It’s not exactly a secret that Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign faces skeptics when it comes to “electability.” With so much on the line in 2016, including the prospect of a radicalized Republican Party controlling the White House and Congress, plenty of Democratic voters, even some who may like Sanders and his message, are reluctant to nominate a candidate who’s likely to fail in a general election.
And on the surface, those concerns are hard to dismiss out of hand. Sanders is, after all, a self-described socialist senator running in an era in which most Americans say they wouldn’t support a socialist candidate. He’s 74 years old – two years older than Bob Dole was in 1996. Sanders has no experience confronting the ferocity of the Republican Attack Machine.
When GOP officials, leaders, and candidates take steps to help the Sanders campaign, it’s pretty obvious why.
But Sanders and his supporters have a counter-argument at the ready. Below these surface-level details, the argument goes, Sanders’ 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 Indeed, they’re stale and out of date, failing to reflect the kind of massive progressive turnout that Bernie Sanders – and only Bernie Sanders – can create.
This isn’t the entirety of Sanders’ pitch, but it’s a key pillar: the Vermont senator will boost turnout, which will propel him and Democratic candidates up and down the ballot to victory.
There is, however, some fresh evidence that challenges the thesis.
In last week’s Iowa caucuses, turnout was good in the Democratic race, but it dropped when compared to 2008, the last competitive Democratic nominating fight. (Republicans, however, saw turnout increase this year to a new, record high.)
In yesterday’s New Hampshire primary, turnout was again strong, and with nearly all of the precincts reporting, it looks like about 239,000 voters participated in the Democratic primary. But again, in the party’s 2008 nominating contest, nearly 288,000 voters turned out, which means we’ve seen another drop. (Like Iowa, Republican turnout in New Hampshire yesterday broke the party’s record.)
This is obviously just two nominating contests, and there will be many more to come. It’s entirely possible that Sanders-inspired turnout will start to appear in time.
But Iowa and New Hampshire are arguably the two best states in the nation, other than Vermont, for Sanders. But that didn’t produce an increase in voter turnout.
It’s a metric that may give Democrats pause as the fight continues. If Sanders’ entire model of success is built on the idea that he’ll bring more voters into the process, it matters that there’s no real evidence of that happening, at least not yet.
Update: I received an update from a reader who suggested comparing 2016 turnout to 2008 turnout isn’t entirely fair, since the 2008 Obama-Clinton race was an epic fight that drove numbers up. It was, in this sense, an outlier – which makes it a poor point of comparison.
And while there’s likely something to this, it actually helps reinforce my point: if a 74-year-old socialist is going to become president of the United States, he’d need to boost turnout in ways without modern precedent. Or more to the point, he’d need to be able to match and build on the kind of turnout Dems saw in 2008. So far, the numbers simply don’t show that.