The Morning Jolt


What Happened to That Democratic Voter Surge?

(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Good morning. If tonight’s debate, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern on CBS, doesn’t turn into a dogpile on Bernie Sanders quickly, then the rest of the field doesn’t really want to win.

On the menu today: sorting through the meager evidence that the Bernie Sanders campaign can stir up enthusiasm and bring out new voters, what percentage of the electorate in each swing state is likely to remember the Cold War, and the reasons to keep in mind that even Bernie Sanders would not necessarily be easy to beat in a general election.

Wasn’t There Supposed to Be a Surge of New Democratic Voters by Now?

One reason to look forward to Super Tuesday is that it will give us our first large-scale comparison of turnout in the Democratic primaries of 2016 and this year’s primaries. Since about late Election Night 2016, Democrats have believed that President Donald Trump is a one-man Democratic get-out-the-vote machine, and they certainly saw supporting evidence for that theory in the 2018 House races. Suburban soccer moms and white-collar dads who had previously split favorably to Republicans turned to the Democrats in significant numbers.

But you don’t run on socialism, banning private health insurance, a ban on fracking, abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, banning U.S. exports of oil, or praise Fidel Castro (see below), and pledge to allow convicted felons to vote from prison while serving sentences if you want to keep suburban soccer moms and white-collar dads.

The argument of the Bernie Sanders campaign is that he doesn’t have to worry about alienating or frightening the suburban soccer moms and white-collar dads, because he’s going to bring out a big number of people who previously didn’t vote. As David Frum summarized: “The Sanders campaign is a bet that the 2020 race can be won by mobilizing the Americans least committed to the political process while alienating and even offending the Americans most committed to it.”

If we want to determine whether the Sanders campaign is realistic about its ability to bring out new voters, or whether they’re getting high on their own supply, there are two useful measuring sticks here. The first is the overall Democratic turnout levels compared to past cycles, and the second is how many of those votes Sanders is getting.

In the three Democratic contests so far . . . the evidence is mixed at best.

Turnout in the 2020 Iowa caucus was about 176,400 people, which was a bit more than the 171,000 who attended in 2016 attendance but was well short of the record 240,000 Democrats set in 2008.

We don’t know how many people in the 2016 caucus showed up to vote for Sanders, because apparently no one in the Iowa Democratic Party thought it was worth writing down. We can get a very rough (okay, very, very rough) estimate of Sanders supporters by taking his 49.6 percent of delegates and applying that to the total votes. By that measure, 85,415 people showed up in 2016 supporting Sanders.

In 2020, just 45,831 ended up supporting Sanders in Iowa. Of course, the dynamic is different in a multi-candidate race than a two-candidate race. But this is evidence to confirm what many of us have been arguing for the past four years. A significant chunk of Bernie Sanders’s support in 2016 was rank-and-file Democrats saying, “I don’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton,” not an unshakable loyalty to Sanders and his agenda.

New Hampshire gives the Democrats better news: 296,622 people voted in this year’s primary, compared to 250,983 in 2016, and beating the old record of 287,542 set in 2008. But as I noted on primary night, almost 78,000 more voters were eligible to vote in this year’s contest than twelve years ago, and the GOP primary isn’t competitive or all that interesting this year. Under those circumstances, New Hampshire Democrats really should be setting a record.

Four years ago, 152,193 people voted for Sanders. This year, just 76,324 did. If Bernie Sanders is going to bring out a big number of people who didn’t vote in previous cycles, it’s not happening in New Hampshire yet.

In the Nevada caucuses, the results were comparable to Iowa: This year’s total of 105,195 participants was better than the 84,000 voters who participated in the 2016 caucuses, but short of the record 118,000 people who participated in 2008.

As in Iowa, Democrats in Nevada didn’t think anyone needed to know the total sums of votes for each candidate in 2016. So we have to guestimate that Sanders 47.3 percent of delegates, applied to 84,000 votes, comes out to about 39,732 votes for him four years ago.

This year the Democrats did release the vote totals, and Sanders received 41,075.

In other words, the evidence that Bernie Sanders can bring out significant numbers of lapsed or new voters is pretty sparse. Maybe he did in Nevada.

But we’ve only had three contests so far. Future primaries might be different. But there’s one other wrinkle, which is that Democrats believe that inactive voters represent a giant and almost limitless pot of potential new supporters. As John Fund observes, that’s not necessarily the case in the Trump era: “Indeed, a new study of non-voters by the Knight Foundation looked at 12,000 ‘chronic non-voters in America, across the country, and in key battleground states.’ They concluded that if they all went to the polls, Democrats would increase their popular-vote margin and lose the Electoral College even more decisively than they did in 2016. Most of the untapped vote in such states as Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and Arizona consists of white voters who have little to no college education. Many like Trump’s blowtorch rhetoric and anti-elitist attitude and are suspicious of left-wing social planners.”

You Probably Don’t Want to Bet the Election on Historical Amnesia

Steve Kornacki of MSNBC: “Younger voters, especially those under 30, have little or no first-hand memory of the Cold War. Their politics have been shaped by Iraq, Afghanistan, the great recession and Trump. Sanders’ comments on Castro, the USSR , Ortega etc. just land totally differently with them.”

This is where Democrats talk about the rising tide of Millennials and scoff that only old fogies talk about Communism and socialism being bad.

Overall, 56 percent of voters in the 2016 election were 45 and older. But the percentage in the swing states was mostly higher:

Percentage of voters over age 45 in the general election in Arizona in 2016: 62 percent.

Percentage of voters over age 45 in the general election in Florida in 2016: 59 percent.

Percentage of voters over age 45 in the general election in Iowa in 2016: 59 percent.

Percentage of voters over age 45 in the general election in Maine in 2016: 57 percent.

Percentage of voters over age 45 in the general election in Michigan in 2016: 58 percent.

Percentage of voters over age 45 in the general election in New Hampshire in 2016: 58 percent.

Percentage of voters over age 45 in the general election in North Carolina in 2016: 56 percent.

Percentage of voters over age 45 in the general election in Ohio in 2016: 56 percent.

Percentage of voters over age 45 in the general election in Pennsylvania in 2016: 59 percent.

Percentage of voters over age 45 in the general election in Wisconsin in 2016: 61 percent.

If Democrats go into this election thinking, “The Soviet Union and Cuba stuff will only hurt us among those born before 1975,” they’re whistling past the graveyard.

William Saletan offers Democrats the lesson they do not want to hear:

Rank-and-file Democrats, as a whole, are significantly more pro-socialist than independents are. And while Republicans, conversely, are more anti-socialist than independents are, the gap between Democrats and independents, on average, is about 10 points bigger than the gap between Republicans and independents…

Democrats, perhaps because they differ from the rest of the electorate in their feelings about socialism, are bad at estimating how socialism would play in a general election. Two weeks ago, in the Yahoo News poll, a 49 percent plurality of Democrats said most, nearly all, or about half of Americans would consider voting for a presidential candidate who called himself a democratic socialist. The guess was incorrect. According to the same poll, only 35 percent of voters said they’d consider voting for such a candidate. Democrats got it wrong.

Democrats think that the socialist label is harmless because it has no negative connotation to them and in their circles.

Don’t Get Fooled into Thinking a Trump Win Will Be Easy

This newsletter has laid out a lot of reasons why Bernie Sanders is going to be an enormously flawed messenger for the Democrats in 2020. But the 2016 cycle should teach us some humility. The electorate is unpredictable.

The coronavirus is going to be a kick to the crotch of the world economy that will, at minimum, hurt the U.S. economy by reducing consumption, disrupting supply chains, reducing travel, and stirring up fear and uncertainty. Without a rip-roaring economy, Trump will have to make the case for his reelection based upon his grace, elegant oratory, eternally courteous comportment and rhetoric, diplomatic and courteous approach to problem solving, and eagerness to soothe America’s divisions.

Most of the Democratic Party will fall in line behind Sanders. Chris Matthews is already having his on-air struggle session where he admitted his crimes of thought against the proletariat. The vast majority of the 65 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 are going to vote for the Democratic nominee, no matter who he or she is. The Bernie voters who flipped to Trump — in numbers large enough to swing Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — would presumably flip back in significant numbers. The suburbanites who voted for Democrats in 2018 but don’t like Bernie aren’t going to be eager to vote for Trump, either.

We can have a healthy wariness about polling at this point and still feel that Trump’s head-to-head numbers are not great. His job-approval numbers are getting better but are still low by historical standards.

ADDENDA: Michael Brendan Dougherty makes the unnervingly strong case that the World Health Organization soft-pedaled its initial warnings about coronavirus in order to avoid angering China.

Hey, who needs Florida, right?

“Donald Trump wins Florida if Bernie is our nominee,” said state Rep. Javier Fernandez, a Democratic candidate in a majority-Hispanic state Senate district.

“If Bernie Sanders is atop the ticket, it’s going to make it tougher for all of us to win in Florida,” said Fernandez, who has endorsed Sanders’ rival Joe Biden. “No one really sees Sanders winning Florida and I don’t think his campaign does either.”


The Latest