The Bernie Sanders campaign has been confronted with the question, “How can a socialist win a national campaign?” many times and their answer is always some variation on the idea that they will bring millions of new voters into the process and swamp the naysayers.
Who are these “new voters”? Sanders believes they’re adults of voting age who support his grandiose ideas but haven’t been engaged in the political process before. There are certainly millions of these voters, but who are they, really?
They’re voters who don’t care, in the first place. But Sanders believes they will jump out of their shoes for a chance to vote for someone who will stick it to the rich and give them all sorts of free stuff.
As Jim Geraghty points out, so far in the Democratic voting, they haven’t shown up.
But you don’t run on socialism, banning private health insurance, a ban on fracking, abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, banning U.S. exports of oil, or praise Fidel Castro (see below), and pledge to allow convicted felons to vote from prison while serving sentences if you want to keep suburban soccer moms and white-collar dads.
The argument of the Bernie Sanders campaign is that he doesn’t have to worry about alienating or frightening the suburban soccer moms and white-collar dads, because he’s going to bring out a big number of people who previously didn’t vote. As David Frum summarized: “The Sanders campaign is a bet that the 2020 race can be won by mobilizing the Americans least committed to the political process while alienating and even offending the Americans most committed to it.”
Trump-hatred may be useful as a political club, but as a means of getting millennials and minorities to vote, it doesn’t appear to be working.
Turnout in the 2020 Iowa caucus was about 176,400 people, which was a bit more than the 171,000 who attended in 2016 attendance but was well short of the record 240,000 Democrats set in 2008.
We don’t know how many people in the 2016 caucus showed up to vote for Sanders, because apparently no one in the Iowa Democratic Party thought it was worth writing down. We can get a very rough (okay, very, very rough) estimate of Sanders supporters by taking his 49.6 percent of delegates and applying that to the total votes. By that measure, 85,415 people showed up in 2016 supporting Sanders.
In 2020, just 45,831 ended up supporting Sanders in Iowa. Of course, the dynamic is different in a multi-candidate race than a two-candidate race. But this is evidence to confirm what many of us have been arguing for the past four years. A significant chunk of Bernie Sanders’s support in 2016 was rank-and-file Democrats saying, “I don’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton,” not an unshakable loyalty to Sanders and his agenda.
Turnout in Nevada was slightly higher while interest in the New Hampshire primary drove significantly more voters to the polls than showed up in 2016. But Sanders didn’t get many more votes in Iowa and New Hampshire than he did in 2016. So where are these new voters?
Low-information, low-interest voters don’t vote for a good reason: they don’t want to. Overcoming the inertia of these potential voters has proven to be impossible in the past. Hillary Clinton promised a big youth turnout in 2016 — it never materialized. Minority voters are reluctant voters as well and Hillary promised they would swamp the polls. They didn’t.
I don’t think there are many establishment Democrats who believe that there are millions of closet socialists in America who are eager to vote for Sanders. That’s why they’re terrified that Sanders could win the nomination. It will be the anti-socialists who are energized by a Sanders candidacy. And these voters, who tend to be older and remember the Cold War, are likely to give the Democrats the back of their hand at the ballot box.
They don’t forget. And they vote.