The results of the South Carolina primary were no doubt disappointing for Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator was expected to come up short in the state, but few expected a lopsided, 48-point loss to Hillary Clinton.
The turnout rates, however, added insult to injury.
With 99 percent of the vote counted … turnout was about 370,000, according to Edison Research modest compared with the 532,000 ballots cast in the Clinton-Obama primary race here in 2008, and well below the record 743,000 votes cast in South Carolina’s Republican primary last Saturday, which [Donald Trump] won.
If this is starting to sound familiar, there’s a very good reason for that. Heading into Super Tuesday, each party has held four nominating contests: the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire primary, Nevada caucuses, and South Carolina primary. In each instance, Democratic turnout has dropped since the party’s most recent competitive race.
And in each instance, Republican turnout has broken party records.
Based on the latest available information, Democratic turnout dropped 27% in Iowa, 13% in New Hampshire, 29% in Nevada, and about 30% in South Carolina.
This isn’t great news for Democrats in general – the party prefers to have an engaged and excited base – but as we’ve discussed a couple of times in recent weeks, this is particularly problematic for the Sanders campaign.
Recapping our previous coverage, the Sanders campaign and its supporters have, for many months, responded to concerns about the senator’s electability by pointing to the potency of his revolution: the independent senator’s bold and unapologetic message will resonate in ways the political mainstream doesn’t yet understand. Marginalized Americans who often feel alienated from the process – and who routinely stay home on Election Day – can and will rally to support Sanders and propel him to the White House.
The old political-science models, Team Sanders argues, are of limited use. Indeed, they’re stale and out of date, failing to reflect the kind of massive progressive turnout that Bernie Sanders can create. It’s this factor that will not only make him president, but also help Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.
Except, at least so far, turnout keeps falling short. The first four nominating contests points to a revolution off to an inauspicious beginning.
Now, every time this topic comes up, I hear from readers who push back with concerns. Isn’t 2008 an outlier, making it a poor point of comparison? Aren’t general-election turnout models different from primary-election turnout models? Isn’t 2000 a better point of comparison than 2008? They’re not unreasonable questions, and I’ve answered them in some detail.
To be sure, this may yet change. Two primaries and two caucuses do not a nominating race make, and if Sanders’ supporters want to make the case that his message needs more time to reach more people, and turnout will be more impressive going forward, fine. Time will tell.
But for now, the data is not easily explained away.