Bernie Sanders’s ‘non-voter revolution’ is not materializing so far

Bernie Sanders in Phoenix. (Photo by Dennis Gilman)

Last week I posted about the Knight Foundation release of the results of “The 100 Million Project,” the largest survey of chronic nonvoters in history. Fascinating new research into chronic non-voters.

Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign is grounded on the theory that his progressive movement will bring millions of these nonvoters into the November election, driving record turnout especially among disaffected working-class Americans and young people.

Only Barack Obama in 2008 has achieved this — largely driven by fear of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression and a bumbling John McCain.

The New York Times reports today, Sanders Says He’ll Attract a Wave of New Voters. It Hasn’t Happened.

[After] a virtual tie in Iowa, a narrow victory in New Hampshire and a big triumph in Nevada, the first three nominating contests reveal a fundamental challenge for Mr. Sanders’s political revolution: He may be winning, but not because of his longstanding pledge to expand the Democratic base.

The results so far show that Mr. Sanders has prevailed by broadening his appeal among traditional Democratic voters, not by fundamentally transforming the electorate.

In Iowa, for instance, turnout for the caucuses was lower than expected, up 3 percent compared with 2016, and the increase was concentrated in more well-educated areas where Mr. Sanders struggled, according to a New York Times analysis; in the Iowa precincts where Mr. Sanders won, turnout increased by only 1 percentage point.

There was no sign of a Sanders voter surge in New Hampshire either, nor on Saturday in Nevada, where the nearly final results indicated that turnout would finish above 2016 but well short of 2008 levels, despite a decade of population growth and a new early voting option that attracted some 75,000 voters. The low numbers are all the more striking given the huge turnout in the 2018 midterm elections, which was the highest in a century.

There was also no clear evidence across the early states of much greater participation by young people, a typically low-turnout group that makes up a core part of Mr. Sanders’s base and that he has long said he can motivate to get out to the polls. And Mr. Sanders has struggled to overcome his longstanding weakness in affluent, well-educated suburbs, where Democrats excelled in the midterm elections and where many traditionally Republican voters are skeptical about President Trump’s performance, meaning they could be up for grabs in November.

Sanders aides point to the simple fact that he has won, finishing atop all three states with a coalition of young people, working-class voters and people of color — which was crucial to his victory in Nevada. And they say it is still early.

But many Democrats believe that for a general election, their nominee will need to pull in new voters, including those who sat out 2016 and moderate Republicans repelled by Mr. Trump. Even some inside the Sanders campaign expressed concern about the race’s initial turnout.

“I grant that the turnouts aren’t at the level that we would hope,” Representative Ro Khanna of California, one of the campaign’s national co-chairs, said before the Nevada caucuses.

“Do I think that there is room for growth,” he said, “and do I think that Senator Sanders would have liked the numbers to have been even further up among voters of color, among young voters, among working-class voters? Absolutely.”

* * *

Mr. Sanders’s rivals have rejected the premise that he will expand the Democratic Party’s base, saying he is too rigid in his worldview. “Senator Sanders believes in an inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans,” Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., said in his concession speech in Nevada on Saturday.

As Mr. Sanders and his opponents prepare for the South Carolina primary on Saturday, The Times’s analysis of the first three states show some challenging signs for his goal of producing a surge in turnout. In New Hampshire, for instance, turnout increased far less in townships he won than it did in townships won by Mr. Buttigieg and by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

The share of the electorate made up of first-time Democratic voters also decreased in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada compared with 2016. And unlike four years ago, when Mr. Sanders mobilized far more first-time voters than Hillary Clinton did (averaging a 30-point lead over Mrs. Clinton across the three states), he had only a modest 10-point edge over his closest rival, Mr. Buttigieg, in that metric this time around.

Among young people, entrance poll data showed that the share of those voters remained essentially unchanged across the three early states. Participation was basically flat in precincts and townships in New Hampshire and Iowa where 18- to 24-year-olds made up more than 50 percent of the population.

* * *

Although Mr. Sanders has not yet realized his goal of spurring greater voter turnout, there are signs his campaign strategy is flourishing in other respects. One of the biggest changes between his previous presidential bid and the one this year is that he now seems to fare as well among nonwhite voters as his nearest rivals.

In Nevada, Mr. Sanders won nonwhite voters by a 19-point margin, according to an entrance poll, far greater than his 10-point margin among white voters. The result is consistent with recent national surveys, such as ones this month by Monmouth University and NBC/Marist, which show Mr. Sanders winning a higher vote share among nonwhite than white voters.

His campaign aggressively courted Latinos in the state for months, sending out mailers, knocking on doors and making calls urging them to caucus. In the end, Mr. Sanders won Latino voters by an overwhelming 51 to 17 percent margin, according to the entrance polls, a feat that would leave him well positioned in Texas and California on Super Tuesday.

Yet Latino voters, surprisingly, appeared to represent an even smaller share of the Nevada caucus electorate than they did four years ago, according to entrance poll results, even as the same polls showed Mr. Sanders riding their overwhelming support to victory statewide.

Larry Cohen, a longtime adviser to Mr. Sanders who serves as chairman of Our Revolution, the organization that spun out of the senator’s 2016 presidential campaign, said it was incumbent upon grass-roots groups and the 2020 campaign “to demonstrate that we can significantly boost turnout,” especially in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

During a rally at the University of Houston on Sunday after his commanding victory in Nevada, Mr. Sanders — as he had in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — aspired to a “large voter turnout” on Super Tuesday, when voting takes place in Texas and 13 other states.

Counting on inspiring chronic non-voters to actually turn out to vote in November is a risky strategy, to say the least. These chronic non-voters already had their “once in a lifetime” event with Barack Obama in 2008 (69,498,516), and in case you have forgotten, entirely failed to show up in 2010, and dropped off in numbers for Obama in 2012 (65,915,795).

On Saturday, longtime Democratic strategist James Carville chided voters who believe that Sanders will win the general election by galvanizing a group of Americans who don’t usually turn out to vote, saying that belief is akin to “climate denial.” James Carville Says Media Isn’t Telling Voters ‘Risks’ of Bernie Sanders Victory:

“The entire theory that by expanding the electorate and increasing the turnout that you can win the election is the equivalent of climate denial. When people say that, they’re as stupid to political science is as to a climate denier to an atmospheric science,” he said. “If you’re voting for him because you think he’ll galvanize heretofore sleepy parts of the electorate, then politically you’re a fool. And that’s just a fact.”

The “Ragin’ Cajun” has always been colorful in his blunt assessments.

Martin Longman at Political Animal blog looks at the Knight Foundation study of chronic non-voters and comes to the same assessment. Bernie Sanders and the Non-Voter Revolution:

A new study of non-voters by the Knight Foundation confirms everything I thought I knew about the prospects for winning a presidential election through heightened voter mobilization. Whatever the intrinsic merits of increased civic participation as an electoral strategy for the Democrats against Donald Trump, it is highly dubious.

The report examined 12,000 “chronic non-voters in America, across the country and in key battleground states.” Their bottom line finding is that if all these people went to the polls, the Democrats would increase their popular vote margin and lose the Electoral College even more decisively than in 2016.

Of all the battleground states, my home base of Pennsylvania had the worst numbers. Trump leads here with non-voters by a 36 percent to 28 percent margin. This is consistent with my impression that most of the untapped vote in the Keystone State is composed of white voters who have little to no higher education. A similar situation holds for Virginia, Florida, and Arizona. Of the nine battleground states where the study questioned non-voters, only Georgia showed an advantage for a generic Democrat over Trump that is outside of the survey’s margin of error.

Another suspicion of mine was confirmed too; Bernie Sanders would fare best among this group largely because he’s not perceived as a typical Democrat and his calls for systemic change match the sentiments of non-voters. It’s this sentiment that explains why Trump does so well with this group and it’s also why more conventional politicians, like Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney, have little appeal to them.

In [Meagan] Day’s estimation, Bernie Sanders, like Trump, is appealing to people who don’t typically vote because he has managed to put some distance between himself and the Democratic Party establishment. “There are a lot of people who like Donald Trump who don’t necessarily love the Republicans,” she notes. “When we look at who doesn’t vote, we’re looking at people who are feeling alienated from the political process because they feel like there’s nothing on offer from them from either party. And they don’t get the sense that anybody wants to fight for them.”

…In a New York Times survey of swing state nonvoters, Sanders was the most popular Democrat, besting Trump by 4 percentage points, while Warren was actually 1 point less popular than Trump among nonvoters. The same survey showed that between Democratic voters and nonvoters who favor Democrats, fewer nonvoters consider themselves “very liberal” or say they want a candidate who “promises to fight for a bold progressive agenda,” but more nonvoters than voting Democrats want a candidate who “will fundamentally change America.” The Times survey also showed that more Democratic-leaning nonvoters than Democratic voters in swing states support single-payer health care.

Armed with this data, perhaps it is easier to understand my point of view. Winning Pennsylvania appears to be a prerequisite for a Democrat hoping to defeat Trump. Bernie Sanders is using an approach that intuitively makes no sense in Pennsylvania, which is to trust in mobilizing low-proclivity voters to the polls using a populist approach that will hurt his performance badly in the suburbs where Democrats have been surging massively over the last four years. In general, low proclivity voters in Pennsylvania heavily favor Trump, so higher turnout is not going to help a generic Democrat.

Yet, Sanders is not a generic Democrat. And, for this reason, he might be able to win here using this approach while other Democrats would fail. Perhaps his best argument is that this election will have historically high turnout and he’s best positioned to compete for those votes in Pennsylvania.

But that’s highly speculative and tremendously risky. It’s also not something most Pennsylvania Democrats want to try because even if it were to succeed for Sanders it might not be a success for them. This is what I tried to explain in my piece: Bernie’s Coalition Doesn’t Overlap With Dem’s House Majority. The short version is that the Democrats have recently won scores of federal, state, and local races in the suburbs and those seats could be at risk if the top of the ticket underperforms. The shape of the electorate matters a lot, as we know from watching Clinton win the popular vote and lose the election.

But Clinton actually lost the popular vote in Pennsylvania, which is why I began arguing immediately after the election that the Democrats needed to get away from a strategy that relied solely on the suburbs and instead focus on winning back some support in rural areas and small towns. Sanders would create a test-case for that, but it’s really flying in the face of all the momentum the Democrats have made using the suburban approach.

A simple way of putting this is that Donald Trump has more say in how the country is polarized than any challenger could ever have. His policies and behaviors have pushed suburbanites away from the GOP and given the Democrats a House majority based on their support. The party needs to protect that majority and the new officeholders certainly prefer a strategy premised on winning over rather than alienating their constituents.

I’d prefer a left-wing coalition that is more in the FDR mold of representing working people first and foremost. The country club folks could go back to complaining about how the unwashed are getting more than their fair share rather than constituting the backbone of the Democratic majority. But Trump doesn’t really allow this shape to take form, and the Democrats would be foolish to toss away easy seats in a theoretical effort to win difficult ones.

Those who believe in Sanders, trust that he can pull off a win by mobilizing non-voters. They’re probably right that he’s the only Democrat running who has a chance at victory with this approach. But non-voters in battleground states are currently leaning to Trump, so this strategy looks perilous and it has a serious downside.

The downside is that a lot of Democratic officeholders do not see the strategy as serving their self-interest, which means many of them will reject it or try to keep their distance. The cost comes in a lack of party unity, and it’s hard to measure how lack of unity might impact the campaign.

There is no absolutely safe strategy. The Democrats could nominate a more mainstream candidate who is broadly liked in the suburbs and discover that way too many Trump-leaning non-voters turn out in November and swamp them at the polls. But this strategy would also keep the party more united, and that counts for a lot.

None of this is really that complicated. If the Democrats nominate a candidate who is not actually a Democrat, they’ll be splintered as a party but probably have more appeal to folks who don’t really like Democrats (or Republicans) in the first place.

I guess my biggest worry is that I have doubts about any strategy that depends on people doing what they have not done in the past. I have too much experience with people who suffer from addiction to believe that this is often a winning bet.

My political science training and experience forces me to agree with Longman that this is a risky strategy which depends on people doing what they have not done in the past. Making certain all of your reliable base voters turn out to vote seems a far wiser strategy. There are more Democratic voters than Republican voters in America. Go after the low hanging fruit first.


  1. Latest from Nate Silver. The south is a weakness for all Democrats since the only states that might go blue in the national election are Florida and North Carolina.

    So does South Carolina or any southern state really tell how black voters will vote nationwide? I don’t know.

    Biden will probably win SC by a narrow margin, so I guess we’ll see if it resurrects his campaign.

    Nate Silver
    The last 12 polls we’ve entered into our database for Bernie Sanders in Southern states: 20 (NC), 21 (SC), 23 (SC), 18 (FL), 20 (TX), 13 (OK), 23 (SC), 13 (FL), 11 (FL), 19 (SC), 23 (TX), 23 (NC).
    Nate Silver
    Not terrible or anything (other than FL) but every single one is below his national poll average. The South seems like a relative weakness for Sanders.

    • Nate Silver on Super Tuesday…

      Nate Silver
      So to put the states in buckets from Bernie’s standpoint:

      Strong: VT, CA, UT, CO
      Above-average: ME
      Average: TX, NC, VA, TN
      Below-average: OK, AR
      Poor: AL

      Special cases*: MN, MA, AS

      MN and MA would be strong for him, but he faces home-statute candidates. Who knows about AS.

      Nate Silver
      · 18h
      Super Tuesday win probabilities (NOT vote share!).

      Note: These may change significantly based on SC and other stuff. I’m listing everyone who’s >=5%.

      CA—Sanders 79%, Biden 9%, Bloomberg 6%
      TX—Sanders 59%, Biden 26%, Bloomberg 11%
      NC—Sanders 52%, Biden 24%, Bloomberg 20%

      VA—Sanders 49%, Biden 24%, Bloomberg 24%
      MA—Sanders 57%, Warren 26%, Biden 8%, Bloomberg 5%
      MN—Klobuchar 49%, Sanders 45%
      CO—Sanders 83%, Warren 6%, Biden 6%
      TN—Sanders 45%, Biden 33%, Bloomberg 17%
      AL—Biden 55%, Sanders 25%, Bloomberg 18%

      OK—Sanders 36%, Bloomberg 31%, Biden 26%
      AR—Sanders 40%, Bloomberg 28%, Biden 22%, Buttigieg 7%
      UT—Sanders 87%, Warren 5%
      ME—Sanders 67%, Bloomberg 10%, Warren 9%, Buttigieg 7%, Biden 7%
      VT—Sanders >99%
      AS—Sanders 38%, Biden 26%, Bloomberg 23%, Warren 8%

  2. From Democracy Now, video at link:

    Bernie Sanders’s Key to Success in Democratic Primary? Organizing in Black & Latinx Communities
    STORYFEBRUARY 25, 2020

    Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign continues to ride the wave of its decisive victory Saturday in the Democratic presidential caucuses in Nevada. Sanders’s win came with support from young voters, union members and Latinx voters, who strengthened his status as Democratic presidential front-runner. He won 73% of the Latino vote in Nevada, a remarkable victory that supporters hope will bode well heading into Super Tuesday and beyond. Through March 17, the Democratic primary calendar will run through seven of the 12 states where Latinx communities constitute at least 10% of the total eligible voting population.

    We speak to the architect of Sanders’s stunning success in Nevada, campaign senior adviser Chuck Rocha. He’s a political strategist, a self-described “Tex/Mex Redneck” and founder of Solidarity Strategies, the largest Latino-owned and -operated political consulting firm in the country.

  3. Rachel Bitecofer has done excellent work on showing how Dems win, and she called the 2018 Blue Wave. She did a great interview with Michael Moore on his podcast Rumble with Michael Moore.

    Bernie’s been the frontrunner for about ten minutes and I’m already sick of establishment Dems and corporate media telling me they won’t rally around my candidate and that I have to rally around their’s for UNITY.

    I’ll vote for whoever ain’t Trump, but some folks have a funny idea of what unity means.

    • Politico magazine had an interesting piece recently on Rachel Bitecofer, An Unsettling New Theory: There Is No Swing Voter, (excerpt):

      “[T]oday her model tells her the Democrats are a near lock for the presidency in 2020, and are likely to gain House seats and have a decent shot at retaking the Senate. If she’s right, we are now in a post-economy, post-incumbency, post record-while-in-office era of politics. Her analysis, as Bitecofer puts it with characteristic immodesty, amounts to nothing less than “flipping giant paradigms of electoral theory upside down.”

      Bitecofer’s theory, when you boil it down, is that modern American elections are rarely shaped by voters changing their minds, but rather by shifts in who decides to vote in the first place. To her critics, she’s an extreme apostle of the old saw that “turnout explains everything,” taking a long victory lap after getting lucky one time. She sees things slightly differently: That the last few elections show that American politics really has changed, and other experts have been slow to process what it means.

      If she’s right, it wouldn’t just blow up the conventional wisdom; it would mean that much of the lucrative cottage industry of political experts—the consultants and pollsters and (ahem) the reporters—is superfluous, an army of bit players with little influence over the outcome. Actually, worse than superfluous: That whole industry of experts is generally wrong.”

      Long piece worth the read, makes some interesting points. I think predicting that a generic Democrat is a lock in 2020 at this stage is not supportable by any evidence. I wouldn’t be encouraging complacency — just ask Hillary Clinton about that.

      • In the Moore podcast with Bitecofer, he says basically “so it’s a lock for the Dems”, and Bitecofer says, yes, but don’t tell anyone, because then they’ll get complacent and not turn out and ruin her theory.

        Trump is so repulsive it will send Dems to the polls in record numbers.

        But don’t tell anyone.

  4. It’s a hell of thing no matter how you look at it. We’ve got a criminal enterprise in the White House headed by a bloated, demented, treasonous buffoon and we can’t figure the best way to VOTE HIM OUT.

    Good-bye Democracy or whatever was left of it.

    But I’ll vote for whoever or whatever is running against Trump. And I’ll show up.

    • I am compelled to add that I’m not aware of an actual strategy from Joe, Pete, Elizabeth, Amy, Mike Trump-Bloomberg. I’ve listened to every debate and don’t recall an actual strategy articulated. I’ve heard some talk about “coalitions” and “diversity” but no actual strategy on how to get people to vote. I think there is always an assumption among Democrats that if they present an agenda with populist appeal the voters will show up. But the biggest motivator right now seems to be getting rid of Trump. So there needs to be some balance there.

      Barack Obama turned out the vote because he was the first African American to have a real shot at becoming president. And he is the nation’s best orator since Martin Luther King Jr.

      None of the current Democratic candidates have a distinction that rivals the enormity of what Barack Obama meant to so many people in this country including myself having grown up in the Jim Crow south.

      No candidate competes with that enormity, it is not going to happen again.

      But having said that, I’m okay with the Democratic candidates except for Bloomberg who is another Trump, just shorter and a lot richer.

      • Another thought here as I continue to converse with myself.

        Last night at Bernie’s Town Hall someone asked him when he would announce his choice for VP. This was asked in the context of his needing to get this out there sooner than later to help qualm fears folks might have about him.

        Bernie said it would be presumptuous on his part to do it now but he would guarantee it won’t be an old white guy should he get the nomination. Good joke, got a laugh BUT….

        Let it be Stacey Abrams. A lot of folks think Nina Turner but she could never do for him what Ms. Abrams could do.

        The VP choice is huge for Bernie and Joe.

        • Abrams has stated she doesn’t want VP, she’s planning a run for POTUS.

          But maybe for Bernie or Warren she’d change her mind…

          And what a VP she’d be, she wouldn’t be funeral stand in for POTUS like Pence.

          • Awesome! Thanks Liza! Made my day.

            Please let us have a Pence/Abrams VP debate! Please mom!


            Abrams is the real deal and smarter than the entire GOP put together.

            Pence is dumb as a bag of doorknobs and scared of women.

            Assuming Mother lets him on a debate stage alone with a woman, I have a dollar that says he wets himself on live TV.

            Please make this happen!

      • Hope and Change was powerful stuff, no doubt, (and I miss that guy every day), but “Save Our Democracy and the Human Race and Maybe Even the Entire Planet from President Crazypants” may carry even more mojo.

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