Correlation Sometimes is Causation

Pick a poll. Any poll at all. Look at the underlying data on Bernie Sanders. You’ll notice four things every time:

His voters are younger. Much younger.

His voters make less money

His voters are the least likely to have a college degree

His voters are the least likely to say they’re following the primary campaign closely

Yes, his voters are also usually more liberal/progressive than moderate/centrist. That’s true of several other candidates too. There isn’t much difference between his splits and Elizabeth Warren’s on ideology. Sometimes Kamala Harris has similar numbers.

He’s doing a little better with male voters, but not noticeably or consistently. Warren is often several points stronger with women. Bernie has no such gap. Unlike 2016, where Sanders consistently trailed Hillary Clinton among non-white voters, particularly African Americans, he’s now racially neutral. While he’s no Biden, in a few southern states, Bernie is doing better with black voters than Harris.

We’re left with the above four traits. It’s easy to create a narrative. In the last primary season, Sanders grabbed 43.1% of the vote. He’s now polling at 15% nationally. There aren’t many individual states where his average result is much higher.

So two thirds of his 2016 voters are now elsewhere, and those who remain aren’t paying attention. Either these supporters will abandon him when they begin following the contest, like his others did, or they’re going to mindlessly vote for him.

People who spend a lot of time reading about the election are extra susceptible to this logic. It’s a luxury to follow a campaign day to day more than half a year before anyone votes. Those who do this are often one or more of the following: retired, educated, or affluent.

The opposite of Bernie’s base. It’s not a leap for this type of political junkie to dismiss his chances, and look down their nose at the overly youthful, ignorant, uneducated rabble that is rejecting exciting new choices because they don’t know any better yet.

Maybe. But probably it’s just that his supporters are young.

The 18-24 demographic is the least likely to have a college degree. Obvious reason. They’re often still in college. As you work your way up the age chart, it becomes easier and easier to have completed a degree.

Unless you’re a professional athlete, it’s unlikely your income will peak in your twenties. Incomes are generally highest in one’s 40s or 50s, north of Bernie’s base.

And of course, younger voters turn out to vote at a lower rate, generally linked to not spending as much time following elections. If I only told you that a candidate had by far the youngest supporters, and that they had a decent sized share of the overall electorate, you could easily deduce they would do better with less affluent, less educated, less involved voters.

In the 2016 two-person contest, Bernie had the support of two thirds of young voters (I’m doing a bunch of rounding and estimating here—it’s close enough—work with me here.) Now it’s more like a third.

There are over 20 candidates, five of which poll well to decently. Instead of one opponent, he has at least four. That’s a pretty good retention rate in context. It’s still early. We don’t know how many voters under 35 will turn out next spring. They could still pick a different candidate.

For now, no candidate has as clear a nationwide strength with a large demographic group as Bernie. Biden is still doing very well with southern black voters. On the coasts, Harris got in range of him quickly after the first debate. Biden leads among older voters. But it’s not always by much.

If Sanders can hold his young voters and they show up for him in the spring, it’s not enough to get him nominated by itself. It is more than adequate to keep him around. There are plenty of other voters who have already voted for him once. If their current favorite is gone, they could turn back to him without much trouble.

Bernie is not the front-runner. He is not the favorite. When a candidate finishes second in one primary contest and tries again, historically they need to do better than he is now to get nominated. But rumors of his demise are greatly exaggerated. And thinking his base is inferior to his opponents is a mistake.

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