Would Bernie Sanders have lost the presidential election?

Nobody knows what would’ve happened had Bernie Sanders been the Democratic nominee in 2016. My guess based on my reading of the political science literature following Steven Rosenstone’s classic 1983 book, Forecasting Presidential Elections, is that Sanders would’ve done a bit worse than Hillary Clinton, because Clinton is a centrist within the Democratic party and Sanders is more on the ideological extreme. This is similar to the reasoning that Ted Cruz, as the most conservative of the Republican candidates, would’ve been disadvantaged in the general election.

But I disagree with Kevin Drum, who writes, “Bernie Sanders Would Have Lost the Election in a Landslide.” Drum compares Sanders to failed Democratic candidates George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis—but they were all running against incumbent Republicans under economic conditions which were inauspicious for the Democratic opposition.

My guess would be that Sanders’s ideological extremism could’ve cost the Democrats a percentage or two of the vote. So, yes, a priori, before the campaign, I’d say that Hillary Clinton was the stronger general election candidate. And I agree with Drum that, just as lots of mud was thrown at Clinton, the Russians would’ve been able to find some dirt on Sanders too.

But here’s the thing. Hillary Clinton won the election by 3 million votes. Her votes were just not in the right places. Sanders could’ve won a million or two votes less than Clinton, and still won the election. Remember, John Kerry lost to George W. Bush by 3 million votes but still almost won in the Electoral College—he was short just 120,000 votes in Ohio.

So, even if Sanders was a weaker general election candidate than Clinton, he still could’ve won in this particular year.

Or, to put it another way, Donald Trump lost the presidential vote by 3 million votes but managed to win the election because of the vote distribution. A more mainstream Republican candidate could well have received more votes—even a plurality!—without winning the electoral college.

The 2016 election was just weird, and it’s reasonable to say that (a) Sanders would’ve been a weaker candidate than Clinton, but (b) in the event, he could’ve won.

P.S. Drum responds to my points above with a post entitled, “Bernie Woulda Lost.” Actually that title is misleading because then in his post he writes, “I won’t deny that Sanders could have won. Gelman is right that 2016 was a weird year, and you never know what might have happened.”

But here’s Drum’s summary:

Instead of Clinton’s 51-49 percent victory in the popular vote, my [Drum’s] guess is that Sanders would lost 47-53 or so.

Drum elaborates:

Sanders would have found it almost impossible to win those working-class votes [in the midwest]. There’s no way he could have out-populisted Trump, and he had a ton of negatives to overcome.

We know that state votes generally follow the national vote, so if Sanders had lost 1-2 percentage points compared to Clinton, he most likely would have lost 1-2 percentage points in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania too. What’s the alternative? That he somehow loses a million votes in liberal California but gains half a million votes in a bunch of swing states in the Midwest? What’s the theory behind that?

OK, there are a few things going on here.

1. Where does that 47-53 estimate come from? Drum’s saying that Sanders would’ve done a full 4 percentage points worse than Clinton in the popular vote. 4 percentage points is huge. It’s huge historically—Rosenstone in his aforementioned book estimates the electoral penalty for ideological extremism to be much less than that—and even more huge today in our politically polarized environment. So I don’t really see where that 4 percentage points is coming from. 1 or 2 percentage points, sure, which is why in my post above I did not say that I thought Sanders necessarily would’ve won, I just say it could’ve happened, and my best guess is that the election would’ve been really close.

As I said, I see Sanders’s non-centered political positions as costing him votes, just not nearly as much as Drum is guessing. And, again, I have no idea where Drum’s estimated 4 percentage point shift is coming from. However, there is one other thing, which is that Sanders is a member of a religious minority. It’s said that Romney being a Mormon cost him a bunch of votes in 2012, and similarly it’s not unreasonable to assume that Sanders being Jewish would cost him too. It’s hard to say: one might guess that anyone who would vote against someone just for being a Jew would already be voting for Trump, but who knows?

2. Drum correctly points out that swings are national and of course I agree with that (see, for example, item 9 here), but of course there were some departures from uniform swing. Drum attributes this to Mitt Romney being “a pro-trade stiff who was easy to caricature as a private equity plutocrat”—but some of this characterization applied to Hillary Clinton too. So I don’t think we should take the Clinton-Trump results as a perfect template for what would’ve happened, had the candidates been different.

Here are the swings:


To put it another way: suppose Clinton had run against Scott Walker instead of Donald Trump. I’m guessing the popular vote totals might have been very similar to what actually happened, but with a different distribution of votes.

Drum writes, “if Sanders had lost 1-2 percentage points compared to Clinton, he most likely would have lost 1-2 percentage points in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania too. What’s the alternative? That he somehow loses a million votes in liberal California but gains half a million votes in a bunch of swing states in the Midwest? What’s the theory behind that?”

My response: The theory is not that Sanders “loses” a million votes in liberal California but that he doesn’t do as well there as Clinton did—not an unreasonable assumption given that Clinton won the Democratic primary there. Similarly with New York. Just cos California and New York are liberal states, that doesn’t mean that Sanders would outperform Clinton in those places in the general election: after all, the liberals in those states would be voting for either of them over the Republican. And, yes, I think the opposite could’ve happened in the Midwest. Clinton and Sanders won among different groups and in different states in the primaries, and the gender gap in the general election increased a lot in 2016, especially among older and better-educated voters, so there’s various evidence suggesting that the two candidates were appealing to different groups of voters. My point is not that Sanders was a stronger candidate than Clinton on an absolute scale—as I wrote above, I don’t know, but my guess is that he would’ve done a bit worse in the popular vote—but rather that the particular outcome we saw was a bit of a fluke, and I see no reason to think a Sanders candidacy would’ve seen the same state-by-state swings as happened to occur with Clinton. Drum considers the scenario suggested above to be “bizarre” but I think he’s making the mistake of taking the particular Clinton-Trump outcome as a baseline. If you take Obama-Romney as a starting point and go from there, everything looks different.

Finally, writes that my post “sounds like special pleading.” I looked up that term and it’s defined as “argument in which the speaker deliberately ignores aspects that are unfavorable to their point of view.” I don’t think I was doing that. I was just expressing uncertainty. Drum wrote the declarative sentence, “Bernie Sanders Would Have Lost the Election in a Landslide,” and I responded with doubt. My doubt regarding landslide claims is not new. For example, here I am on 31 Aug 2016:

Trump-Clinton Probably Won’t Be a Landslide. The Economy Says So.

I wasn’t specially pleading then, and I’m not specially pleading now. I’m just doing my best to assess the evidence.

35 thoughts on “Would Bernie Sanders have lost the presidential election?

  1. Good point. Also, people forget the John Kerry almost snuck through the back door via the electoral college if he had won Ohio. It is a pity we do not have access to the talking points that the Democrat party would have put forward to justify that victory in 2004

    • Jim:

      Read my post carefully: I mentioned Kerry’s almost-win above!

      Regarding your final sentence, I think the answer is clear: The Democrats would’ve said that Bush won the presidency in 2000 after losing the popular vote, and then he lost it in 2004 after winning the popular vote. Perhaps then both parties would’ve been interested in reforming the electoral college, which I think would’ve been a good thing.

  2. If you go state by state, I think it’s possible Bernie would have done better in places like Michigan because he sounded many of the same themes as Trump and was often just as inflammatory about his issues. And despite being in the Senate, he was seen as and marketeted himself as a Washington outsider determined to “drain the swamp”. As to the black vote, I think the issue is not percentage but turnout and that goes to whether there was as much anti-Clinton feeling among black voters as I read about or perhaps whether the after Obama black turnout was what it would have been. If the former, then again maybe MI goes blue. So I not only agree but I wonder if Bernie could have done better in Northern swing states.

  3. I agree with the concept of BS possibly doing better in the northern Midwest. Michigan was such a close contest, but BS would have prevailed, probably Wisconsin too. Pennsylvania may have still been close, as with Florida. Ohio was a lost cause, even without their governor truly supporting DT. BS would have been stronger in Maine, even if for only one more electoral vote. North Carolina may have been flipped, it’s a up and coming future blue to watch.

  4. In retrospect, Biden would have been the most likely candidate to win (given his appeal to lower-income whites) the electoral college, though he might very well have gotten fewer votes than Clinton. Hard to see him getting through the primary, however.

  5. Actually, I think it would have ultimately come down to who his running mate was — some picks would’ve edged him over the top and some wouldn’t. He would’ve been a more effective debater against Trump (especially in the Midwest) — Bernie was seen as honest, sincere, and passionate whereas many saw through Trump’s lies, insincerity, and lack of policies or details. But it’s true the Repubs would’ve labeled Sanders an extreme Socialist Jew and that alone would’ve caused many deplorables to go with CrookedDonald.

  6. The feeling among progressive groups is that “centrists” don’t win elections. They have been arguing that the Democrats need to stand for something rather than trying to be just to the left of wherever the Republicans are at the moment (why vote for Republican-lite if you can have the real thing?). Is there evidence that “centrists” do better in elections? I thought Hillary was foolish to attack Trump. People who were thinking of voting for Trump already knew his character. She needed to explain why voting for her would be useful rather than just being a continuation of the eight years of Washington gridlock and bad trade deals. Of course, she couldn’t because she was part of those years (not to mention the gridlock when her husband was President). If Keith Ellison becomes DNC chair, maybe things will change.

  7. In retrospect, I think it’s fair to say Bernie would have done better (if not won) against Trump. Let’s not forget if there wasn’t the BS (no pun intended) of super-delegates, Bernie might have carried the primaries. By the time the election got to CA, for example, HRC had the “momentum”. Any “dirt” on him would not have mattered much, just as it didn’t for Trump. This election was about charismatic populists, and Bernie was that figure for Dems. No, Biden is not charismatic in the same way. He was too establishment.

  8. 1. Bernie generated some excitement at rallies, roughly similar to Trump. Even among her people (older white women) there was less enthusiasm for Hillary than one would expect.
    2. “Email server”, “Benghazi”, “Clinton Foundation”, “Husband as sexual predator”, “Lying Hillary”. All these attacks on Hillary had no power against Bernie.
    3. You can call Bernie a socialist, but it’s not as though he doesn’t admit to that. And it’s not as though people think Sweden is some terrible place to be.

    Yes, I’m ignoring Bernie’s weaknesses here. But I think he could have won enough of Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to win.

  9. More generally, I think Drum’s deeper error is in being far too confident in this post and the follow-up about what would have happened. The one actually useful lesson many of the pundits seem to have learned this time around is that they have been far too confident in their own predictions and those of folks like Wang, Silver, etc. Which is a great lesson to learn! It would be a shame if they slide back into their old ways of making bold, confident assertions about things which we surely cannot know for sure. Had Clinton and the Democrats been less confident in their models and acknowledged that there was a very likely downside scenario that needed active strategizing against, we probably wouldn’t be in this mess right now. Hopefully the quants like Silver and Wang, and the quasi-quants like Drum, will remember this lesson in 2 or 4 years, and drop this over-confident talk of what will, won’t, or would have happened.

  10. I think the main issue with people’s predictions is that they’re putting too much emphasis on left vs right and not enough emphasis on the establishment vs anti-establishment dichotomy. That may have made sense in past elections but not in 2016.

    That’s partially why Bernie would have been a stronger candidate.

  11. I think Drum is overstating his case, but this may be an overreaction to the arguments from the other side. I’ve seen many Bernie supporters declaring things like he would have obviously “trounced” Trump. But Bernie wasn’t necessarily that appealing to many “white working-class” men here in MI, for example. I remember quite a few sharing Mike Rowe’s criticism of Bernie’s statements about college education. Those statements were argued to be “elitist” and “arrogant” (and promoting entitlement among younger people), among other things. Also, wouldn’t Bernie have a hard time if he couldn’t win FL in the general election?

    Also, I’ve seen some arguments that fmrly unengaged people coming out to vote for Trump outweighed vote switchers? I wonder how this would’ve played out.

    • Ruth:

      As I said, my first guess would be that Sanders would’ve done a bit worse than Clinton in the popular vote. But with this election going how it did, he could well have done worse than Clinton in the popular vote and still have won the electoral college.

  12. In PA, WI, MI Sanders could have done better with HS-educated voters than he would have done worse with college-educated voters, especially 35 + y.o, and white women. But we have the test case of Feingold for whom Sanders stumped and raised funds, and he did worse with the voters than Clinton did.
    So yes this is special pleading.

    • Rakesh:

      Jeez, I guess that’s what happens when the subject is politics. I write something that people disagree with and they say I’m “special pleading.”

      Just for a moment, please imagine a world in which someone can disagree with you without “deliberately ignoring aspects that are unfavorable to their point of view.” I know this might be difficult, but give it a try.

  13. Consider also the following.

    1. Without Clinton putting the question of sexism front and center, no one may have been motivated to release the Access Hollywood tape. Or Sanders may not have had the Hollywood connections to get hold of the tape.

    2. Sanders was vulnerable to Trump on his signature issues. I find it likely that voters would think Trump likely to be tougher on trade with foreign nations. Sanders would not have been able to counter on immigration because he has voted against immigration reform.

    3. Sanders would have been red baited. When previous to the FL primary debate his views on Nicaragua and Cuba came up, he was routed in the primary. Trump would have gone to town here given the oppo research the Republicans had–see Eichenwald.

  14. Great points! I have read similar commentaries and most of them talk about WI, MI and PA where I would agree Sanders would’ve had a better chance compared to Clinton because of protectionist trade policies. However, nobody talks about East Coast states NJ and MD (or even NY) where Sanders performed poorly during the primaries. I don’t think the closed primary argument holds in states where Sanders lost by a landslide. Sanders couldn’t have won the general elections by losing any East coast state.

    Another major point is that Sanders never faced a strong opposition, Clinton camp was soft on him for obvious reasons. The article below lists some Republican notes on him (otherwise too emotional). We can safely assume that Sanders would’ve been branded as a socialist/communist and that Americans, especially baby boomers, dislike socialism/ communism more than a woman President. Based on this assumption, is it possible to comment on how the age distribution which helped Trump win could’ve helped or hurted Sanders?


    • “We can safely assume that Sanders would’ve been branded as a socialist/communist and that Americans, especially baby boomers, dislike socialism” No, that is a wrong assumption. A popular misconception. Perhaps you are equating communism with socialism which is wrong. Sanders biggest supporters were millennials and independents, who are a bigger voter block than signed up democrats or Republicans. Most polls showed that these voters didn’t see socialism in a bad light and could easily distinguish between democratic socialism (Sanders) and the evil communism of the 50s and 60s era. Still, if you’re 60+ and voted republican all your life, then yes, you may see ‘socialism’ and Sanders quite differently.

  15. As it happens, a renown mathematician who has successfully analysed most elections since 2000, did do a model of a 3-way race between Sanders, Clinton and Trump, back in may when there was ample data and polls for all candidates in the primaries. Here’s the link to the result. http://bit.ly/sanders-clinton-trump-race

    Note this same mathematician predicted Trumps win on 3rd Nov with stunning accuracy, using available polling data from the various sources others had. It’s how mainstream media (and Nate Silver) incorrectly analysed them that caused the problems. As always, the truth is out there for those that know where to look. http://bit.ly/trump-win-probability

  16. I think you’ve completely misidentified Bernie Sanders’ political position and really failed to hit on the most important reasons why Clinton lost. To address the latter, Clinton lost because she failed to connect with voters and she is the epitome of establishment politics. All of rural America (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/2016-election/election-results-from-coast-to-coast/) rejected Clinton and had settle for the other. People in rural areas and in cities are terribly sick of politicians not caring about their constituents—which is exactly what Bernie Sanders was not. Polls showed he was overwhelmingly viewed by all voters as trustworthy and anti-establishment. The latter generally understood as to why Clinton lost. Further, because Clinton failed to connect with voters, turnout for her was low in the general election and primary (e.g., in the primaryhttps://twitter.com/Sci4Bern/status/721864427096666113). To address the former point of the first sentence, you’ve reduce the political spectrum to a single dimension (left or right) and have lost too much information for that descriptor to be useful. Bernie may have been “left” on some issues, but also had a lot of conservative pragmatism and patriotism that resonated with the “right”. Sanders has been an acclaimed and trusted politician from Vermont (you should really talk to his constituents), a rural state and has more conservative values in many ways that made him appeal to many of those voters (e.g., stances on foreign policy and guns). Most people did not even know who Sanders was in the primary, which is why he did so poorly. Sanders was a rockstar in many of the more rural areas once they became familiar with his campaign. In Wisconsin, for instance, he was a rockstar. These are just some ramblings, but they begin to address some of what has been neglected in the post-election autopsy: Clinton lost because she did not connect with the people, which is exactly what Bernie was good at.

    • Good points. I don’t know Rosenstone’s book, but I think we need to question the implicit assumption that voters typically place themselves and the candidates on a left-right spectrum and mostly vote for the candidates they see as closest to them on the spectrum. That assumption clashes with the decades-old finding that mass publics aren’t that ideologically sophisticated. American voters are more mercurial than ideological.

  17. The problem for Clinton was that she was trying to take a party to the third presidential term. By the end of two terms many voters have decided that there isn’t anything in the incumbent for them and they switch if there is an alternative. The Democrats needed to offer something new, but it is hard when your policies have been set for eight years.

  18. I have in my hands a data set of over 2000 American adults, by GfK and electology.org, with over 50% response rate, taken under a week before the election. Many questions were asked, including both 2-way preference (asked in different wordings up to 4 times to push people to declare for Clinton or Trump), and “how would you have voted if you had been using voting system X with candidate set Y”. X was from {plurality, approval voting, score voting, IRV}, and Y was from {{Clinton, Trump, Stein, Johnson}, {Clinton, Trump, Stein, Johnson, Sanders, Cruz, McMullin, Bloomberg, Castle}}. Each respondent got 1 Y and all the Xs; so that only about 1K got the candidate list with Sanders.

    Sanders convincingly would have won the score voting election; either in my sample, or projecting it out using Mr. P with 6 demographic variables at 4 levels each. In fact, with Mr. P, I project Sanders to beat Trump in states worth around 400 electoral votes; a landslide.

    Sanders beats Trump in the approval election, though still behind Clinton. Similar with IRV.

    Obviously, this is without having to face the rigors of a general election campaign, so probably Sanders’s actual performance against Trump would be worse than that. But it certainly doesn’t support the idea that Sanders would have lost in a landslide because he’s manifestly too liberal to appeal to most Americans.

  19. I came across this article searching for something else on Sanders. But I did take the time to let you know that I stopped reading and shut it down the second you said Russians. Right then and there I knew you had no idea what you were talking about.

  20. First, the terms ‘political’ and ‘science’ should never be strung together in the same sentence. As George Carlin would say, it’s just another oxymoron, like ‘military intelligence.’

    As an old Democrat more impressed with Sanders than with HRC these last few years(and I whole hardheartedly believed that in 2008 SHE was the far better candidate) I voted for Clinton in 2016, anyway. And in 2008, I voted for Obama even though he was also not my first choice. My real concern is reading some of the HRC supporter comments that imply Democrats shouldn’t have even been considering anyone else but her in 2016… BULL $#1/. The reality is that she lost (popular vote be damned)and it was due to her lack of judgement and the ridiculous notion that putting certain groups of people out of work would stop the process of climate change, a process that has been going on throughout the history of the planet… you know, for 4.5 BILLION years. What DNC leaders had better get a grip on is that liberals/progressives are not bobble heads in the same fashion as Republicans. We don’t blindly accept what elected Democrats say. We actually take note of what our leaders propose, and if we think it is wrong, we WILL get up in the candidate’s face about it.

    And finally, HRC was not anymore “centrist” than Sanders. “Centrist” Democrats in Congress are already selling out their constituents in an effort to look more “middle of the road” in the eyes of conservatives.

  21. I’ve been trying to digest some thoughts, many of which seem promising–I hope I don’t get bloating or indigestion.

    I have an idea of what people mean when they say “extreme political views”, but it’s one of those things that gets more confusing the more I try to think about it. Extreme relative to what value system? I understand that whatever is considered “in the center” is a comparison point commonly used in political science and political discourse in general. For instance, Andrew Gelman seems to conflate “extreme” and “non-centered” when describing Bernie Sanders. I understand that this is meant to be descriptive and not pejorative (though the word “extremism” in particular has taken on a very negative tint in the media). And I’m not writing this in defense of Sanders (who I was lukewarm about, even though I’d much rather he were president than Trump).

    But what reason is there for us to have a baseline that we call the center, other than that it is established as such and it (along with systematic deviations from it) helps explain happenings in politics? How coherent even is this center (which varies to some extent from place to place) as a value system? And what political candidate doesn’t have positions that could be considered extreme under some value system, even if the candidate/supporters/whatever parts of established societal structures are behind them are unaware of this or try to sweep it under the rug?

    I say this not to advocate moral relativism (which I can’t help but note is sometimes considered extreme) or naive radicalism–I’ve just been convinced that political-spectrum theories, regardless of their predictive power and ability to explain some of the intrinsic dimensionality of politics, don’t deeply account for the richness of the philosophy and psychology of politics. By saying this I wanted to note a limitation and critique, not so much criticize–after all, as long as political spectrum theories give useful results, they’re worth using.

    I’d be interested in more info/perspectives on this (as a citizen), especially because I don’t have a lot of background in the relevant literature, I just read/hear/get into discussions and hear about Jonathan Haidt and stuff like that.

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