Bernie Sanders picked up support in some unusual places during his 2016 campaign to be the Democratic presidential nominee. The self-described democratic socialist won states such as Oklahoma and Nebraska that are typically associated with right-of-center policy views. He also did surprisingly well with self-described conservative voters — granted, a small-ish part1 of the Democratic primary electorate — picking up almost a third of their votes. Perhaps less surprisingly given that Sanders isn’t technically a Democrat, he performed really well with independent voters, winning them by roughly a 2:1 margin over Hillary Clinton.
So as Sanders launches his 2020 campaign as a candidate with both formidable strengths and serious challenges, his biggest problem might seem to be that there’s more competition for his base this time around, with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others also competing for the leftmost part of the Democratic electorate. An equally big problem for Sanders, however, is that voters this time around have more alternatives to Hillary Clinton — left, right and center — to choose from.
Roughly one-quarter of Sanders’s support in Democratic primaries and caucuses in 2016 came from #NeverHillary voters: people who didn’t vote for Clinton in the 2016 general election and who had no intention of doing so. (The #NeverHillary label is a little snarky, but it’s also quite literal: These are people who never voted for Clinton despite being given two opportunities to do so, in the primary and the general election.) This finding comes from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a poll of more than 50,000 voters conducted by YouGov in conjunction with Harvard University. The CCES asked voters who they voted for in both the primaries and the general election; it also asked voters who didn’t vote in the general election who they would have chosen if they had voted. Here’s the overall breakdown of what Sanders primary voters did in November 2016.2
What Bernie Sanders primary voters did in November 2016
|Voted for Hillary Clinton||74.3%||
|Voted for Donald Trump||12.0||
|Voted for Gary Johnson||3.2||
|Voted for Jill Stein||4.5||
|Voted for other candidates or voted but didn’t recall||2.5||
|Didn’t vote but said they would have voted for Clinton||1.6||
|Didn’t vote and didn’t say they would have voted Clinton||1.9||
About 74 percent of Sanders’s primary voters also voted for Clinton in November 2016. Another 2 percent didn’t vote but said on the CCES that they would have voted for Clinton if they had voted; it doesn’t seem fair to consider them anti-Clinton voters, so we won’t include them in the #NeverHillary camp. The remaining 24 percent of Sanders voters were #NeverHillary in the general election, however. Of these, about half voted for Trump, while the remaining half voted for Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, another third-party candidate or didn’t vote.3
Overall, Sanders won 43 percent of the popular vote in Democratic primaries and caucuses in 2016. If 24 percent of that 43 percent were #NeverHillary voters, that means Sanders’s real base was more like 33 percent of the overall Democratic electorate. That isn’t nothing — it could easily carry the plurality in a divided field — and there were plenty of Clinton voters who liked Sanders, so he could pick up some of their votes too. But it does jibe with polls showing that Sanders and Warren together have around 30 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in 2020 and not the 43 percent that Sanders got in 2016.
You might be tempted to think that these #NeverHillary voters are leftists who thought Clinton was too much of pro-corporate, warmongering centrist. But relatively few of them were. Less than a fifth of them voted for Stein, for example. Instead, these voters were disproportionately likely to describe themselves as moderate or conservative. Among the 31 percent of self-described conservatives who voted for Sanders in the Democratic primaries, more than half were #NeverHillary voters, for example. A large minority of the independents and Republicans who supported Sanders were #NeverHillary voters as well.
#NeverHillary voters were conservative, not super liberal
The ideological and partisan breakdown of #NeverHillary voters in the 2016 Democratic primaries
|Independents and Republicans||33.6||65.0||37.9||27.1|
A more complicated way to characterize the #NeverHillary vote is via regression analysis. Using the CCES — which permits fairly intricate regression model designs because of its large sample size — I took all of Sanders’s primary voters in 2016 and evaluated a host of variables to see what predicted whether they were #NeverHillary in the general election.
The most significant variables were, first, whether the voter was a Democrat, and second and third, two policy questions that have proven to be highly predictive of voter preferences in the past: whether the voter thinks that white people benefit from their race and whether the voter wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Non-Democrats, voters who didn’t think whites benefited from their race, and voters who wanted to repeal the ACA were much more likely to be #NeverHillary voters. Voters who were rural, poor, who lived in the South or the Northeast, who were born-again Christians, who were conservatives, and who were military veterans were also somewhat more likely to be #NeverHillary, other factors held equal. Black people, Hispanics, women, liberals, millennials, union members and voters with four-year college degrees were less likely to be #NeverHillary voters.
In addition, some factors related to the primary calendar affected the #NeverHillary vote. After Trump won the Indiana primary, effectively wrapping up the Republican nomination, more anti-Clinton voters filtered into the Democratic primaries. And the #NeverHillary vote was lower in states where an open Republican primary or caucus was held on the same date as the Democratic one. This implies that a fair number of #NeverHillary voters would actually have prefered to vote in the Republican primary. But if they couldn’t, because the Republican primary was closed or wasn’t held on the same date, they voted in the Democratic primary (for Sanders or another Democrat and against Clinton) instead.
We can also evaluate the geographic breakdown of the #NeverHillary vote. In each state, we can estimate the anti-Clinton vote in two ways, either by directly measuring it (e.g., 19 percent of Sanders voters the CCES surveyed in Illinois were #NeverHillary) or through the regression technique that I used above (which is similar to an MRP analysis). Without getting too much into the weeds, I used a blend of the two methods in each state based on the sample size of Sanders voters there; the direct measurement is more reliable in states with a large sample, while the regression method is better in states with a smaller one. The table below shows where the largest share of Sanders voters (as well as voters who chose another Democratic candidate apart from Clinton and Sanders4) were anti-Clinton voters:
Sanders benefited from #NeverHillary voters in red states
The breakdown of Sanders and #NeverHillary voters in the 2016 Democratic primaries
|State||Sanders’s Share of pop. vote||share of Sanders voters who were #NeverHillary||voted sanders||Other||Total|
The largest number of #NeverHillary voters, as a share of the Democratic primary electorate, were in Alaska, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Vermont, Idaho, Nebraska, Utah and Kentucky. Other than in Vermont, where extreme loyalty to Sanders generated a large number of write-in votes for Sanders and other candidates in the general election, those are obviously really red and largely rural states. Apart from Kentucky, they were also all states won by Sanders in the primaries.
Although there may have been something of a market for a populist candidate in these states, it’s also likely that Sanders benefited from being the only alternative to Clinton. In fact, there are several states where the #NeverHillary vote pushed Sanders over the top and where the pro-Sanders vote alone wouldn’t have been enough for him to win. These are Indiana, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island and West Virginia.
The good news for Sanders is that the states where he benefited the most from the #NeverHillary vote — especially in Appalachia and in the Interior West — have relatively low delegate tallies. So they’re places that he can potentially afford to lose. It does mean, however, that Sanders will have to hit his mark in his other strong regions, including New England (where Warren will provide fierce competition), the Upper Midwest (where Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota could create problems in her home state and Wisconsin) and the Pacific Northwest (where Sanders would prefer that candidates like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper not enter the race).
It also means that Sanders won’t just be competing against other progressives but also against relatively moderate candidates. If #NeverHillary voters from 2016 are again looking for an anti-establishment candidate, Sanders could still fit the bill. If they want a moderate instead, however, they’ll have a lot more choices than they did in 2016 in the form of candidates like Klobuchar and (if they enter the race) Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke. It’s also possible that #NeverHillary voters were mostly motivated by sexism, in which case any of the male candidates could stand to benefit.
None of this dooms Sanders by any means. On balance, he probably benefits from a divided field, in fact, wherein his extremely loyal base gives him a high floor of support. But a multi-way race is way different than a two-way one, so Sanders’s coalition may not be all that similar to what we saw in 2016.
From ABC News: