What Democrats Can Learn From Bernie Sanders’s Loss in the 2016 Primary


United States Senator Bernie Sanders

Dylan Shapiro, Writer

In 2016, a very divisive primary happened within the Democratic Party. Some may attribute this to the presumptive nominee’s loss later that year, but that is an article for another day. There were three candidates in this race who stayed in long enough to be on the ballot in some states. They are, in order of delegate count, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley. Martin O’Malley, the least popular of the three, was a former governor of Maryland. He was perceived mostly as a joke, and did horribly, dropping out before the New Hampshire Primary. Sanders, a Senator from Vermont, was a much more popular candidate, known for his liberal policies, and for being a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist. Probably the most well known of the three, and the eventual winner, was Hillary Clinton. She was a former Secretary of State, the First Lady during the Clinton Administration, and a former Senator from New York. A lot of people believe that Clinton had the election rigged in her favor, either by unfair support from superdelegates, or some other source, but a number of Sanders supporters were very put off when their candidate lost.

As I previously mentioned, many people think that Sanders lost because of unfair superdelegate votes, but this simply isn’t true. Yes, had Sanders received the votes of all of the superdelegates, he would have won the election, but there would have been outrage because of the popular vote margin. Clinton beat Sanders by over twelve points in the nationwide popular vote. She also beat Sanders 2,220 to 1,831 in the pledged delegates, a very healthy margin. Sanders lost by so much that, even if Clinton had lost all of her superdelegates, and Sanders retained his forty-eight, he still would have lost by a few hundred. Some argue that superdelegates should be abolished, and there might be some stock in that, but at the end of the day, Sanders still would have lost by 389 delegates.

So, we have established that Sanders lost fair and square, but many critics, including President Trump, have claimed that he won and won and won, and yet he still had no chance. Let’s see where those misconceptions may have stemmed from. One possibility is that he won by a lot in the states where he did win, but those were mostly small states. For instance, only 6 of Sanders’s 26 wins were by less than 55%, to Clinton’s 13 of 34. For perspective, that is roughly 25% for Sanders and roughly 38% for Clinton. However, 13 of Sanders’s wins were in states in the bottom half of the country population-wise, a percentage of roughly 57%. This shows that, while Sanders won by more in the states he carried, those states were typically smaller, and therefore had fewer delegates.

So, this begs the question, could Sanders, or a candidate like him, win presidential nominations in the future? The short answer is no. To prove this, let’s look at where Sanders did well. He did very well in his home state of Vermont, as would be expected, considering his 70% approval rating there. He also excelled in states like Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. In short, states with strong progressive movements. Lastly, he did particularly well in certain Midwestern states, like Minnesota, Kansas, and North Dakota. So, here is the big question: what do all of these states have in common? They are all predominantly white. This makes logical sense because the bulk of Sanders supporters are white. And here is the root of why he lost. He has little to no appeal to African Americans or other minorities. So, what’s the bottom line? Democrats can’t win by appealing to white twenty-something men, and they should stop trying to.

2020 is the next presidential election year, and many people believe Sanders would be the best candidate. This has been disproven though. So, if Sanders isn’t the best candidate, who is? There are a lot of names being thrown around, namely those of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Sanders himself. Many of these people have their own problems, though, like Biden’s age, and the aforementioned Sanders problems. I do believe that there is one candidate who would win the primaries, and also win in a landslide against President Trump. That candidate is Senator Kamala Harris of California. She is young (for a presidential candidate), and she also has a great appeal to Hispanics, one of California’s key demographics. This, coupled with a president whose approval among Hispanics is currently hovering around 18%, would make her formidable in states like Arizona and maybe even Texas, though Texas flipping to the Democrats is unlikely. In her Senate race in 2016, she won with Hispanics while running against a Latina congresswoman. That is how good she is at appealing to Hispanics. She is also African-American, which will help her in swing states with high African-American populations, like North Carolina and Georgia. Not to mention her fierce criticism of the President and his policies, and her tough questioning of cabinet appointees in Senate hearings. Another check in her box: she is an avid supporter of women’s rights, having planned to speak at a Women’s March, but having to cancel due to the government shutdown. She also has only been in Congress for a little over a year, so she can’t exactly be described as “establishment”. This may be perceived as inexperience, but in the long run I think she will be able to dismiss any concerns about that. And last, but most certainly not least, she has solid progressive credentials, supporting a Medicare for all systems of healthcare and higher taxes on the wealthy. She is one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party, and I could easily see her running now, or in four or eight years.

I think Democrats have a lot to learn from Bernie Sanders, and while he may not be the best candidate for the job, he certainly shows certain qualities that on their own will not win elections but that could most definitely make it easier for Democrats to win in states where progressives are adored, and help make more states competitive.