hampshire victory, Bernie Sanders has slowly faded as a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton and regressed to the role of a beloved but unlikely candidate for the nomination. As Clinton has piled up endorsements from superdelegates and alternated between shaky and convincing victories, there has been no small amount of indignation from Sanders’ supporters over the various injustices and conspiracies that have detoured his path to the nomination. There have been many grievances aired on social media over a variety of issues, from the kerfuffle over coin flips in Iowa to the complaints about the “undemocratic” nature of the primary (see delegates, super) to the apparently serious suggestion that The Onion, having been bought by a company owned by a major Hillary supporter, was now a pro-Hillary outlet.

It’s not unusual for the supporters of a candidate to complain about the process or perceived wrongs committed against their steed. In this case, however, they ignore a fairly obvious point, which is that Sanders actually was in a position to challenge and even win the nomination. Although Hillary may have gotten some breaks along the way, more endorsements, and a friendly story in The Onion, none of that should take away from the fact that the nomination is slipping away from Sanders not because it’s being stolen, but because of the simplest possible reason: he isn’t winning enough votes.

Before and after his convincing New Hampshire win, Sanders had chances to win critical states and feed the innate media desire for a hotly contested primary. His 0.3 percent loss in Iowa, though insignificant in terms of delegates, denied him bragging rights for winning the first two states. After New Hampshire, Sanders had a winnable contest in Nevada, where the final Real Clear Politics polling average had Clinton up by 2.4 points, but Clinton more than doubled that margin before absolutely crushing Sanders a week later in South Carolina. By the time results came in on Super Tuesday, it was clear that Sanders, despite a few wins that night, had stalled on his narrow path to the nomination. Sanders has won three of the past four states since then, but Clinton won the biggest delegate prize of the group by taking Louisiana.

As the delegate math has gradually made Sanders’ nomination less likely, many liberal voters and writers have turned their ire on the system. The New York Daily News, Huffington Post, and other liberal outlets have carried stories on the “rigged” Democratic primary process, while a MoveOn petition decrying the role of superdelegates has collected nearly 200,000 signatures.

This narrative of woe ignores the fact Sanders isn’t winning the popular vote. In states that have voted or caucused so far, Clinton has won 4.2 million votes, compared to 2.7 million for Sanders (excluding Iowa, which doesn’t release raw vote totals for its caucus). This is hardly an insignificant margin. On top of that, despite winning 61.1% of votes cast, Clinton has actually only claimed 58.5% of the pledged delegates (which are delegates allocated based on vote/caucus totals). There’s no conspiracy behind this statistical quirk, but it certainly belies the notion that Sanders is being cheated when he’s losing the popular vote and receiving delegates at a slightly higher proportion than his opponent. Far from being an aggrieved underdog, Sanders is a formidable opponent who’s raised tremendous amounts  of money, run a great campaign, but simply isn’t beating Clinton at the ballot box.

As for the superdelegates who currently account for most of Clinton’s massive lead in delegates, it should be remembered that a primary election is a party function, not an election for public office, and it can be carried out however those in the party deem fit. In the past, the process was almost entirely dictated by party insiders and, after years of complaints, both parties have moved to comparatively democratic systems. However, in the Democratic process, party insiders still obviously maintain a certain a degree of influence. That said, if Sanders was winning state after state, it is unlikely that they would be able to deny him the nomination. Hillary Clinton tried to use superdelegates to eke past Obama in 2008 but failed due to his popularity at the voting booth. It should also be remembered that, for all the grumbling about the system, there are reasons to leave a role for party heavyweights. The Republican Party right now surely wishes it had a firewall of superdelegates capable of impeding Donald Trump’s belligerent march to the nomination (as FiveThirtyEight noted today).

The most critical impetus for Sanders deflating nomination is the fact that he hasn’t won over critical groups in the Democratic coalition, most notably African-American voters. While it may be frustrating to his supporters that the former Civil Rights activist is losing the black vote to a woman who many associate with mass incarceration, for whatever reason Sanders has simply been unable to gain much traction in states that aren’t overwhelmingly white. There’s no trickery behind the huge margins of victory in South Carolina and elsewhere. The Democratic electorate, for now at least, is simply saying to Sanders, “You don’t have the votes.” It’s a message he was going to hear one day or another, either during the election or from Paul Ryan on his first day in the White House.