How Franklin Roosevelt will cost Bernie Sanders the Democratic nomination

Bernie Sanders’ loss to Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s New York state primary served as an unofficial final nail in his campaign’s coffin.  Sure, he is likely to remain in the race for a while longer, but the mathematical truth is that his current delegate deficit would require him to win impossibly large majorities in the remaining states in order to still be competitive.  Sanders’ fans all along have charged that bias towards Hillary Clinton at the DNC and the DNC’s use of undemocratically appointed superdelegates, who heavily favor Hillary Clinton, have been the root of Sanders’ electoral woes. And while these concerns might be more salient if the contest was neck-and-neck, it’s important to realize that Clinton has garnered 2.7 million more votes than Sanders, giving her a 277 delegate lead, without counting superdelegates.  So, instead of treating superdelegates or the DNC as scapegoats for Sanders losses, his supporters would be wise to find someone else to blame.  Namely, Franklin Roosevelt.

That Franklin Roosevelt? Yep, our nation’s 32nd president actually is having a large effect on the selection of its 45th.  As the only president to be elected four times, Roosevelt clearly understood how to win elections, and his best campaign tactic was assembling diverse groups of voters to support both him and his programs.  Roosevelt’s coalition of urban voters, white Southerners, intellectuals, and minorities has since been dubbed the New Deal coalition. While the last 80 years have made slight adjustments to this voting bloc – white Southerners now tend to vote Republican, and younger voters now represent a stronghold of Democratic support – the New Deal coalition remains the basis for Democratic turnout.

The problem with assembling a coalition of voters, however, is that in order for the coalition to last, there has to be some unifying factor to tie the coalition together.  Roosevelt’s coalition was successful because it was tightly unified in support for his administration’s New Deal programs. Unfortunately for Bernie Sanders, his failures in this primary cycle can largely be traced to his inability to unify enough support from enough facets of the Democratic coalition.  Winning a primary campaign for a major party is more about breadth of support across groups than depth of support in a certain group, and Sanders’ campaign was only able to come up with the latter.  For example, even in his loss to Hillary Clinton in New York, he still won the under-30 vote by a whopping 34%.  Winning a group by margins like that, as Sanders has learned the hard way, is only a recipe for electoral success if the group represents a large size of the total electorate or those large margins can be repeated in other demographic groups.  But in New York, under-30 voters only made up 17% of the electorate, and Sanders has been unable to translate his fervent support from young people to other classic Democratic demographics.

Take, for example, urban voters.  City-dwellers have tended to lean Democratic ever since the days of the New Deal coalition, but Sanders has had trouble attracting widespread support in big cities.  Just look at the county by county results in New York:

New York Results

Considering that Clinton won New York readily, it’s surprising to see Sanders’ light blue dominate the state.  Clinton’s key to victory was the state’s urban areas – as the only counties she actually won were in the New York metro area as well as the counties where the cities of Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse are located.  Sanders actually won both suburban and rural voters in New York, but since Democrats are most densely packed in cities, Clinton’s urban advantage was all she needed.

Sanders has also had trouble attracting minority support, especially among black voters, who have historically made up a key component of the Democratic coalition.  Reasons abound for why black voters tend to prefer Clinton, from lower African-American unemployment rates during her husband’s administration to Clinton’s longer time dealing with racial issues in the public eye and Sanders’ campaign gaffes while discussing racial topics.  There’s no simple underlying answer – the reason for high Clinton support among minorities likely comes from a mixture of these factors and individual voter preferences.  But while it’s easy to argue about the rationale for Sanders’ struggles to win minority support, it’s hard to argue about the ultimate effects of minority voters heavily favoring Clinton.  Plotting voter demographics against Sanders support shows a clear racial disparity between Sanders and Clinton supporters1:

SandersBlackSandersMinority

Clinton has won fifteen of the sixteen states with more than 10% of black voters, while Sanders has won every state with less than 3% of black voters. Reciprocally, with the exception of Iowa (which voted first, when Sanders had less name recognition than he does now), Sanders has won all of the eight whitest states that have voted so far.  Hawai’i is a notable exception to the general trend, as its high proportion of Asian and Pacific Islander residents makes it have low percentages of both white and black voters.  However, ignoring Hawai’i, we discover that Clinton has won all thirteen of the least white states that have cast their vote.  In a party that prides itself on being multiracial, that’s quite a racial divide.  And unfortunately for Sanders, his campaign has cobbled together a losing demographic mix from the diverse party Roosevelt helped establish.

At the end of the day, it takes a coalition to win an election.  The Democrats have had a competitive and remarkably stable coalition of voters going all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt, but Sanders’ inability to spread his appeal across the modern Democratic coalition has, more than anything else, helped hand the nomination to Hillary Clinton.

Footnotes   [ + ]