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This Is How Bernie Sanders Could Win

micah (Micah Cohen, senior editor): We’ve been pretty tough on Bernie Sanders here at FiveThirtyEight. He’s surged in the polling and drawn big, enthusiastic crowds, and yet we’ve written several articles largely dismissing his odds of toppling Hillary Clinton. Many Sanders fans have written us calm, kind notes arguing that Sanders has a chance. Not a “well, anything is possible” chance — a real chance to win the Democratic presidential nomination. So, today’s question: How can Bernie Sanders win? [This is an edited transcript of a conversation in Slack.]

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I still think it needs to involve some “shock” (as an economist would define that term) to the Clinton campaign. Meaning, some substantially worse turn in the email scandal than what’s been reported so far. Hackers publish a bunch of top-secret documents culled from Clinton’s emails, for instance. Or a new scandal. Or a health problem.

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In that event, Democratic elites would probably turn toward another establishment candidate. Most likely Joe Biden. But while I’m pretty sure that Sanders can’t beat Clinton head-to-head — he’s losing to her badly now, after all — I’m not so sure that’s true of Biden, etc.

I think Sanders vs. Biden, in a world where the Democratic establishment is in disarray because of a Clinton crisis, could be highly competitive. And Bernie’s organizational advantages — e.g., in the caucus states — could help him against a candidate who is getting off to a very late start.

hjenten-heynawl (Harry Enten, senior political writer): As I try to get on the good side of the Bernie Sanders supporters, let me start with what we know: Presidential primaries can be about momentum. You win Iowa, you win New Hampshire, and the sky’s the limit. You saw that with John Kerry in 2004 on the Democratic side. You saw that with Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter, especially, was someone who sort of came out of nowhere — the outsider candidate, if you will. So the first thing that Sanders likely needs is to win the first caucus and the first primary.

micah: And that seems eminently possible, right?

hjenten-heynawl: Yes. Yes it is. Then — and this is the big thing — he needs to find a way to cut into Clinton’s support among African-Americans. Sanders is pulling in less than 10 percent of the black vote. Obama had about five times as much at this point. If Clinton continues to win 70 percent of the black vote, Sanders will likely get stopped in South Carolina. If, however, he can cut into that advantage, he could build a wave of momentum.

hjenten-heynawl: It’s important to remember that movement people aren’t necessarily the base of the party. Take a look at the recent CNN poll, for example: Clinton leads among self-identified Democrats 55-20 but trails among independent-leaning Democrats 39-37.

Clinton is doing very well among base Democrats, while Sanders is an outsider.

natesilver: Yeah, people need to stop confusing “the base” with “media and party elites that have big Twitter and Facebook followings.” By any objective measure, the Democratic base still really loves Clinton.

hjenten-heynawl: But let’s get back to South Carolina. There’s no party registration, so anyone can vote in the primary. It gives Sanders a shot if he can somehow pull in some of these outsider voters who might not otherwise vote in a Democratic primary.

natesilver: No way, dude. Hillary wins South Carolina even if things are going really badly for her. There was a poll that came out in Alabama the other day that had Clinton beating Sanders something like 81-10. Literally. It was like an Alabama football score against some terrible nonconference opponent.

hjenten-heynawl: 78-10. But continue.

natesilver: It’s not complicated. In a state where you have a lot of white moderates and a lot of black voters, Sanders does terribly.

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micah: Not so fast …

Our general thinking has been that Biden is only likely to enter the race in an “in case of emergency” situation. That is, Clinton’s campaign suffers a much more serious wound than anything inflicted so far. But we don’t know that. What if Biden jumps in in September or October? Doesn’t that help Sanders? Biden and Clinton split moderate and conservative Democrats (and perhaps black voters), and Sanders pulls through with the left wing of the Democratic Party?

hjenten-heynawl: Maybe, but I think Sanders’s best shot is to be the only real alternative to Clinton. Say this email scandal breaks further, and it’s too late for someone else to enter.

natesilver: I guess that’s where my thinking has changed slightly, Harry.

As I said earlier, I can imagine a case where Biden enters after a Clinton crisis and Sanders beats him.

micah: But you both seem to think that there is unlikely to be a scenario where Clinton and Biden are both in the race and both in decent shape?

natesilver: Well, most of the polls we’ve seen now have Biden in the race and have Clinton winning like 50-25 over Sanders, with Biden at 15 percent or so.

micah: But he’s not campaigning.

natesilver: OK sure, but he’s also a sitting vice president. Not exactly unknown. And Clinton has like 75 percent, 80 percent favorability ratings with Democrats. There’s just not much of a market for an anti-Clinton candidate. Except among white liberal Democrats, especially men, who just like Bernie better on the issues.

hjenten-heynawl: Yes, I don’t really see why Biden enters if he doesn’t think he can win. And he can’t think he can win if Clinton is in good shape. Remember, Biden isn’t some movement politician. He’s a 45-year veteran of Washington. He’s somebody who screams establishment. You don’t get in if there is an establishment candidate already that is in strong shape.

natesilver: I mean, it’s possible I guess that there’s a Clinton crisis that’s a 7.6 on the political Richter scale instead of an 8.5. And that Biden enters, but Clinton isn’t quite ready to withdraw. And Sanders emerges. Sure.

But the predicate for that is still a crisis for Clinton.

Also, even in that scenario, Clinton’s delegates might eventually go to Biden, or the reverse. Plus, Democrats have quite a lot of superdelegates, very few of whom are liable to support Sanders.

hjenten-heynawl: Let me say one thing that has changed in recent Democratic politics. If Gallup’s numbers are to be believed, there are more self-identified liberals than at any point in the last 15 years among the Democratic base:

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And, of course, Sanders is doing best among self-identified liberals. So he has more of a chance this year than in past years.

natesilver: So, I agree that the left should be pleased with how Bernie is doing. I think his ceiling is a few percentage points higher than it might have been an election cycle ago. I just don’t think it’s particularly close to 51 percent in a head-to-head race against Clinton.

micah: So, yeah, let’s talk about that ceiling. Let’s forget Biden or an external shock for the moment. Who’s to say Sanders won’t just keep gaining support? Concern about inequality isn’t limited to the left wing of the Democratic Party, after all.

Where is his ceiling? And why? Can’t he persuade his way to the nomination?

hjenten-heynawl: His ceiling is as high as his ability to gain among blacks and Latinos. Look at this latest YouGov poll that has a pretty decent sample among black voters. Sanders is currently getting … 4 percent. Should I say that one more time? 4 percent. You can’t win a Democratic nomination getting 4 percent of the black vote.

natesilver: This is where a Sanders reader would write in and remind us that Obama wasn’t doing so well among the black vote early in the 2008 race.

hjenten-heynawl: This is where I would remind them that a number of surveys at this point had Obama gaining near 50 percent.

natesilver: And, also, that there are some other rather obvious differences between Sanders and Obama. Bernie Sanders might be a progressive, but he’s still a 73-year-old white dude.

micah: He’s not Lee Atwater, though. And his policy positions are right to appeal to non-white voters, right?

natesilver: I don’t know, Micah. I’m not speaking for black or Hispanic voters, but there are a lot of them who might say racial injustice is more at the center of America’s problems than economic injustice.

And non-white voters are sometimes extremely pragmatic. They’re concerned about grave problems that their families face today, and they aren’t necessarily looking for a socialist revolution.

hjenten-heynawl: I think that’s exactly right. Look at why someone like Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas or Bill Bradley hit a brick wall. It’s because of minority voters. They didn’t give two [expletive deleted] about what these liberal white alternatives were selling. I’d also point out that black Democrats are far more likely to identify as moderate or conservative (67 percent) than white Democrats (50 percent), according to the General Social Survey. That’s a mountain that Sanders needs to climb.

micah: OK, let’s channel the #feelthebern-ers again. … We get a lot of tweets/emails from Sanders supporters pointing to his huge crowds and the general level of passion/enthusiasm among his fans. Doesn’t that count for something? Aren’t those people more likely to vote and organize?

natesilver: Micah, you sound like Peggy Noonan.

micah: Hey, I’ve seen a ton of Sanders lawn signs!!! The vibrations are in Sanders’s favor!!!

natesilver: Look, I think his campaign is liable to be pretty good at organizing. That could win him a couple of caucus states against Clinton, who will be really good at organizing too, BTW. And it’s why he could prevail against a Biden, etc., if Clinton has to drop out. But so far, what we’re seeing isn’t complicated. About one-third of the Democratic electorate is white liberals. And there aren’t a lot of people going after their votes explicitly. So Sanders can draw big crowds in places with lots of white liberals.

hjenten-heynawl: Let’s talk about one strength that Sanders may have that I don’t think people quite realize the extent to which it helped Obama. A poll came out earlier this month from Idaho that had Clinton at “only” 44 percent. Obama won that caucus by 60 percentage points. He took 12 net delegates over Clinton — 1 more than Clinton won out of New Jersey, despite a ton more people voting. Clinton has never been particularly popular in the West. If Sanders can win some caucuses out there — such as in Idaho, Washington, Wyoming — he could rack up a decent delegate count (on net). Remember, Democratic primaries are proportional.

micah: And there are a lot of white liberals out there? But aren’t they more Gary Hart Democrats? Not exactly socialists.

hjenten-heynawl: I think it could be argued that Sanders’s appeal is as much about attitude as it is about policy in the same way Trump is as much about attitude as policy.

natesilver: I’d argue against both of your arguments, Harry.

micah: Disagreement!

natesilver: And the reason is that it’s predictable as hell where Sanders’s support is coming from: white liberals, especially white liberal men. Whereas Trump’s support doesn’t line up that well with well-defined ideological groups. He’s not doing that much better with tea party voters than with other Republicans, for instance.

One thing that’s appealing for liberal voters about Sanders, I think, is that he’s pretty consistently liberal (or leftist if we’re being precise) on pretty much every issue. The equivalent of a European social democrat. Instead of being a weird mishmash of liberal-ish stuff.

The one possible exception is immigration, which won’t help him particularly among Hispanics.

hjenten-heynawl: I will say that 45 percent of the Montana primary electorate in 2008 was liberal. So there are liberals out there. And a caucus, I’d bet, would be somewhat more liberal.

natesilver: But, Harry, gaming out all the delegate math is sort of beside the point.

Right now, Sanders has 25 percent of the vote nationally. [Actually more like 20 percent.] It’s going to be concentrated more in some states than others. But it’s not going to be nearly enough for him to take the nomination.

He might have some advantage in caucus states, but that’s outweighed by Clinton’s edge with superdelegates. But, again, it’s beside the point until he gets to, say, 40 or 45 percent of the vote nationally.

hjenten-heynawl: If Democratic voters chose Sanders over Clinton, the superdelegates would go along (à la 2008), but I agree that until Sanders actually, you know, leads in a poll outside of northern New England, it’s beside the point.

natesilver: So, Harry, what are Bernie Sanders’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination? Give me a percentage.

hjenten-heynawl: OK, the Bernie people have gotten to me. The Clinton emails seem slightly more likely to take down Clinton than they did a few weeks ago, so I’m going to double Sanders’s chances to 2 percent.

natesilver: I’m at 5 percent.

So, I actually think he has better chances than you do, even though you’ve been taking his “side” in this little discussion of ours, which makes an interesting point about the way media tends to frame events like these.

I’d guess that a lot of reporters who we might otherwise criticize would agree with us that Sanders’s chances are low. Maybe they’d say they’re 10 percent instead of 5 percent or 2 percent, but low. But there are lots of news stories written in a tone to make it seem like Sanders’s chances are much better than 5 or 10 percent. All the reasons why he isn’t likely to win the nomination are contained in one “to be sure” paragraph. Whereas all the reasons why that 5 percent might come through make headlines.

hjenten-heynawl: Very true. “Same old” does not a story make.

micah: OK … next week we tackle: Why Jim Webb will be the Democratic nominee in 2016!

Check our our live coverage of the first Democratic Debate.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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