Anybody who’s read this blog knows that I’m no fan of Bernie Sanders. It’s not that I think his policies are that misguided. It’s that he’s spent his entire career calling himself a socialist when anybody over 50 grew up watching socialism fail miserably. My fear is that Bernie Sanders will cause a catastrophic loss that costs Democrats both Houses of Congress and, in North Carolina, the governorship while preventing Democrats here from taking either the house of the legislature.
So I started looking at numbers to prove my point. What I found instead is that Bernie does, in fact, have a path to victory in North Carolina. His road follows the Obama model with a few modest tweaks and is heavily dependent on younger voters.
In 2008, Barack Obama energized two groups of voters and depressed one. African Americans made up 23% of the electorate, a larger share than in any other election in history. According to exit polls, he won more than 95% of them, which is not surprising.
The other group he won were younger voters. According to an analysis by Democracy North Carolina, 2008 had the highest participation of younger voters than at any time in recent history. About 61% of voters 18-29 years old voted. While that sounds low, it’s higher than in any recent election. And they voted for Obama 74-26 according to exit polls, giving him an almost 50 point margin. It’s the only age group that Obama carried, though he lost the 30-39 cohort by only one point.
In contrast, Hillary Clinton garnered about a 20 point advantage with the younger voters and won the 30-39 group by four. It wasn’t enough to offset Trump’s high margin among older voters who turned out in record numbers in 2016.
In 2008, Obama seems to have depressed turnout among older voters. They showed up in much lower numbers than they did in either 2012 or 2016. I suspect they were tired of the Bush wars and his Great Recession but not willing to embrace a black candidate.
While Sanders might not see African Americans turn out like they did for Obama in 2008, he can expect them to make up at least 20% of the electorate and capture the 90% that Clinton took in 2016. Recent polls indicate that he’s narrowing Biden’s lead among black voters and he’s certainly not alienating them.
The other group that he apparently can rely upon is Hispanics voters. They only made up 3% of the electorate here in 2008, but they made up 5% in 2016, and Clinton won them by 17 points. As one of the fastest growing populations in the state, they could easily make up 7% of the electorate and give Sanders a 20 point margin. Nevada showed his strength among Latino voters and polls in California indicate he’s poised to win a majority of them on Super Tuesday.
Bernie’s problem will come with older voters. Trump won by driving turnout among older voters to historic highs while participation from younger voters plummeted. Seventy-eight percent of voters over 65 showed up in 2016, giving Trump a 23 point margin over Clinton. In contrast, younger voter participation dropped by about 7% between 2008 and 2016.
Bernie Sanders has a clear path to victory and it’s rooted in enthusiasm among young people. We already saw a surge in younger voters in 2018 and if it continues into 2020, Sanders could ride a wave overwhelming support that gives him the 50 point advantage they gave to Obama. Living in a college town, I see and feel the enthusiasm for Sanders, even if I don’t fully understand it. They are poised to vote for him in the primary by a wide margin and will certainly do so again if he’s the nominee.
Attacks on Sanders for being socialist won’t work on voters under 40 and if it suppresses voters over 40, it likely helps Sanders more than hurts him. The voters over 65 who boosted Trump in 2016 probably won’t show up in quite the numbers they did four years ago. Trump has too much baggage and his plans to cut social security and Medicare will scare at least some of them away. He may win them by a similar margin but if their numbers are down from 2016, they won’t match the level of support Sanders gets from the younger voters.
Finally, Sanders could juice support from African Americans and women by choosing either Kamala Harris or Stacy Abrams as a vice presidential pick. At 78 years old, he almost guarantees a black woman frontrunner status to succeed him. That would certainly create excitement in the black community and among progressive women.
I’ve always taken certain comfort in numbers, even when they tell me what I don’t want to know. For me, they’re the best way to make sense of electorate, even if they can’t really predict voter behavior. I thought I was going to prove the folly of Sanders’ nomination and instead found his path to victory in North Carolina. He might not win the state, but I don’t think he will get blown out if he’s the nominee.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >