Bernie’s Coalition Challenge

You may hear commentators talk about today’s Michigan primary as an ideal opportunity for Bernie Sanders to demonstrate strength against Hillary Clinton in a major industrial state where his message of economic fairness should resonate with voters hit perhaps harder than anyone by the changing economy. Analysis like this makes perfect sense from a messaging perspective but misses the mark because it ignores a more fundamental problem at the heart of both the Sanders campaign and the larger progressive movement: the inability thus far to build a broad coalition in the electorate. Lest you think this is a criticism of Sanders, it is not. It can take years for a movement to take hold in enough communities to pose an electoral threat to the status quo.  It took movement conservatives more than two decades to assemble the coalition that would elect Ronald Reagan and keep Republicans in power for almost two generations. The progressive movement, which dates back to the dawn of the Internet era, has matured tremendously over the past decade.  It has been a driving force behind significant policy and process victories in recent years – like convincing the FCC to support Internet neutrality and convincing Senate Democrats to modify filibuster rules – precisely because it has started building winning coalitions with other Democratic Party constituencies in government. But accomplishing similar results in the electorate is a much bigger lift.

The most talked-about aspect of Bernie’s coalition challenge has been his difficulty attracting African American voters. The figure below tracks his percent of the vote in the first 18 primaries and caucuses against the share of African American voters in the electorate (mouse over the dots for details). The percentage of African Americans in eleven of those states is below the national average of 12.7%. Sanders’ share of the vote was near or above 50% in ten of them. But he was non-competitive in the seven states where the share of the African American vote was above the national average, and the greater the share of African American voters in the population the worse he did.

Graphics: Sharon Machlis

Sanders’ situation is complicated because he is a senator from a small, mostly white New England state who began the race with little recognition in the African American community. He is running against a candidate who is universally recognized and, along with her past-president husband, widely embraced by African American voters. But the challenge he faces is not unique to his campaign.

In our upcoming book Next Generation Netroots, my co-author Chris Bowers and I look at the curious case of Zephyr Teachout, the former Director of Internet Organizing for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and a Vermont transplant to Brooklyn (the mirror image of Bernie Sanders). Two years ago, Teachout launched an underfunded primary challenge to New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo that paralleled Sanders’ challenge to Clinton in that she attacked Cuomo for his corporate-friendly policies and Wall Street ties. Like Sanders before his autumn surge, Teachout was regarded by mainstream Democrats as boutique candidate, even though Cuomo took her seriously enough to sue unsuccessfully to have her name removed from the primary ballot.

Teachout lost the primary by a lopsided margin, but not because she was opposed by centrist voters. As Chris and I write:

Teachout won several of the wealthier, whiter state assembly districts in [New York City], including a gentrified portion of Brooklyn with 67% of the vote. However, she lost by 9-1 margins in heavily minority, working class, immigrant and ethnic white areas. Even though Teachout ran a populist, progressive campaign squarely to Cuomo’s left, she lost because she failed to attract enough support among the very communities to whom the netroots have often assumed such a message would be the most appealing.

And so it is thus far with Bernie’s presidential campaign. So when you hear commentators speculate about the limited appeal of Sanders’ message, remember that you have to get people to listen to you before you can get them to hear you.

REVISED 3/9: Figure updated to include results through March 8.