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Is Sanders Hurting Clinton By Staying In The Race?

In this week’s politics chat, we consider Bernie Sanders, his present and future. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): It’s been awhile since we really dived into the Democratic nominating contest, so let’s explore Bernie’s world. We’ll cover a couple of topics: Is Sanders hurting Hillary Clinton’s chances in the general election? What does Sanders’s success mean for the future of the Democratic Party? But let’s start with this: What is Sanders doing? Why is he still in the race? What does he want?

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Sanders is still in the race for several reasons. First, it’s difficult to leave a presidential race when you’re still winning contests and you’ve been running for over a year. Second, there are still a big chunk of Democrats (45 percent) who think Sanders should stay in the race until the convention. Third, he wants to continue pushing his progressive agenda. There are other reasons, but that’s a start.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): “Bernie’s world” sounds like a PBS children’s show about a bear named Bernie.

micah: It was a play on “Wayne’s World.”

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Sanders has had several opportunities to exit the race, though. In particular, after winning only Rhode Island on April 26 and losing Pennsylvania, Maryland, etc. Or when he got shut out on March 15.

clare.malone: Yikes to that survey Harry just noted, by YouGov, which found that one-third of Democratic voters have an unfavorable view of Clinton, and her unfavorables have jumped of late. Is this where the political revolution curdles?

By way of personal anecdote, my downstairs neighbors put a “Bernie or Bust”-type sign in their window only about a week ago. People are taking the Sanders campaign’s cues of frustration.

natesilver: Clinton’s 33 percent unfavorable rating in the YouGov poll is on the high end compared with other surveys, although the methodology matters here. That 33 percent number is among what YouGov calls “likely Democratic primary voters,” which includes both Democrats and independents who vote in the Democratic primaries. Among voters who identify as Democrats, her unfavorability rating is just 16 percent, according to the same poll. So it’s the Sanders-voting independents who are really dragging her numbers down, a group that’s quite liberal but doesn’t affiliate itself with the Democratic Party.

harry: One thing that I think gets undersold is the psychology of coming so far when so few people thought you would come so far. Most people, including me, thought Sanders would win some votes but that Clinton would ultimately crush him. And while she holds a significant lead, Sanders won more than 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote. When the same analysts who thought you didn’t have much of a chance now say you’re dead in the water, there is an understandable tendency to dismiss them. The problem: The analysts are right in this case. And that some in the Sanders campaign are so forcefully arguing that he is losing because the game is fixed could make it difficult for Clinton to coalesce the Democratic vote.

clare.malone: I think you’re right, Harry, that there’s something psychologically different roiling in the Democratic electorate this year — a number of former volunteers and staff from Sanders’s campaign have proposed a post-dropout plan that has the Sanders money machine and organization being directed toward an enterprise separate from the Clinton campaign. Granted, it’ll be devoted to defeating Trump, but this is a far cry from one big happy Democratic family. It’s also important to note that the Sanders campaign said the plan is “totally irrelevant,” to their decision-making.

natesilver: Now I’m really going to get myself in trouble: Weren’t the experts correct that Sanders didn’t have much of a chance?

micah: I’m with Nate on this: Sanders did get crushed — this is what crushed looks like in a proportional primary system. If the Democratic race were run with GOP rules, that would be more apparent.

harry: Oh, I don’t agree with that at all. Sanders is trailing Clinton in the popular vote by about the same as Cruz is trailing Trump.

micah: And Cruz got crushed.

natesilver: To me, it’s like when a college football team — Clinton University — is favored by 24 points. Their opponent, Sanders State, kicks a field goal to go ahead 3-0. But then Clinton U. pulls ahead 14-3 on Super Tuesday and leads the rest of the way. Sanders State never makes it a one-score game, and in the end, Clinton U. wins by 14. So Sanders State beat the point spread, but you wouldn’t really call it a close game — Clinton U. was in control almost the whole way.

micah: Let me focus the conversation for a minute on a more specific question: What does Bernie want? Is his sole goal to win? To shape the Democratic platform? To change the rules governing future primary campaigns?

clare.malone: I’d say shaping the platform is probably the biggest one, and who knows, he might take up the Lawrence Lessig mantle of campaign finance reform post-election.

natesilver: I’m not sure he knows what he wants.

clare.malone: I mean, he’s an ideologue, so the party-platform-influencing seems a given in terms of what Bernie wants; he’s aiming, perhaps, to be the permanent countervailing force in Democratic politics. The eternal bur stuck on the party’s lovely cashmere sweater.

natesilver: He’s caught in the middle of the campaign, it’s sort of fun and exhilarating, he has tens of millions of admirers, he has a staff that’s telling him to hang on, and he’s winning a state or two every couple of weeks. He may not have a long-term game plan — he may just be living in the moment.

clare.malone: Instead of retiring and going fishing, run a presidential campaign! It’s the Boomer plan of 2016, all around.

Harry: I think both Clare and Nate are right. Sanders entered this campaign with the hope of driving the policy debate. He ends up winning a bunch of states, and then it’s like “holy heck, I can win this thing!” That led, I think, to a slightly more negative campaign than I would have expected from a candidate in it more for the policy discussion than to win.

clare.malone: Most likely, the campaign itself is parsing through a lot of these questions right now. They’re definitely in a soul-searching period, and we’ve seen that play out live on primary night cable, when one Sanders surrogate is saying one thing about the campaign’s plans and another surrogate is saying another.

natesilver: It’s also important to keep in mind that although Sanders is a proud progressive, he isn’t a loyal Democratic Party soldier.

micah: So is he hurting Clinton?

clare.malone: Yes, I’d say so.

micah: How so?

clare.malone: In the sense that time heals all wounds — the Clintons would like to have more time for people to forget how much they love Bernie and focus on the pragmatic battle ahead.

natesilver: Agreed. In the general election polls since Indiana, we’re seeing more Republican voters rally behind Trump, but Clinton hasn’t gotten a post-nomination bounce yet. So the polls right now are sort of a test of what might happen if the Sanders voters don’t rally behind Clinton. And the answer is that it makes it a closer election — Clinton’s still ahead, but it’s close enough that if something goes wrong (a recession, for instance), you could have President Trump.

harry: Sanders isn’t helping Clinton, but I’m not sure how much he is hurting her. In many polls, Clinton is already getting a good chunk of the Democratic vote, and you’ll likely see some type of bounce once Sanders exits (depending on whether he endorses and what that endorsement looks like). Trump was getting a lower percentage of the Republican vote before wrapping up the nomination, so I’m not sure we’ll see Clinton get as large of a bounce as Trump has gotten, but there will be some coalescing.

natesilver: The SurveyMonkey poll you just linked to, Harry, is something of an exception, but I’d also note that the number of undecided voters in most of the Clinton-Trump matchup is unusually high. You’re seeing some results like Clinton 43 percent, Trump 40 percent, for instance. That suggests there are a lot of base voters who have yet to be activated. And they won’t necessarily cross parties to vote, but they might sit out, or vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein.

clare.malone: Gotta activate the Democratic base storm troopers. The Gary Johnson thing is interesting — I’m not sure how much a typically Democratic-leaning independent voter will go for him, though.

natesilver: Johnson is sort of a capital-L libertarian, instead of a Rand Paul conservative libertarian. I think some Sanders supporters could groove to him on social policy even though they might find his economics pretty detestable.

Harry: Some quick math: The HuffPost Pollster aggregate has the combined vote for Clinton and Trump in the low 80s. In the previous three presidential election cycles — using the Pollster.com aggregate for 2012 and 2008 and the RealClearPolitics average for 2004 — the two-party vote combined to around 90 percent at this point. Something is clearly going on.

natesilver: Let me be clear, though: Clinton’s support among Democrats is average, or maybe even a little above average. It’s not a crisis for her. It’s just that she ought to have an opportunity to have near-universal support from Democrats, along the lines of what Obama had, in an election against Trump. If she gets that Democratic turnout, it probably isn’t an especially close election against Trump, and Democrats have a lot of opportunities to pick up seats in down-ballot races. If she doesn’t, then who knows.

micah: So will Sanders voters eventually go to Clinton? [Editor’s note: Nate commanded me, offline, to ask this question.]

harry: Question: Does Sanders endorse Clinton?

natesilver: Some or most of them probably will. But there’s one thing that would worry me a bit, if I were Clinton. Namely, it’s the sense you get from Sanders supporters that the system is rigged against them. You saw that on display at the Nevada convention this weekend, for instance, where things got pretty nasty, and Sanders hasn’t really done much to repudiate his supporters.

micah: IDK, we heard a lot about this kind of stuff in 2008, about how Clinton supporters wouldn’t rally behind Obama. That didn’t turn out to be a problem.

harry: Clinton endorsed Obama pretty much immediately after losing.

natesilver: I guess what I’m saying is that I wonder if the system-is-rigged argument could be harder to repair than other sorts of grievances.

clare.malone: Yeah, and it’s more interesting here because Clinton was obviously going to fall into the party line. Sanders is definitely more of a wild card in terms of how he wants to spin things after he drops out. The revolution is televised, after all!

natesilver: If you think someone isn’t arguing in good faith, they have a lot of work to do to regain your trust.

clare.malone: He could get tons of media play post-dropout if he wanted to take on a certain issue and really make it a part of the general election convo — maybe he does go after reforming the nominating system.

natesilver: It’s also interesting to me how, when you see comments from Sanders supporters online or at rallies, etc., they’re quick to frame things in terms of people being biased, being sellouts, etc. All candidates’ supporters are annoying in their own way, but it’s a different vibe than what you usually get.

clare.malone: Sour grapes-y.

harry: The idea that you are always being unfair.

micah: All right, that flows nicely into our last topic for considering: Bernie’s legacy. I do think he could play some role in reforming the primary system. Or pushing the Democratic platform to the left? More generally, also, what can we learn from the Sanders campaign about the state of the Democratic Party?

clare.malone: It’s funny because I think if his campaign hadn’t taken off, Sanders would have continued to labor in relative obscurity in the Senate for years and years talking about worthy things like dental care for Appalachian kids (I’m recalling the press releases I used to get, about four years back, from his office). So, in some ways, I could see him going back to legislating and just enjoying a more high-profile platform for his issues.

natesilver: The guy has a lot of power, though. He’s the third-most-influential Democrat/liberal in the country, following President Obama and Clinton. And you have a big vacuum between the top 3 and everyone else.

harry: Even more powerful than Martin O’Malley?!

micah: To answer my own question: I think one of the main lessons of the Sanders campaign is that the Democratic elite have an outsider/insider problem too. Maybe it’s not as dire as the GOP’s, but it’s there.

clare.malone: Sanders might have been bitten by the wild tsetse fly of political campaigns, and he feels much more empowered — maybe it’s primary reform, maybe it’s money in politics.

micah: ADDRESS MY OUTSIDER/INSIDER POINT!

natesilver: To me, the outsider/insider framing is somewhat vapid.

harry: Yeah, pure garbage.

natesilver: I don’t really know what it means.

clare.malone: Explain insider/outsider. EXPLAIN YOURSELF!

(micah is typing)

(micah is still typing)

(it’s actually only been a minute)

(but that feels like forever in Slack)

micah: OK, part of the GOP’s problem is that the establishment no longer holds much sway with Republican voters. Just the opposite, actually: Hitting the elites is a plus. To me, here’s one of the main questions about the Sanders campaign: Is his success, such as it is, simply what you get with a liberal challenge in a two-party race? Or is there a sizable bloc of Democratic voters, young voters in particular, who are sick of standard Democratic politics — who feel the system is rigged, to get back to the point we were talking about earlier. If it’s the latter, then I think that potentially poses long-term problems for the Democratic Party. It increases the chances that the Democrats, at some point, get a nominee unacceptable to the party elites, like the GOP got this year.

natesilver: I guess there are two ways to read Sanders, and I’m somewhat conflicted between the two.

The more cynical interpretation, I suppose, is that Sanders is sort of an unlikely pop culture phenomenon, by virtue of being a lovable, grandpa-ish underdog. If that’s the case, we might not want to read as deeply into what he means for the Democratic Party. There was an opening for an alternative to Clinton, and Sanders happened to be the best guy to step into it.

The second interpretation is that the Democratic consensus/coalition associated with the Clintons and Obama is fraying. In particular, the consensus around neo-liberal economic policies. A lot of the differences between Clinton and Sanders are over the efficacy of free markets.

micah: OK, I’m not sure I agree with that. Clinton is pretty liberal, including on economic policy. Their differences there seem to me to be 80 percent tone and 20 percent policy.

natesilver: It’s certainly true that they don’t have that many policy differences, at least on the surface. They voted together 93 percent of the time when in Congress together.

But I think they come to those conclusions from different places. Clinton basically believes in capitalism but thinks it needs some regulation. Sanders is more of a leftist, as opposed to a liberal.

clare.malone: I think that it’s not so much that Democratic voters are fed up with the party’s policies overall — Obama’s health care reform is looked on fondly by a vast majority of them — but I do think there is a sense that Democrats need to repackage and spin their politics to look like the “party of the people.” Mostly, I think, a lot of people don’t like the idea of another Clinton in office, plain and simple — it feels a little wrong from a small-d democratic point of view. Dynastic vibes are not very popular in the age of “The Big Short”; we’re at a moment when the culture is filled with warnings against institutions and insiders and when everyone feels like Ivy League toffs are pulling something over on them. The Clintons sort of unarguably fit into this elite rubric, and I think that makes a lot of Democratic voters uneasy.

micah: To me, the biggest difference — and again this has echoes of what’s going on in the GOP — is in faith in government. Sanders and his supporters are more willing to blow stuff up. Clinton is a tinkerer.

harry: The question is how durable the age split in the 2016 Democratic primaries is. Take a state like Ohio; Clinton won 77 percent of voters 65 and older, while Sanders took 85 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old vote. Does the progressive youth of today translate into the progressive majority of tomorrow? We don’t know the answer to that question yet.


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micah: Final thoughts!

Harry: That’s what is so interesting to me. It’s really an age split that has run through this Democratic primary, as opposed to ideological rift. Clinton regularly wins — or comes close to winning — “very liberal” voters. It’s among young voters that she fails. I wonder how much of the Sanders allure is about being an outsider, as opposed to being very progressive.

micah: Score:

Micah — 1
Nate — 0

natesilver: One problem is that Sanders is an old guy. And so are a lot of the other progressives that leftist Democrats might look up to, like Elizabeth Warren. If I were Sanders, one thing I’d be thinking about is creating an organization that supports progressive Democrats in primaries in state elections. Sanders hasn’t done much of that so far. He didn’t endorse Donna Edwards in Maryland or John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, for instance.

micah: Someone put a bow on this.

Harry: I guess this question remains unanswered: Is Sanders a one man in one time phenomenon, or is he the dawning of a new progressive Democratic generation? Sanders’s actions after this campaign can go a long way toward determining that.

clare.malone: Yeah — WHERE ARE THE DEMOCRATIC YOUTH?? There are very few young stars in the Democratic Party with real name recognition. Is the Sanders campaign the factory farm for stars/strategists to come? Maybe. But it seems problematic to me that the progressive rock stars of the Democratic Party are in their 60s/70s.

natesilver: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We still have 2016 to figure out. I think Sanders supporters will probably line up behind Clinton after California and that Democrats will wind up with high levels of party unity. But I’m not quite as sure about that as I was a month or so ago.

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

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

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s managing editor.

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