Iowa and New Hampshire Are As Good As It Gets for Bernie Sanders

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Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Holds Iowa Campaign Stops
You don't have to be white and liberal to support Bernie Sanders, but it is a thing. Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/© 2016 Bloomberg Finance LP

It’s become something of a truism that Bernie Sanders has his strongest appeal among white and ideologically liberal voters, and that his biggest challenge is to find some traction in states dominated by centrist and minority voters. 

Exactly how big a challenge that might be was displayed by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight on Friday, in an estimate (based on exit polls) of the percentage of Democratic primary and caucus voters by state who are both white and liberal.

What jumps right off the page is that the top three states by this measurement are Vermont (59 percent), New Hampshire (54 percent), and Iowa (50 percent). Those who say Sanders is lucky in drawing two initial nomination-contest states that are a lot like the place he’s been running all these years are absolutely right. 

After New Hampshire, states quickly get less honkified and progressive. In the rest of February, there’s Nevada at 29 percent white liberal and South Carolina at 19 percent. And on March 1, you have the so-called SEC primary of Alabama (17 percent white liberal), Arkansas (29 percent), Georgia (20 percent), Tennessee (27 percent), Texas (17 percent), and Virginia (31 percent). Vermont votes on March 1, too, so Sanders will win at least one state then. So, too, do Massachusetts (50 percent), Minnesota (not on Nate’s chart), and Colorado (ditto). Note that Clinton handily carried Massachusetts against Obama in 2008 despite the latter’s endorsements by the governor and both senators; it’s one of a number of states with a decent demographic profile for Sanders where HRC seems to have some secret sauce of her own. Looking at some of the remaining states, it’s notable that the two largest with relatively high white-liberal percentages (New York at 40 percent and Pennsylvania at 39 percent) both went for Clinton in 2008. 

None of this, of course, guarantees a Clinton nomination; she could make some big mistakes, or Sanders could prove to have greater appeal among African-Americans and Latinos — and maybe even non-liberal white folks — than we all think he does now. As Silver points out, we should not underestimate the media reaction to back-to-back Clinton losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, even if they are explainable as outlier states:

Sanders would have an avalanche of momentum going for him after wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. The national press corps, which spins even minor stories into crises for Clinton, would portray Clinton’s campaign as being in a meltdown. Momentum usually matters in the primaries — and sometimes it matters a lot — but exactly how many Democrats would change their votes as a result is hard to say. The wave of negative coverage might be especially bad for Clinton, but it’s also possible that, because the media has sounded false alarms on Clinton before, she’d be relatively immune to the effects of another round of bad press.

We’ll know soon enough; if Sanders wins Iowa Monday, the odds of him winning New Hampshire, perhaps by a big margin, are extremely high. But for those trying to catapult any such result into the claim that Sanders has become an overwhelming front-runner for the nomination, a cautionary look ahead at the calendar, the demographics, and the 2008 results are in order.