Is Bernie Sanders’s ‘Political Revolution’ Fading?

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Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Holds South Carolina Campaign Rally
If there's going to be a revolution, Bernie is going to need more revolutionaries.Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/© 2016 Bloomberg Finance LP

Speaking on Meet the Press Sunday, Bernie Sanders pinned his Saturday loss in Nevada on low turnout among Democratic caucusgoers. Indeed, only about 80,000 Democrats participated in the Nevada caucuses this year, roughly two-thirds the number that participated the last time around in 2008. Acknowledged Sanders in the interview, “We will do well when young people, when working-class people come out. We do not do well when the voter turnout is not large. We did not do as good a job as I had wanted to bring out a large turnout.” And Bernie isn’t the only one making that point following the Nevada results. Even looking beyond Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton, conservatives are already getting a little giddy at the evidence of an enthusiasm gap:

Whether that gap persists remains to be seen, especially if someone like Trump or Cruz wins the Republican nomination and effectively scares the crap out of Democrats, but in the meantime, the immediate-term risk to Sanders candidacy — and his campaign’s central argument — is real. Along those lines, Vox’s Jeff Stein reminds us that Sanders’s “political revolution” relies on the idea that Democrats need, and will then win, lasting revolutionary gains by engaging new lower and middle-income voters. Looking at the race so far, however, Stein argues that there isn’t much proof that such a shift is underway:

As Vox’s Ezra Klein has written, Sanders thinks “the core failure” of Obama’s presidency is its failure to convert voter enthusiasm in 2008 into a durable, mobilized organizing force beyond the election. Sanders vows to rectify this mistake by maintaining the energy from the campaign for subsequent fights against the corporate interests and in congressional and state elections.

The relatively low voter turnout in the Democratic primary so far makes this more sweeping plan seem laughably implausible. Three states have voted, we’ve had countless debates and town halls, and there’s been wall-to-wall media coverage for weeks. Sanders has drawn close to Clinton in the polls, and there are real stakes in a closely divided race.

And yet … we have little evidence that Sanders has actually activated a new force in electoral politics. If he can’t match the excitement generated by Obama on the campaign trail, how can he promise to exceed it once in office?

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza is equally glass-half-empty about Sanders’s chances:

[T]here’s been only one successful Democratic insurgency in recent decades — Barack Obama’s, in 2008 — and Sanders is not on the same trajectory. There were two major components to Obama’s success. First, Obama expanded the Democratic electorate. This started in Iowa, where turnout hit a record in 2008 when Obama attracted young voters, independents, and even Republicans to caucus for him. If the traditional Iowa electorate of a small number of older Democratic partisans had shown up, Clinton would have defeated Obama. After Obama won Iowa, he opened a crucial second front against Clinton when he began to win over non-white voters. Even after building that strong coalition, he barely defeated Clinton; depending on how you count, she ended up winning more over-all votes than Obama.

Sanders has been expanding the electorate, but not by enough, and the over-all turnout numbers in 2016 are not meeting or exceeding the Obama milestones. Sanders is dominant with young people and political independents — according to the latest figures, he won voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine by eighty-two to fourteen in Nevada — but it’s not enough to make up for his deficits among other groups. The Nevada results show Sanders is having trouble breaking into traditional Democratic constituencies, like African-Americans and older voters, especially among women. Clinton won African-Americans by seventy-six per cent to twenty-two per cent in Nevada. Voters over forty-five years old made up sixty-three per cent of the Nevada electorate, and Clinton won that group by more than two to one.

Indeed, so far Clinton’s African-American firewall looks like exactly that, as FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten underlines:

Clinton’s margin [among black voters in Nevada] is only slightly smaller than Barack Obama’s 83 percent to 14 percent win with black voters in the 2008 Nevada caucuses. While the result wasn’t unexpected given that pre-election polls showed Clinton dominant with black voters, Sanders spent a lot of money on television in the state. That Sanders couldn’t close the gap with black voters with a big advertising push is a very ominous sign for his campaign.

Many of the upcoming primaries will feature a much higher percentage of black voters than Nevada did. While only 13 percent of Nevada caucus-goers in 2016 were black, their share in South Carolina will be much higher (55 percent of South Carolina Democratic primary voters were black in 2008). That’s why Clinton is up by 25 percentage points in the South Carolina polls. Even beyond South Carolina, on Super Tuesday 63 percent of the delegates up for grabs will be in contests with a higher share of African-Americans than Nevada. Better yet for Clinton, 35 percent of delegates will be up for grabs in contests with at least double the share of African-Americans as Nevada. In 2008, 19 percent of voters in all Democratic primaries were black — Clinton’s margin among black voters is a big advantage.

Enten adds that based on the numbers seen on Saturday, “Nevada is likely to be the first in a string of victories for her campaign.” The Upshot’s Nate Cohn nods, noting that the way Clinton won Nevada “suggests she has, despite Bernie Sanders’s strength, maintained her national advantage”:

[J]udging Mr. Sanders merely by whether he makes life tough for Mrs. Clinton diminishes his candidacy. It assumes that he’s just a protest candidate who should be judged by a lower standard. If he is taken seriously, and judged by whether he’s on a path to the nomination, then his performance [Saturday] fell short […]

Nevada was the third straight state where, because of demographics, one would have expected Mr. Sanders to fare better than the national average. In terms of the Democratic primary electorate, the black voter share in the state is below the national average. If African-Americans are the principal source of Mrs. Clinton’s national advantage, as her strength with them today and her modest showing among Hispanic voters suggest, then she should be expected to fare better elsewhere.

Going even further, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie resurrects the notion of an inevitable win for Clinton:

The Clinton campaign believes that Sanders’ strength and enthusiasm is illusory; that it reflects the peculiar demographics of Iowa and New Hampshire — rural states with few minorities — more than any pro-Bernie tide in the Democratic Party. Nevada, in other words, was a test. If Clinton lost, then it presaged a tighter race in South Carolina and beyond, and possibly one that ended with a Sanders nomination. Now, instead, we have a race that essentially looks like it did in the beginning of the year. Clinton has the advantage, and barring a catastrophic decline with black voters, she’ll march steadily to the nomination.

He nonetheless posits that the race isn’t over, either:

Sanders is still a formidable candidate. He will win additional contests and demonstrate the extent to which he — or at least, his ideology — is the future of the Democratic Party. To that point, Sanders continues to excel with young voters, including non-whites. In exit polls, Sanders won 68 percent of non-white voters under 45. Clinton will continue to have to respond to Sanders’ challenge and reach out to these supporters. Despite a clearer path to the nomination, she cannot be complacent. In all likelihood, this primary season will end with a Clinton who has moved even further to the left, adopting some of Sanders’ approach and even his rhetoric.

Lastly, echoing that point, Vox’s Matt Yglesias wonders if democratic socialism is actually what’s winning, both because of — but also instead of — Sanders:

Clinton has formidable advantages in this campaign — including a much broader network of endorsers, surrogates, and policy experts along with superior name recognition and a bigger, more experienced staff. Sanders had really only one advantage: A message about transforming the Democratic Party into a much more ideologically rigorous political party than its historically been, advocating a robust European-stye social democratic agenda of free public provision of health care and higher education. It looks like this message won’t be enough to put Sanders over the top, but it took him much closer than the Democratic establishment believed possible twelve, six, or even three months ago. Ambitious politicians in the party are going to be paying attention, and something like the Sanders agenda will be the agenda of the Democratic Party’s future.