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Bernie Could, in Fact, Win in November

Steve Phillips
Feb 23, 2016 · 3 min read

Note: This piece does not constitute an endorsement of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. I have contributed financially to both Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, and I intend to remain focused on pushing both campaigns to fully commit to embracing voters of color. As the election enters a potentially decisive stretch where contests will occur in 23 states, I am putting forth two perspectives to balance some popular misconceptions about the Democratic candidates. Today, with this piece, my goal is to upend the notion that Bernie can’t win in November. In my next piece I will offer a case to counter the argument that Hillary Clinton doesn’t deserve Black support.

Completely contrary to current conventional wisdom, Bernie Sanders could in fact be elected president of the United States. Although he faces a steep climb to best Hillary Clinton in the primaries given her stronger support among voters of color, were Bernie to somehow wrest away the Democratic nomination, he could very well win the White House, and such a prospect would not be far-fetched by any measure.

The country’s changing demographics have reshaped America’s electoral calculus, and Obama’s elections illuminated the winning formula in this new multiracial era. This winning formula entails securing 81% of the support of voters of color and 36.5% of the support of whites in an electorate that is at least 28% people of color (as was the case in 2012).

Most conventional wisdom among pundits and talking heads holds that the only way to win the general election is to garner significant support from an amorphous and elusive sector of the electorate called “independents,” who are seen as mostly moderate “swing voters.” It is that conventional wisdom that decrees that Sanders is too far to the left to secure the support of these moderate swing voters, who are overwhelmingly white. But as journalist Jonathan Chait pointed out a few months ago, that sector of the electorate is significantly shrinking. However, what Chait failed to mention is that the entire white portion of the population — including white swing voters — is also significantly shrinking. According to the report States of Change, “73 percent of all EVs [eligible voters] were white working class. Over the next 40 years, that figure dropped 27 points to 46 percent today.” And 38% of those white working class voters voted to re-elect Obama in 2012. Given that reality, any Democratic nominee — including Sanders — who can inspire a large turnout of voters of color who cast 81% of their votes for her or him will likely win.

The Quinnipiac poll that came out last week shows just how close Sanders is to securing the winning formula. In that poll’s head-to-head match-ups with the Republican contenders, Sanders gets an average of 80% the black vote and 40% of the white vote against each of three prospective Republican nominees. It is worth noting that no Democrat has ever received less than 80% of the Black vote in the past 45 years, so that really should be seen as the floor (Obama won 96% in 2008). Ironically, what most analysts fail to appreciate is that there is a very steady and dependable constituency of white people who consistently vote for the Democratic nominee. The average since 1976 is 40%, and the lowest percentage any Democrat has received in the past 40 years is 34%. And as I said above, 36.5% of the white vote is the magic number necessary for victory if you have large and enthusiastic support of people of color. As Quinnipiac shows, Sanders is currently meeting or exceeding that threshold (except against Kasich, where he gets 37% of the white vote).

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Quinnipiac poll, February 18, 2016 & 2012 Exit Poll

Sanders’ early success has already proved that plenty of white folks are feeling the Bern, and the signs suggest that he would have more than enough white support to win. His challenge — and that of Hillary — will be to inspire and mobilize voters of color to turn out in large numbers and give the vast majority of their support to the Democratic nominee. And if that happens, and if Sanders is that nominee, then he would become the 45th president of the United States.

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