Virginia, We Have a Problem: The Electability of Bernie Sanders

While I don’t think it’s really possible for anyone who actually cares about issues to remain “objective,” occasionally I wander over to various pro-Hillary parts of the internet in order to try to maintain some level of this mysterious adjective. Generally speaking, I don’t bother to comment, I just read.

A few days ago on /r/HillaryClinton I found a link to a tweet that aptly demonstrates the electability issue as I see it.

For most Bernie Sanders supporters, I suspect there’s something extremely disconcerting about this tweet. It is not merely the attempt to co-opt the language of the Sanders’ campaign. Nor is it, despite what Hillary supporters might say, the notion that African Americans are coming out to vote in force (we could only be so lucky). No, the most disconcerting thing about this tweet is the absolute delusion expressed by its author.

This past Saturday, I attended the California State Democratic Convention where aside from taking part in a large showing of public support for Sanders, I had many conversations regarding electability. As someone who isn’t a Democrat, I was surprised to find so many people suffering from similar delusion. It seems many of you who are concerned primarily with democratic victory are quick to recollect a segment done by Lawrence O’Donnell on the GOP prospects in 2016.

To be fair, this video was floated very early in the Sanders community to try and fend off concerns about his electability as well. However, this was long before any of us could begin to imagine the extent to which Trump would dominate the GOP race. So let’s get one thing straight. If you continue to believe that there is some sort of safety blanket in place for whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, there’s not.

The Lesson of South Carolina

There is no disputing that Hillary won huge in South Carolina. There’s no disputing that, particularly among black people, she carries a certain level of enthusiasm in South Carolina. There’s also, however, no disputing that voter turnout was down from 2008. The fact that more black people as a percentage to white came out to vote is not particularly meaningful. And if you try to say that it is, you must equally account for the disinterest of southern white Democrats (yes they exist).

Now, the “objective” observer will attempt to point out something that Bernie has been pointing out in his own defense. Namely, in 2008 you had a three person race. The problem however, is that even if you remove John Edwards entirely, you still end up with lower voter turnout on the Democratic side. The simple fact is Barack Obama represented a unique victory for African American voters in addition to his youthful vigor and progressive message of hope and change.

Yet, while Democratic voter turnout suffered, the GOP voter turnout in South Carolina shot up ~20% from 2012 (which was a high point from 2008 on account of trying to get Obama out). “So what,” you say, “South Carolina votes red in the general anyway.” This is true, however, it’s not just South Carolina. Trump got more votes in Nevada than all the votes cast on the GOP side in 2012. Iowa and New Hampshire saw much of the same.

In short, no matter where you look, GOP voter turnout is off the charts. And I hate to break it to you, Trump is winning. In some cases, he’s winning enough to overcome candidate consolidation and potentially even by wide margins if some of Cruz’s support and most of Carson’s gravitate towards him. What this should tell the “objective” observer is that Trump is turning out the vote in record numbers.

In 2004, as democratic voters attempted to disrupt the Bush regime, South Carolina came out to the tune of ~300,000 people, voting strongly in favor of their northern neighbor’s Senator, John Edwards, and summarily rejecting Al Sharpton. In 2008, voter turnout in the primary went up 76% to ~530,000 to elect our first African American president Barack Obama. This year, 2016, the voter turnout in South Carolina’s Democratic primary was ~370,000, far lower than in 2008, but still higher than 2004.

Combining only the Hillary vs. Obama vote from 2008, removing Edwards completely, we see 435,888 people coming out to vote. The combined total of Bernie and Hillary in 2016 was 366,547, a defecit of 69,341.

But that’s not as bad as it gets, because with Bernie clocking in only a few thousand more than what Edwards took in 2008, this means that Hillary should have received the boon of her and Obama’s turnout in 2008 (had it shown up). But she didn’t. It didn’t.

Instead, Clinton received a mere 270,810. A loss of 165,000+ voters who opted to show up in 2008. Furthermore, if we consider the fact that in 2008 she received 140,990 people, who we can assume are dedicated Clinton supporters, this leaves us with her only taking ~130,000 of the 2008 Obama voters, less than half of his 294,898 total.

Lastly considering the fact that in 2004, turnout was roughly equivalent, there’s not even much of a guarantee that this represent a significant proportion of the “Obama coalition” at all. Aside from an extra 60,000 or so this time around, in all likelihood it represents simply the likely Democratic voter base in South Carolina preferring Hillary over Bernie.

In short, Hillary has lost somewhere between 80% - 100% of the Obama coalition in South Carolina, or perhaps never gained it in the first place.

But She Still Won!

There is no question that Hillary won South Carolina by a large margin, but winning a large percentage proportionally against an opponent in a primary is meaningless with respect to the general, and what we’re trying to look at is electability.

Having begun this article prior to Super Tuesday, and deciding now to wrap it up, I’m able to give similar insights from Virginia. If you go looking you’ll likely find, as I have, the conscious calls for how to defeat the argument that “Bernie wins swing states like Colorado and New Hampshire.” In short, it goes something like, “point to the fact that she won Virginia.” Believe it or not, I originally began this article as a prediction piece with respect to Virginia (hence the title, yet the content mostly focusing on South Carolina).

Rather than cheaply stating that my predictions turned out to be accurate, I’m opting instead to simply give you some of the numbers and similar calculations:

  • 2008 Voter Turnout: 982,792
  • 2008 Clinton Votes: 349,766
  • 2008 Obama Votes: 627,820

Edwards was negligible with only ~5,000 votes.

  • 2016 Voter Turnout: 778,865
  • 2016 Clinton Votes: 503,358
  • 2016 Bernie Votes: 275,507

Subtracting Clinton’s dedicated 349,766 in 2008 from her 503,358 in 2016, we see a mere hard 153,592 cap from the Obama coalition. Note, that’s only 24% of the total he brought out in 2008. In 2004, comparable total turnout was around 350,000 total.

The major difference we see then between South Carolina and Virginia is that voter turnout didn’t seem to suffer as much. However, Hillary seemed to get an even smaller percentage of the difference from 2008, i.e. the Obama Coalition. That is to say, the major difference here is that Bernie seemed to get an equally large (if not larger percentage) or has, perhaps, begun to build his own coalition.


Bernie Sanders got mopped in Virginia and South Carolina. He lost the black vote in a big way which was obviously a huge part of the Obama Coalition. Although Hillary won it large proportionally, she doesn’t seem to be maintaining the gains made in 2008. This spells significant trouble if she’s the nominee. Not because South Carolina is likely to turn blue any time soon, but because as stated earlier, the lynchpin of “the blue wall” as it’s called, is in fact Virginia.

Despite having lost heavily in the state, the only evidence that any coalition still remains in any significant sense or is being built independently is the 275,507 votes that went to Bernie.

Hillary just isn’t keeping voters interested and while Bernie has had a hell of a struggle with the black vote, he seems to be the only glimmer of hope the Democrats have for maintaining strong swing state advantages in the general. I’ll be looking forward to doing similar comparisons when Florida and Ohio are over, but I don’t suspect they’re going to look much different.

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