Dismantling Bernie's Moral Monopoly

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Last week, Democratic primary voters in Portland, Oregon preferred Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton by 12 percentage points. Portland perfectly embodies a pro-Sanders area. It is liberal and the whitest major city in the United States. In these Sanders strongholds, white Sanders supporters talk among themselves about how the Sanders "revolution" is inclusive, progressive, and represents the "99 percent." They nod in agreement about the dishonesty of "Shrillary," the corrupt nature of the "establishment," and the blackout of Sanders by the "mainstream media." More importantly, they claim superdelegates, closed primaries, and archaic voting processes have "fixed" the election for Clinton.

It seems that Sanders and his supporters have monopolized the moral high ground and cornered the market on outrage. At the same time, their moral purity is unencumbered by a morally reprehensible election strategy. This strategy, when stripped down to its basic elements, entails replacing a qualified female nominee with a white male candidate. Moreover, it requires overturning the swing votes of women and minorities largely in favor of votes by white males.

Sanders' strategy
In last week's primary contests, Sanders soundly defeated Clinton in Oregon and narrowly lost Kentucky. In his victory speech from Carson, California he reiterated his plan to take his nomination challenge to the convention floor in Philadelphia, "we're going to continue to fight for every last vote until June 14th, and then we're gonna take our fight into the convention."

This has been the Sanders campaign's strategy since he lost New York on April 19. At the time, Sanders' campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, articulated their strategy more precisely, "We're going to go to the convention. It is extremely unlikely either candidate will have the requisite number of pledged delegates to (win the nomination). So it's going to be an election determined by the superdelegates."

Sanders currently trails Clinton in the popular vote and pledged delegates. This will almost certainly be the case on June 14 when the final primary in DC is wrapped up. When Weaver was asked if, after DC, he would use the six weeks before the convention to try to flip superdelegates to Sanders, Weaver said, "Yes, absolutely."

Sanders' message
Of course, the Sanders campaign does not acknowledge the voter suppression that would occur if their superdelegate strategy were successful. The Sanders campaign's pitch to superdelegates at the convention will be much more innocuous. They will argue that Sanders has the momentum, Clinton's negatives make her a flawed candidate, and Sanders is a stronger candidate against Donald Trump, the presumed Republican nominee.

These arguments have some merit.

If you look at polling from a year ago, it certainly looks like the Sanders campaign has gained momentum. In Carson last week, Sanders reinforced this narrative, "When we began this campaign a little over a year ago we were sixty points behind Secretary Clinton in the polls, we had no political organization, no money, very little name recognition... Well, a lot has changed in the last year."

Whether this is genuine momentum or spurred more by greater name recognition and better funding is up for debate. What is clear now, is that Sanders and Clinton are neck-and-neck in the polls.

Sanders also claims to have more excitement behind his campaign. He has been packing venues almost to the extent that Obama did in 2008. His rallies are more festive than traditional campaign events. Much of this excitement is garnered from his overwhelming support among the youth. Last Tuesday in California, he said to ruckus cheers, "I am especially proud that in nearly every primary and caucus... we have received a significant majority of the votes of young people."

Exit polling supports this: Sanders has won 71 percent of the youth vote; Clinton has won 28 percent. By contrast, if excitement is correlated to youth, then is boringness correlated to old age? By that measure, Clinton is much more "boring" than Sanders; she is dominating the elderly vote, with 70 percent of voters older than 65 supporting her, compared to only 28 percent for Sanders.

The Sanders campaign's most persuasive argument to superdelegates is that they have a better shot at beating Trump in the general election. Recent polling supports this. The latest PPP poll from May 10 has Sanders leading Trump by 11 points and Clinton leading Trump by only 6 points. The CNN/ORC poll from May 4 shows Sanders leading Trump by 16 points and Clinton leading Trump by 13 points. Other state polls show Sanders outpacing Clinton as well. A Quinnipiac poll in the swing state of Ohio shows Clinton trailing Trump by 4 points, and Sanders leading Trump by 2 points.

Sanders is losing
The argument the Sanders campaign would ideally like to make to the superdelegates is that Sanders is winning the primary. But, he is not. Make no mistake about it, Bernie Sanders is losing to Hillary Clinton and it isn't particularly close. Excluding caucus states, Clinton has received nearly 13 million votes compared to Sanders' nearly 10 million votes. Even if caucus votes could be counted, it is unlikely that Sanders would reduce her 3 million-vote lead by much. By contrast in 2008, Clinton was leading Barack Obama in the popular vote, but still dropped out of the race and pledged her support to the next president well before the convention.

More importantly, Sanders is losing the pledged delegate race. Currently, Sanders trails Clinton by 271 pledged delegates. These delegates are awarded proportionally to state election and caucus results, and represent the will of the voters.

In 2008, then-Senator Obama only led Clinton by 127 pledged delegates after all primaries were completed -- less than half of Sanders' current deficit. Despite this, she still suspended her campaign well before the Democratic convention and threw her campaign's full weight behind Obama (after he agreed to forgive her campaign debt, of course).

Sanders supporters often complain about the role of superdelegates. They argue that these party insiders should vote in line with their state's election results. Some Sanders supporters have gone so far as to threaten these superdelegates after posting their private addresses and phone numbers online. While it is hard to find anyone who supports the role of superdelegates, it is true that Clinton has a nearly 500 superdelegate lead over Sanders. What Sanders supporters fail to realize is that if superdelegates were forced to vote in line with their state's election result, Clinton would have all but clinched the nomination already. New York times reporter, Nate Cohn, crunched the numbers and recently tweeted, "Hillary has already won enough states to win a majority of Super Delegates under (proportional assignment), even if she loses all remaining contests."

But, it is not the fact that Clinton is winning that is dooming Sanders' convention strategy, it is how she is winning. Clinton is dominating Sanders with female voters and voters of color.

Clinton is winning the female and non-white vote
There was some confusion early in the primary schedule about if Clinton would actually outperforming Sanders with women. It turns out she is crushing him. In the primary states where exit polls were taken, the average number of women voters supporting Clinton is 60 percent versus only 38 percent for Sanders. By contrast, the two are virtually tied in the male vote (49 percent apiece with a half percentage advantage for Sanders).

Clinton is also dominating the "non-white" vote. This includes Americans of Asian, Latino, or African origins. On average, Clinton is supported by 69 percent of non-whites compared to 30 percent for Sanders. In the five primaries where exit polls were taken and where Hispanics represent a reasonably large population, Clinton is supported by 59 percent of Latino voters, on average. Sanders is supported by 40 percent. But, Clinton's biggest supporters appear to be African-Americans. In the 22 states where blacks represent a significant voting block and where exit polls were taken, Clinton has received, on average, the votes of 78 percent of black voters. Sanders has received 21 percent.

Contrary to the Sanders campaign's claim that they are gaining momentum, these voting trends have remained relatively static. Women and minorities have consistently supported Clinton. The chart below shows the average percentage of voters that supported Clinton throughout the primary season. The dip after April 2nd is because the only state with exit poll data during that period was Wisconsin, a state solidly in the corner of Sanders, and 88 percent white.


These trends are important because they contradict the narrative about Sanders' victory in Oregon and his narrow loss in Kentucky. Election coverage leading up to these primaries suggested that Sanders had the edge in Oregon and Clinton had the edge in Kentucky. A narrow win by Clinton in Kentucky was widely viewed as a victory for Sanders. But, when we look at the numbers this probably isn't the case. The average percentage of white people in the 18 states won by Sanders is 88.5 percent and the average percentage of white people in the 24 states won by Clinton is only 76 percent (this excludes Alaska, Hawaii, and US territories, of which Clinton won three and Sanders won two). Both Oregon and Kentucky have white populations of 88 percent (88.1 percent for Oregon and 88.5 percent for Kentucky). These are perfectly consistent with other states Sanders has won. In Kentucky, when considering these demographics and Clinton's incendiary comment, "we're gonna put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business" -- for a state with about 11,000 coal miners -- a narrow victory in Kentucky should be considered a major victory for her campaign. Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog agrees, saying Clinton actually outperformed her projected delegate haul in the bluegrass state.

Why women and minorities support Clinton
Clinton's support among women should not be surprising. Clinton has fought for women's rights for decades. In 1995, she represented the U.S. at the United Nation's World Conference on Women in China, famously stating, "Women's rights are human rights" -- a mantra that has been carried by women's rights activists all over the world. She has also been a source of pride for women who understand the challenges faced by women in establishing a foothold in the upper echelons of power. Clinton is a lawyer with a degree from Yale, a first lady, a senator, a Secretary of State, and the first viable female major party candidate for the President of the United States. More importantly, in terms of policy, like Sanders, she supports issues that are important to women like equal pay and abortion rights.

In terms of the black vote, the Sanders campaign has made great efforts to gain support among black communities, but with little success. This has been a source of constant frustration among Sanders supporters who see Sanders as a champion of black issues. They point out that economic inequality disproportionately impacts black communities, they highlight Sanders' activism during the civil rights movement, and point to Clinton's support of President Bill Clinton's crime bill and welfare reforms in the 1990s, initiatives that had negative impacts on African-Americans.

But, black Americans have very reasonable motivations for supporting Clinton. First, Clinton is largely seen as an ally and protector of Obama's legacy. Obama's term as president is largely considered a success among African-Americans and Clinton is seen as the best steward of the president's policies. Second, Sanders is a senator from the whitest state in the union (over 95 percent white) and has little-to-no experience in representing blacks or minorities. Third, blacks emerge from a history of being lied to by politicians who promise the world. In January 1865, former slaves were famously promised 40 acres and a mule on order from Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, approved by President Lincoln, and overturned several months later by Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson. In 1964, Malcolm X described this deep distrust among the black community for populist politicians, he said, in an election year, "all of the white political crooks will be right back in your and my community ... with their false promises which they don't intend to keep."

Sanders seems to fit this mold with his promises of free education and free health care and a very questionable plan to pay for it (assumes a sustained economic growth rate that hasn't happened in modern American history).

Disenfranchisement of Clinton supporters
If Clinton's lead in votes and delegates is largely because of support from Blacks, women, and Hispanics, then who is supporting Sanders? White men. In the 12 states with exit polling that disaggregates data into one category of "race and gender," Sanders is leading Clinton in the average percentage of white male supporters -- 55 percent to 44 percent.

Given this demographic truth, if superdelegates were to disregard Clinton's lead and give the nomination to Sanders, they would essentially be taking away the nomination from a qualified woman and giving it to a white man. Sadly, such an outcome would not be new to America. Women still earn only 79 cents to the man's dollar and are underrepresented in leadership positions. Moreover, overturning Clinton's lead would inevitably require overturning the votes of women and minorities in favor of the votes of white men.

In 1870, nearly a hundred years after America's democracy was established, the 15th amendment to the US Constitution was adopted. This amendment ostensibly gave black Americans the right to vote. But, it wasn't until the 24th amendment in 1964 (eliminating poll taxes) and the Voting Rights act in 1965, that blacks -- and other Americans of color -- truly began to enjoy universal suffrage. For women, it wasn't until 1920, when the 19th amendment was adopted, that they too were given the right to vote. In 2016, disenfranchisement continues to be an important political issue as Republican-led voter ID laws are largely seen as efforts to disenfranchise blacks and other groups who generally support Democrats.

Disenfranchisement is the dark, unspoken side to Sanders' convention strategy. When immeasurable concepts like momentum, excitement, and electability are stripped away, this is what's left: a white male candidate, supported largely by white males, attempting to overturn the primary victory of a female candidate favored by the swing vote of women and minorities.

In his 1964 speech entitled "Bullets and Ballots," Malcolm X explained the swing vote, "What does this mean? It means that when white people are evenly divided, and black people have a bloc of votes of their own, it is left up to them to determine who's going to sit in the White House and who's going to be in the dog house."

Of course, nobody believes that Sanders' intention is to eliminate the swing vote of women and minorities. On the contrary, most believe he is simply trying to win because he believes he is better for the country and better for marginalized communities. In his victory speech last Tuesday, Sanders said, "Racial justice... is the future of this country." But, unfortunately for Sanders, his continued pursuit of a convention strategy based on superdelegates overturning a Clinton primary victory represents a serious blow to the racial (and gender) justice for which he is purportedly fighting.