If you’ve heard Bernie Sanders speak for more than a minute, you know he hates billionaires and plans to implement his political revolution by turning out millions of first-time voters. These newbies will propel him to the Democratic nomination, boost him past Donald Trump, and give Senate candidates a critical push to win Democratic control, ejecting Mitch McConnell, enabling implementation of the Bern Agenda. At least that’s the plan.
If you’re a true believer, this scenario is completely internalized. If you’re a centrist Democrat, it’s scary, but likely preferable to four more years. The voters who will likely decide the nomination are somewhere in between. Open to Bernie’s Revolution. Skeptical he’ll succeed. Not willing to risk the consequences of failure. For the most data-driven among them, it’s helpful to see if Bernie is truly turning out the vote as he goes through the primary and caucus gauntlet.
Naturally, his team will play up the results, and his opponents will minimize them. If Michael Bloomberg or Pete Buttigieg claim Bernie is electoral suicide, we can’t exactly treat them as unbiased analysts. It’s also easy to get distracted by media headlines. Primary turnout is at least somewhat predictive. There were many Trump primary voters who weren’t habitual voters. This presaged his ability to get non-college educated white voters who stayed home in 2012 to do for him what they wouldn’t for Mitt Romney.
Without leaning too heavily on the results in any one state, we want to see how many voters are turning out and who voters those are. That will help us see where the potential paths to victory are, and when there’s a crossover between a candidate’s base and increased turnout. We’ll start with Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada early voting and then return every couple/few weeks as we have more data.
How Many: 176,400, slightly ahead of 171,000 in 2016, well behind 240,000 in 2008.
Who: Voters 29 and under were up over 2016, and a higher percentage of the electorate (24% v. 22%), but trailed 2008 by approximately 10,000 people. Non-college educated participants were off by 6%, while college educated voters were up.
This is where the debate began. Almost everyone was disappointed turnout was much more 2016 than 2008. Bernie’s team leaned heavily toward the higher amount of young voters. We need to take a few things into account. First, the oldest Millennials were only 26 in 2008, and most of the generation was too young to vote. Now, they’re pushing 40 and all are eligible. The very young voters Bernie is trying to attract, are actually Gen Z. And where his strength in 2016 was most pronounced among the under 30 group, now it extends an extra decade. You can argue he’s trying to bring out first-time voters under the age of 40.
Second, Barack Obama. Comparing voter turnout to a year where a generational candidate was on the ballot, plus Hillary Clinton, who was way more exciting to voters in 2008 than 2016, plus pre-disgrace John Edwards, who’d finished second in 2004, isn’t fair. No Democrat in 2020 put the resources into Iowa that the future president did in 2008. No Democrat in 2020 desperately needed to win as badly as he did.
Finally, Iowa. This caucus has mattered for decades. Most of the people who are willing to participate have already participated. There isn’t the variability of other caucuses and primaries. See point #2. The 2008 contest was the perfect storm, a total outlier. Having said all this, the Iowa results don’t make Bernie’s case very well. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong. But this doesn’t indicate he can inspire less experienced voters anywhere near as well as Obama could.
How Many: 296,622, up from 250,983 in 2016, and slightly ahead of 287,542 in 2008.
Who: Voters 29 and under were a far smaller percentage of the electorate than 2016, and moderates were more represented, while very liberal voters were a smaller share.
Despite setting a record, this is even worse for Bernie’s argument than Iowa was. His base is not middle-aged moderates, many of whom are independents and/or lapsed Republicans. The total was just ahead of 2008, despite not having a competitive GOP race this time. Twelve years ago, John McCain was a huge draw for this type of voter, and it led to big turnout on the Republican side. The combined primary turnout was lower in 2020.
Nobody, including Team Sanders, would suggest that Bernie is the strongest possible nominee for moderate suburbanites. These voters showed up to pick Amy Klobuchar or Mayor Pete. Unlike Iowa, which went for Trump by almost 10 points, New Hampshire was very close in November 2016. If you take this primary as an indicator, it means Democrats should avoid Bernie at any cost.
How Many: 70,000 (est.) early voters, compared to 84,000 (no early voting) in 2016, and 118,000 in 2008
We need to wait for tomorrow for certainty, but it looks like Bernie will finally have legit evidence to point to. Nevada will set a record this year, even exceeding the Obama-Hillary matchup. Many of the under-40, hoped for first-time voters are of color, and Nevada is the first place this group exists in any real numbers. If Bernie clears 30% caucus support, particularly on the first alignment vote (before supporters of non-viable candidates have to choose a new favorite), and younger/more liberal (sort of the same thing on the Dem side) voters are in fact a larger share than 2016, it will strongly signal he can do what he says he can do anywhere there’s a diverse electorate.
Given what we think we know about who older white moderates prefer, this is necessary for Sanders to argue the trade-off is worth it. Stay tuned, but the odds currently favor Bernie having at least one solid talking point in about 24 hours. We’ll return to this analysis after Super Tuesday.