Sabato's Crystal Ball

Democrats 2016: Not Feeling the Bern

Despite big crowds, Sanders remains a huge underdog to Clinton

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley, U.Va. Center for Politics July 9th, 2015


The Buzz about Bernie has taken hold on the Democratic side of the 2016 campaign, and it’s easy to see why. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is drawing huge crowds and great poll numbers in the first two states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire.

It isn’t just that he’s speaking his mind, saying exactly what he thinks, and stressing the issues of greed and income inequality — which Democrats care about as much as anything else this cycle. It’s really the contrast between Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Sanders ought to adopt a new campaign slogan, “Send Her a Message,” because he has become the messenger for party activists’ concerns about Clinton. It’s clear from his rising poll numbers that Sanders has become Clinton’s top challenger at the moment, so we’re moving him up to the second tier in our rankings of the Democratic contenders (see the full Table 1 at the bottom of this article). Sanders has clearly moved way ahead of the other Democratic candidates: recently announced former Sen. Jim Webb (VA) and former Govs. Martin O’Malley (MD) and Lincoln Chafee (RI). Maybe one of them (O’Malley?) will have a turn as the anti-Clinton at some point, but Sanders is clearly that person right now.

You hear the comments about Clinton everywhere: She’s uptight, inaccessible, weighed down by decades of Clinton baggage and mired in old and new scandals. Like her husband (and Jeb Bush), she’s cashed in big-time on her family name and public positions. Clinton may once have been middle class, but today she looks to all the world like a pampered member of the top one-tenth of the one percent.

The protected, even sheltered Clinton is known to take polite questions from a handful of prescreened supporters, or her staff is pictured roping off the press in a New Hampshire July 4th parade (one of the most absurd images of the campaign so far). In contrast, when the news programs do their campaign roundups, Sanders is shown basking in the adulation of thousands — you can feel the energy.

Still: We’re always brutally honest with our Crystal Ball readers, so let’s get right down to it. Despite what we’ve just said, Hillary Clinton is very, very likely to be the Democratic nominee, not Bernie Sanders. That’s true even if Sanders manages to upset Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire. The fact is, the key constituencies of the Democratic Party are likely to back Clinton, and big Sanders audiences aren’t going to change that.

There are several factors that continue to suggest Clinton is the dominant favorite for the Democratic nomination.

The party has chosen

We’ve often cited political science research, most notably from the book The Party Decides, about how endorsements from sitting party leaders can be predictive of which candidate will get the presidential nomination. Generally speaking, a candidate needs establishment support to win a nomination. This establishment has a powerful, formal role in the Democratic nominating process: about one-sixth of the convention delegates will be “superdelegates.” Remember them from 2008? They are the elected officials and party leaders that have a say in who gets the Democratic nomination. On both sides, the path to the nomination involves winning the establishment primary. And in this contest Clinton is polling light years ahead of her competitors.

Hillary Clinton has already ruled the roost in endorsements from party leaders. According to The Hill’s handy endorsement list, nearly half of the sitting Democrats in Congress have already endorsed Clinton; no Democratic lawmaker has backed any of the party’s other presidential candidates. Notably, two senators who were among Barack Obama’s most prominent supporters — Claire McCaskill (MO) and then-Gov. Tim Kaine (VA) — were early Clinton supporters this time: They endorsed her candidacy, respectively, in 2013 and 2014. This as much as anything tells us how united the party leadership is behind Clinton. What a contrast from the fractious 2008 primary, where Clinton started as a weaker establishment frontrunner who bled superdelegate support to Obama as it became clear that he would be the nominee.

This time, the national Democratic Party and leadership is firmly and probably unshakably behind Clinton. In order for the leadership to waver, Clinton will have to turn radioactive. It’s not impossible to imagine, given her baggage, but it’s very difficult.

Crowd size is mostly irrelevant

An emerging storyline in the last few weeks has been the sizable crowds that have shown up to hear from Sanders. In Minneapolis, over 3,000 people listened to Sanders at a mass meeting; in Denver, almost 5,000 people; in Madison, WI, nearly 10,000; and, most recently, around 8,000 in Portland, ME.

However, it’s important to remember that crowd size fundamentally doesn’t matter much. Comparisons between how large one candidate’s crowd is compared to another’s are ripe for misunderstanding. Just think back to 2012, when press reports and GOP partisans frequently mentioned the large numbers that Mitt Romney was drawing on the campaign trail. Did this end up mattering? Obama won the popular vote by about 5 million votes. The history of “crowdsmanship” is long, and as Louisiana politico Robert Mann noted back in 2012, full of anecdotal evidence that wound up meaning nothing.

Consider the demographics of Denver, Madison, Minneapolis, and Portland: Of those four, only the Mile High City is less than 60% white (53%), and of the 50 biggest cities in the United States, Denver and Minneapolis are among the 18 that are majority non-Hispanic white. Portland is the biggest city in Maine, over 80% white, and located in the Pine Tree State’s most liberal area, Cumberland County. Madison is three-fourths white and an über-liberal university city — it’s no surprise so many people showed up to see Sanders there. In fact, many college towns are going to be among the most receptive to Sanders’ campaign message. Take Charlottesville, VA, for example. One of the Crystal Ball’s writers tried to scout out Sanders when he came to the home of the University of Virginia in May, but the venue only held about 200-300 people and was packed to fire-code capacity by the time he arrived at the front of a long line. Nonetheless, Sanders smartly engaged the many who couldn’t get inside with an impromptu talk.

Sanders’ support in places such as Madison and Charlottesville is indicative of where his principal backing is drawn. National surveys and polls in Iowa and New Hampshire all show him performing noticeably stronger among more left-leaning voters than more moderate ones. At the same time, Clinton seems to be running fairly equally among liberal and moderate Democrats, an indicator of her broad support within the party, even with Sanders’ recent rise. Just as only a few Republicans seem to have the multi-factional appeal to truly compete for their party’s nomination, Clinton is in a similar position when it comes to Democratic voters.

At the end of the day, the crowd sizes don’t indicate that Sanders will win — far from it — but the one takeaway from them is that the left wing of the Democratic Party wants to entertain the idea of a Clinton-less future, and Sanders is the candidate who has received the left’s energy at this point. As he is to the left of the other Democratic candidates not named Clinton, he’s become a natural focal point for frustration with Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, her center-left outlook, and her foreign policy past (e.g., her Iraq War vote).


The gender gap has long been a vital aspect of American elections — certainly since 1980. In most elections, women tend to vote for Democrats considerably more than men do; thus, women make up a larger part of the Democratic Party while men make up a larger portion of the Republican Party.

This divide has an impact on the gender makeup of primary and caucus voters in the Democratic nomination contest: Most, if not all, Democratic primaries and caucuses in 2016 will have significantly more women voting than men. For instance, in 2008 the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina had caucus/primary electorates that were all at least 57% female. In 2008 Clinton still couldn’t win Iowa and South Carolina, but in 2016 it may be different in many states.

Early polling suggests that women are inclined to back Clinton at a higher rate than men. The two most recent national polls, from CNN/ORC and Fox News, both showed Clinton running 13 points better among women voters than men, winning around 50% of men but over 60% of women nationally among Democrats. Early polling also shows Sanders doing considerably better with men than women.

The same pattern showed itself throughout the 2008 process. Clinton routinely won larger vote shares among women than men in her battles with Obama and, for a time, John Edwards. In 2016, if Clinton is winning a larger share of the vote among the larger gender portion of the Democratic Party, that probably bodes well for her chances. After all, Clinton offers the party another chance to make history.

Nonwhite versus white voters

Sanders cannot begin to match Clinton’s strong support among minorities; it’s no accident that his break-out states are heavily white Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders is used to appealing to Vermont’s liberal and very white electorate.

According to the most recent Census Bureau estimates, Vermont has the second-largest percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the country, behind only neighboring Maine. Notably, New Hampshire and Iowa rank fourth and sixth, respectively. Demographically, the Democratic electorates in the first two primary or caucus states just happen to look a lot like Sanders’ home state. It also doesn’t hurt Sanders that New Hampshire is next door, reducing the costs of visiting the first-in-the-nation primary state.

Meanwhile, Clinton has a lifetime of experience appealing to African American and Hispanic voters. Though blacks strayed to Barack Obama in 2008, both the African-American leadership and rank-and-file seem solidly back in the Clinton camp for 2016. The most recent national polls peg Clinton’s support among white Democrats in the low-to-mid 50s, while her support among blacks is in the 60s. Meanwhile, Sanders may be in double-digits nationally now, but he’s not there with African Americans. While it’s true that Clinton did lead with blacks nationally this time eight years ago, her edge was smaller: One national Pew poll showed her up 47% to 34% with blacks over Obama in late July 2007. That’s a smaller lead than she has now, and obviously Obama always had great potential among black voters. There’s not much indication Sanders can be anywhere near as mighty a force in the black community.

History tells us that Clinton will also perform strongly among Latinos, an increasingly important group of voters, particularly for Democrats. A look back at primary exit polls from 2008 shows that while Obama won most black voters, Clinton received solid backing from Hispanics. Take the California primary, for instance: Two-thirds of this huge, very Democratic state’s Latino voters backed Clinton over Obama. With African-Americans returning to the Clinton fold and nonwhites making up a large chunk of the Democratic electorate, Sanders will have to make serious inroads among those voters to have any chance.

Considering the Clinton history with nonwhite voters and some of Sanders’ other policy positions — such as his relatively anti-gun control stance — this seems unlikely.

The calendar

Sanders may be ideally suited to confront Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire because they are both small and very white. Analysts who focus too much on these first two contests will be committing the same mistake Clinton made in 2008: She simply assumed that the race would be over quickly and that the opening contests would effectively confirm the Democratic nominee. It would be embarrassing for Clinton to lose or have close calls in Iowa and New Hampshire, but they are not the be-all of the nominating season.

As recent contests, like the Democrats in 2008 and the Republicans in 2012, showed us, the nomination process can drag on for months before a presumptive nominee can turn toward the convention and general election.

After Iowa and New Hampshire, the terrain gets much better for Clinton, assuming that her strong minority support holds. Many of the subsequent contests are far more diverse than in the Hawkeye and Granite states.

The next two carve-out states likely to vote in February are Nevada and South Carolina (the calendar is still being finalized across the country, but we’re hopeful that the actual voting won’t start until February). South Carolina’s primary electorate was more than 50% black in 2008, according to exit polls. While Obama rolled with blacks 78% to 19% over Clinton in 2008, it’s easy to imagine Clinton doing quite well this time around, especially against a white northeastern liberal with no connections to the South. It’s no different for the other white male candidates (O’Malley, Chafee, and Webb).

Nevada’s caucuses should also be more fertile ground for Clinton. Hispanics might make up a fifth or so of the voters there, and Clinton, as noted above, did well with Hispanics in 2008 nationally. That year, she beat Obama 64% to 26% among Hispanic voters in the Silver State. Hispanics made up 15% of the voters in the 2008 caucus, and Nevada’s Hispanic population is growing rapidly. Democrats will maximize the Hispanic vote and use the caucus as an organizing tool in what is an important bellwether state.

March 1 brings the still-forming SEC (Southeastern Conference) primary, which will include many Southern states. For the Republicans, this line-up could boost candidates who are aligned with evangelical Christians, as many of these states will have large social conservative blocs. But some of these states also have huge nonwhite populations, which will boost Clinton.

The “SEC primary” now includes Alabama and Georgia (whose Democratic primary electorates should be 50% black or more); Arkansas (where former state First Lady Clinton rolled in 2008 and where Sanders likely will have little appeal); Texas (which will have a majority nonwhite primary electorate); and Tennessee and Virginia (where blacks should be about a third of primary voters). While Sanders might do well in some places outside the South on March 1 — that’s when his home state, Vermont, is scheduled to vote, as well as Massachusetts — Clinton will probably have a much better day than Sanders. That would set her up well for the big-state contests that come later in March, like Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio, where her expected financial advantage should allow her to dominate Sanders over the airwaves and on the ground.


Sooner or later, many party voters also think about the general election. Were he somehow to appear on the November 2016 ballot as the Democratic nominee, Bernie Sanders would probably be another George McGovern. In this polarized era, Sanders would do better than McGovern’s 38% of the vote, but he’d lose — unless Republicans nominated one of their unelectable far-right candidates. (Such an extreme major-party match-up would generate one or more well-funded independent contenders — but now we’re in the realm of fiction.)

So far, Sanders has been compared not to McGovern but to Eugene McCarthy, the Minnesota senator whose insurgent campaign helped to force President Lyndon Johnson into retirement in 1968. There’s a superficial case to be made for that. For instance, Johnson orchestrated the Vietnam War and Clinton voted for the Iraq War. But don’t you think there’s a world of difference between a sitting president whose unpopular war is ongoing and a candidate who voted for another president’s war more than a dozen years ago? A lot has happened since. Clinton has admitted she was wrong to back President George W. Bush. She’s been Secretary of State and mended fences with Obama. In addition, at present she’s no worse than a 50-50 bet in the ’16 general election against any of the potential Republican nominees.

The idea that has taken hold among some is that, having won Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders would force Clinton out of the race, just as McCarthy pushed LBJ out, and then a more electable Democrat (the new Robert F. Kennedy) would jump in and take the nomination. This is ridiculous on its face. The rules today are completely different than in ’68: Late-entering candidates (Sen. Elizabeth Warren? Vice President Joe Biden?) would have a devil of a time getting on the ballot in many states. There will never be another Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was handed the Democratic nomination without entering a single primary; the era of boss rule is long over. If Sanders’ recent performance is prompting second thoughts from Biden or Warren, they need to get in this race now if they want to have any chance to be the nominee.

We’ve also heard a few able analysts say that Bernie Sanders could be the new Gary Hart (from 1984, not 1988). Hart nearly seized the Democratic nomination from the establishment favorite, former Vice President Walter Mondale. Yet this comparison doesn’t hold water either. Democrats were facing a popular incumbent president, Ronald Reagan, and many thought the youthful, Kennedy-esque Hart was a better gamble for a tough campaign.

The 2016 picture for Democrats is much different, and Clinton remains in a commanding position.

Table 1: Crystal Ball rankings of 2016 Democratic presidential primary candidates

First Tier: The Undisputed Frontrunner
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Hillary Clinton
Ex-Secretary of State
•Very popular within party, more so than in ’08
•Pro-Iraq War vote fading in importance
•Woman: chance to make history
•Overwhelming support from party leaders
•Positioning self to avoid being outflanked on her left
•Age (69 by Election Day ’16)
•Ran unfocused, too-many-cooks ’08 campaign; could make similar mistakes in ’16
•Keeping Bill in check — and on the porch
•Scandals already emerging
Second Tier: The Emerging Challenger
Bernie Sanders
Senator (Ind.),
•Showing polling strength in early states
•Small-donor fundraising potential
•Drawing big crowds
•Outsider in what is very much an insider process
•Little appeal to nonwhite voters
•Big crowds don’t predict wins
Third Tier: The Others
Martin O’Malley
Ex-Governor, MD
•Liberal record and policy achievements •Baltimore baggage
•Nationally unknown
Jim Webb
Ex-Senator, VA
•Unique populist niche
•Strong military background with Democratic views
•Not liberal enough
•Not the best stump speaker
Lincoln Chafee
•Voted against Iraq war •Left office very unpopular
•No base of support in party, nationally unknown
The Wild Card
Joe Biden
Vice President
•Vast experience
•VP bully pulpit
•Age (73 by Election Day ’16)
•Gaffe machine