Super Tuesday Watch: Bernie vs. Bernie

Greetings, and happy Super Tuesday! As I type this, Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Massachusetts are in Joe Biden’s column. Vermont, Colorado, and Utah are going to Bernie Sanders. Maine is separated by like three votes. Texas is showing a Sanders lead, but it’s still very much a toss-up. The biggest prize, California, just closed its polls (not counting the people who are still in line.) Bernie is a solid favorite there, though Biden might make it interesting.

We may not know everything. California won’t issue official results for days. But we know a lot. Enough to start taking a serious look at how 2020 Bernie stacks up against the 2016 version. Though the contours are a bit different, and we can’t be sure how long Elizabeth Warren or Mike Bloomberg, neither of whom are enjoying their evening, will stick around, this is mostly Bernie versus an establishment candidate. We’ve seen this show before. Is it likely to go any differently this time?

Three things are clearly different and three things are very similar. Let’s start with the new. On the bright side for Team Bern, his four years of effort in the Latino community, endorsement from AOC, and the absence of Hillary Clinton, who along with her husband, built deep ties over a quarter century, has brought the improvement he sought. I just saw a CNN exit poll that indicated Bernie led Biden 55/21 among Latino voters in California. That’s similar to his result in Nevada.

In 2016, he lost both states by several points to Hillary. This year, Nevada was a big win, and California at a minimum, will turn out better for him than four years ago. Instead of losing by a 2:1 margin in Texas, Sanders will at worst lose by a couple/few points, and is considered 50/50 to win outright at this exact second. You can already assume Bernie will make Arizona (41.4% in 2016) much closer this time. Any time you can run noticeably better among a key ethnic group, it’s a big help. If Bernie were able to retain his entire base from last time, and make this addition, you’d have to favor him.

But he’s giving back in a key place. Not demographically, but structurally. Many states switched from 2016 caucuses to 2020 primaries. And it already cost him one state, and maybe a second. Last time, he won Minnesota easily, with 61.6%. Today, Biden won. Sanders still did well. He’s going to wind up around 30%. I’d bet you anything, if this were a caucus instead of a primary, Bernie would have won by plenty. Caucuses rely on the most enthusiastic voters. Biden may wind up having more voters, but we know who’s supporters are more passionate.

The same is happening in Maine. 2016 caucus, Sanders wins by 2:1 margin. 2020 primary, Sanders and Biden are effectively tied. We’ll see if Joe can hang on, but either way, Bernie’s support was halved. Again, if today was a caucus, Bernie wins easily.

The third difference is his primary opponent is running better with less-educated white men. This group did not like Hillary in 2016. Some liked Bernie, some liked voting against Hillary. She didn’t get all of them back in November. So Sanders won Oklahoma in 2016. And Biden took it from him in 2020. At the end of the day, if Bernie wins California and Texas, while giving back Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Maine, he’ll take that deal every day of the week and twice on Super Tuesday.

Moving forward though, it means places like Kansas and Nebraska, where he took advantage of a caucus and being a Hillary alternative to win, could easily become losses. You can see Wisconsin, a key Bernie primary win, becoming more competitive this time. I’ll need to take more time to really look at the map going forward, but my sense is these changes are a net wash. Given that he lost last time, that’s not great.

It doesn’t mean Bernie is destined to lose. Super delegates favored Clinton by a ton, and they don’t get to participate on the first ballot. If Warren stays in while Bloomberg exits, allowing her an easier path to 15% and delegate viability in most states, and she then barters her delegates to Sanders, he’s got a work-around that didn’t exist in 2016. But in terms of straight up competition with Biden, in many ways, Bernie is at a similar disadvantage as in his last odyssey.

Now for the same. There’s a good part. Sanders is as dominant with younger voters as ever. With more Millennials in the voting pool than 2016, it’s an even bigger advantage. He’s doing tremendously with the limited number of Gen Zs who are both eligible and actually participating. Of course the other side is he’s still not connecting with older voters. The Biden-Sanders age gap looks like a slightly more extreme version of Clinton-Sanders.

This goes double when applied to older, southern, African American voters. Bernie made no progress from 2016, and fortunately for Biden, even with more choices, he’s retaining almost as much support as Clinton. This is partially an age thing and somewhat a geography thing. Remember, Bernie won Michigan (very narrowly) last time, something only possible because he ran much stronger with African Americans there than places like South Carolina and Alabama.

We have evidence of this continuing, as the Biden-Sanders gap among black voters was far narrower in Nevada. You can very safely assume Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia are going to go terribly for Bernie. However, Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri, all of which he lost last time (two of them very narrowly), should be interesting, along with Michigan, which will be the Texas toss-up of next Tuesday.

You probably already knew most of what I’ve said so far. Perhaps not exactly, and hopefully the summary was helpful, but none of this is shocking. At all. But there’s one more thing that you probably hadn’t considered. And this factor is even stronger than it was in 2016.

I turn your attention to Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign. It’s very useful for making predictions. His third party run garnered him the largest share of the vote since 1924. He got 18.9% nationwide. But he did as well as 30.4% in Maine, and as poorly as 4.3% in Washington D.C. Some of this was Perot not running tremendously well with African American voters. A lot of it though is a striking consistency over the years in which states are less establishment-minded. The three big third-party efforts of the 20th century all did best in a similar group of states.

Frequently, a given nomination candidate will do well in those same places. Ted Cruz swept the very best Perot states on the GOP side in 2016. As did Bernie Sanders. Perot’s best five states were:

Maine 30.4%, Alaska 28.4%, Utah 27.3%, Idaho 27.1%, Kansas 27.0%.

Bernie’s best state was Vermont. I’m going to say that was home-field advantage, though the Green Mountain State did give Perot (22.8%) more than his average result. That was followed by Alaska, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Hawaii, Kansas, and Maine. Each of Perot’s top five were in Bernie’s top seven (or eight if you count VT.)

Bernie won 9 of Perot’s top 10 states. The one he missed was Nevada. Which he just won in 2020. He won 14 of his top 16. The other miss was Arizona, which I think is a possible Sanders victory in 2020. When he lost an above-average Perot state, the margin was either exceptionally thin (Massachusetts, South Dakota, Missouri), or Texas. And, as we’ve covered, Bernie is doing far better in Texas this time. California is a moderately above average Perot state seeing improvement.

It’s true he may lose Maine, an excellent Perot state. But at the moment, that’s his third or fourth best percentage (33.0%) of fourteen Super Tuesday states (second or third best non-Vermont.) The potentially better outcomes are Colorado, where everyone voted by mail, and Biden didn’t have time for his miraculous recovery, and Utah. Both of which were Top 10 Perot states.

Meanwhile, Perot’s worst ten were:

D.C. (4.3%), Mississippi (8.7%), Tennessee (10.1%), Arkansas (10.4%), Alabama (10.9%), South Carolina (11.6%), Louisiana (11.8%), Georgia (13.3%), Virginia (13.6%), North Carolina (13.7%).

Bernie lost all ten in 2016, and 14 of the worst 15. The exception, Hawaii, was a caucus. You’ll notice he’s already lost 6 of the worst 10 so far in 2020. Now that Hawaii is shifting to a primary, and native son Barack Obama’s running mate is contending, don’t be too shocked if Bernie manages to lose all 15 this year. His improvement with Latino voters is making him more competitive in the good Perot states he struggled in or just missed out on in 2016, but won’t help him at all in the bad Perot states.

There are some states that prefer establishment candidates. It cuts across age, gender, ethnicity, education and income. If you have two African American women of the same age, same education, same financial position, but one lives in the Deep South and the other in Nevada, I can tell you with absolute certainty the Nevadan is more likely to consider Bernie. Because almost any Nevadan is more likely to consider a candidate who doesn’t want to get with the program than almost any Alabamian.

Before you bring up Donald Trump, I’ll remind you that he didn’t fight the Republican Party, he completely subsumed it. Plus he ran better in Nevada than Alabama during the primary season himself. By picking Cruz, the Perot states were pushing back against the tide. As much of an outsider as he may have been, Trump was the GOP front-runner pretty much from day one. Just because experts didn’t want to believe it didn’t make it any less true.

We now have two cycles of evidence that show Sanders states and Perot states are almost an exact match. To win the nomination, Bernie will need to defend all the good Perot states, and not give too many more (like Minnesota, and maybe Maine) away, while starting to compete in the ones that were less-Perot friendly. He’s going to lose most of the bottom 15 or 20, but if he can do well in the next group, it’s a different story.

Iowa was a median Perot state. Bernie did similarly in 2016 and 2020. It’s also a caucus, which skews things a bit. Beyond that, if you can believe this, we haven’t had a neutral Perot state yet. Eighteen have voted, and seventeen are above or below average. We’re going to learn a lot over the next two weeks as places like Michigan (3/10), Missouri (3/10), Florida (3/17), Illinois (3/17), and Ohio (3/17) vote. This is where Sanders lost the 2016 nomination. He only got Michigan from the group. Florida won’t happen this time either. The others are all possible. Let’s see what happens.

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