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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Why did Bernie Sanders lose the popular vote to Clinton in 2016?

Guest Post By William Murphy, Professor of American History, specializing in political history (Quora Digest)

Image result for clinton and sandersIt’s important to understand that what Bernie Sanders did was absolutely extraordinary. Focusing on the fact that he did not win is sort of missing the bigger story.

Here was a guy who, a little over a year ago, no one had heard of outside of Vermont. When he declared his candidacy he polled at 4%, and over 90% of Americans had never heard of him. He is 73 years old in a country that prizes youth. His public image was frumpy; he looked like he never combed his hair. He had never been a formal member of the Democratic Party until declaring he would run for president. He had described himself as a socialist in the past, in a country where most people think socialism means a Soviet-style managed economy and dictatorship. He was running against one of the most experienced and well-known politicians in America, whose polling numbers a year or two ago were much better than they are today. She was the presumed winner; she had a LOT more money (to start out) and the full backing of the Democratic Party establishment.

With all of that going against him, he won 12 million votes and, what, 22 states? (Apologies to Sanders supporters if it was more than 22. I’m sure one of you will correct me. It was around that number.)

Image result for clinton and sandersThe old, crazy-haired Jewish Socialist from Vermont with the thick New York accent who nobody had ever heard of was packing thousands of people into auditoriums and arenas to hear him speak. He made a real race out of a contest most people assumed would be a coronation. He won 1900 pledged delegates out of 4,053; that’s far more than most losing candidates get in nomination battles. He made Clinton fight, and fight hard, for a nomination that originally seemed to be hers for the taking.

He did not win. But if, a little over a year ago, you had lined up a group of political journalists, pundits, historians and political scientists, and described someone exactly like Bernie Sanders, and asked them how many states they thought he would win, you’d probably get a universal answer of “zero.” Nobody thought someone with Sanders’ profile would have the appeal that he did.
It was — and is — an absolutely extraordinary thing.

Image result for clinton and sandersBut it’s also easy to overstate his support. Social media was full of Sanders supporters. You could find them everywhere on twitter, on Facebook, and there were (and are) a LOT of them here on Quora. His supporters tended to be younger and more active online than Clinton’s. This created a sense, for those who spend a lot of time on social media, that EVERYONE was a Sanders supporter.

But not everyone was. In particular, minority voters, a key part of the Democratic constituency, never warmed to him. This is especially true of black voters, but he also consistently lost other minority groups like Latinos as well (though not by as large a margin as had been assumed at the start of the primaries.)

Image result for clinton and sandersAnd Hillary Clinton had a lot of advantages. She DID have a lot of money (though Sanders was eventually able to catch and briefly surpass her in fundraising). She DID have a huge amount of establishment support. She WAS more experienced at running a national campaign, did have much greater name recognition, and she, for whatever reason, was able to more effectively reach out to and connect with minority voters.

One way, I think, to look at it, is to imagine that Clinton and Sanders were both runners in a marathon. But Clinton had a 1-hour head start, and looked like she was a faster, stronger runner, while Sanders looked like he’d be slow and weak. But to everyone’s surprise, he ran so fast he nearly caught up to her; she could see him coming up on her rear, when with her head start he should never have gotten to within sight of her. But in the end, she still finished a few minutes ahead of him. It wasn’t a photo finish; he didn’t fall just one or two steps short. He won 42.2% of the vote to her 56.8%. If they had started at the same time — if she had not had such a big head start — the finish would not look very close. But in our marathon runner example, if Sanders finished the race 2 minutes later than Clinton, by itself that doesn’t look that terribly close; but he shaved off 58 minutes of a 1-hour head start to get there.

Image result for clinton and sandersThat’s extraordinary. Almost superhuman. That’s what Sanders accomplished.
Clinton got 3.8 million more votes than Sanders. Sanders’ supporters may have been more enthusiastic, louder, more visible… but there were not more of them. 

That’s why he lost.

But focusing on the fact of his loss misses how extraordinary his accomplishment is. A better, and I would argue far more important, question than, “Why did Bernie Sanders lose?” is “Why did Bernie Sanders do so well?”