It’s very useful to take a look at what Nate Silver has done to estimate the percentage of the electorate in each state that can be classified as “white liberal,” however I think it’s problematic to take that information and project that Bernie Sanders will only do well in states where the percentage of white liberals is extremely high.
The assumption is that Sanders will not do well with moderate or conservative voters because he’s a self-proclaimed socialist, and that he won’t do well with people of color because, well, he’s not doing well with them right now. There’s a solid basis for both assumptions, so I don’t think this is some kind of gross analytical error. I just think it’s lacking in imagination.
For starters, while it’s true that Vermont has the highest percentage of white liberals in the country, that doesn’t mean that Sanders is only popular in his home state among liberals. Go talk to the dairy farmers up there, because a lot of them love Bernie. More importantly, the entire point of Sanders’ campaign seems to me to be based on the idea that his ideas have a lot of appeal beyond the groups that are going to line up and vote for Hillary Clinton. Maybe he’s just wrong about that, but he isn’t going to win by taking the Madison, Wisconsin vote and losing everywhere else. He knows this.
If Sanders has a mission, it isn’t to convince the natural constituents of the Democratic Party that they ought to vote for a Democrat. So, if you’re projecting how he’s going to do, you need to evaluate what his prospects for success will be among people who are more conservative or moderate, or who are normally disengaged from the process. Like Barack Obama before him, part of his challenge will be proving the preconceived doubts about his electability are wrong, and so it’s important that he win early, particularly in the first contest in Iowa. If he does, a lot of people who are standing on the sidelines will jump on his bandwagon, including a lot of people of color. To win the overall contest, including the presidency, however, he is going to have to achieve a substantial crossover appeal. If he beats Hillary, he’s going to lose a portion of the Democratic coalition in the process, and he’ll have to make up for it with folks who we don’t normally think of as socialists or liberals.
Some of this deficit can be made up for simply by bringing people into the process who would otherwise have stayed home, but that alone will never be enough. If you think the electorate is so polarized that Bernie can’t change the voting behaviors of very many people, then there’s really not even a conceptual way that he could win. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to wait and see if he can appeal to a broader swath of the electorate like he has consistently done in his home state, then the “white liberal” vote isn’t quite as decisive.
Honestly, a lot of these potential Bernie voters are probably toying with Rand Paul right now. Most of them probably can’t imagine themselves voting for a socialist from Vermont. But substantial parts of his message are really almost tailor-made for these folks. They hate big money in politics, for example, and feel like everyone else has a lobbyist in Washington but them. They hate outsourcing and are suspicious of free trade agreements. They’ve lost faith in both parties and their leaders. They can’t pay their rent or afford college. Their kids are all screwed up on painkillers and are seemingly never going to move out of the house. They’re sick of investing in Afghanistan while American needs get ignored. And they want the blood of some Wall Street bankers.
Bernie Sanders is going to make a lot of sense to these folks, even if they think Hillary Clinton is the devil and are trained to despise liberals.
If George McGovern had one single insurmountable problem, it was that there were a lot of George Wallace voters out there who preferred Nixon to him when it came right down to it. Later on, we’d call these folks Reagan Democrats, but initially they were part of the backbone of the New Deal Democratic coalition. If you distract these folks with cultural issues, you can keep them from listening to Bernie Sanders. And that might be exactly what happens this time around.
But, it might not.
And how they react to his message will determine whether or not Sanders can win outside of his white liberal base.
I already mentioned him, but Rand Paul is in a similar position with the Republican Party and the electorate as a whole. He’ll never win if he doesn’t bring new voters into the process, but his real task is to catch on with voters who have been siding with the Democrats in recent years. He’ll need that crossover appeal to make up for some of his unorthodox positions which will lose him votes from the traditional Republican coalition. In a matchup against Hillary Clinton, the neocons would begin flocking back to the Democrats where they began. So, Paul would need to pick up some of the peacenik anti-drone vote, and some of the anti-War on Drugs vote, and some of the anti-mass incarceration vote. Getting the disengaged to engage is part of it, but by itself will not be enough.
So, as with Sanders, it’s not that helpful to look at exit polls from 2008 and try to determine which states have the highest percentage of libertarian-leaning dudebros. That’s key information, but it’s only a small piece of the puzzle.
Both Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders are betting that they can carve new dividing lines between the two parties that will benefit them. To assess their chances, we need to look at how they’re planning to carry out their plans.