With Hillary Clinton’s loss still fresh, the Democrats are suffering an epic case of buyers’ remourse, wondering what went wrong and if a different candidate could have changed the results. A popular line of thought from the Progressive Wing of the Democratic Party has been that Bernie Sanders would have won 2016 if he had run as the Democratic presidential nominee. They point out his populist appeal, squeaky clean record, and general sense of “authenticity.” This argument has been repudiated by many Democrats and the media with the point that nobody knows how Bernie Sanders would have stood up to Republican attacks once the Republicans “coalesced” around Trump. (Apologies for all the ironic quoting, but it is genuinely hard to avoid when discussing anything related to the 2016 election). Both arguments have some validity on an emotional level, but nothing resembling real data to validate it. So I decided use real data to answer the unanswerable:
Could Bernie Sanders have won the 2016 United States Presidential Election?
First, let me qualify my choice of Bernie Sanders as the candidate of choice: he was the only candidate to go through the entire primary process and he came far closer to beating the final presidential nominee than any other primary candidate on either side of the aisle. There is far more polling data available on how he would have performed in match ups against Trump than for any other candidate that ran or was asked to run.
My methodology began, as all such exercises must, with the actual results of the presidential election according to the electoral map. Trump, as it stands right now, took 290 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232. Sixteen electoral votes remain undecided in Michigan, but Trump leads Hillary Clinton by 0.3% right now, so let us assume for the sake of argument that Trump takes Michigan, bringing his tally up to an electoral landslide of 306.
In order for Bernie Sanders to have won the 2016 election, we must be able to prove that he could have clawed back a minimum of 37 electoral college votes from Donald Trump. For the purposes of this case, we will not assume that Bernie Sanders could have flipped any state that Hillary Clinton won in the primary but lost to Trump. That eliminates 18 states as “flippable.” We will also assume that Bernie Sanders would have won the same states that Hillary Clinton won this election, given that his favorables were always higher than hers. That eliminates an additional 19 states plus D.C. We are left then with 12 states where Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in the primary, but where the state ultimately went for Trump. We also have Maine, which sent 1 of its 4 electoral votes to Donald Trump.
|State||Total Flippable Electoral Votes|
Let us pause and review the list, noting that only 2 of the 13 states listed were considered “battleground” states for the 2016 presidential election, according to Politico: Wisconsin and Michigan.
Now the question becomes, how do we know if Bernie Sanders could have beaten Donald Trump in these states? Of course, we do not know for sure but we do have some pieces of data that could be used to project how Bernie Sanders would have down:
- Bernie Sanders’ direct votes versus Donald Trump’s direct votes in states with a traditional primary
- Bernie Sanders margin of victory versus Hillary Clinton during the primary
- Donald Trump’s margin of victory versus Hillary Clinton during the general election
- State Primary Polls that matched up Donald Trump versus Bernie Sanders
This data is available for some states and not for others, since polling electoral mosquitos like Alaska wasn’t a big priority for news outlets during the primary season (at their peril). Three methodologies were employed to determine if Bernie Sanders could have won:
- Raw Vote Result = Sanders Primary Votes/(Sanders Primary Votes + Trump Primary Votes)
- Margin of Victory Method = (1 + Sanders Margin of Victory) x Clinton’s Share in General Election
- Polling Match Up = Sanders Polling/(Sanders Polling + Trump Polling)
I averaged the three data points together to get the expected result. The states highlighted below indicate a reasonable chance for a Bernie Sanders victory.
|State||Total Electoral Votes||Raw Vote Result||Margin of Victory Method||Polling Match Up||Projected Result|
The model demonstrates that out of the 13 previously defined states, 5 could be reasonably expected to to flip for Bernie and 2 more are a statistical toss-up, putting a total of 49 electoral college votes on the table. This would have been sufficient to flip the election to Bernie Sanders by as much as 281 to 257.
Of the 7 states, Oklahoma and Utah are the least certain. In Oklahoma, Sanders did notably better on direct votes in the primary than Trump, most likely because Trump was still dealing with a strong opponent in Ted Cruz. That makes the voter tally our best indicator since Clinton’s impact on Sanders’ total votes could be reasonably compared to Cruz’s impact on Trump’s. Using just voter tallies, Sanders would have beat Trump 57% to 43%. However, Clinton also beat Donald Trump on direct votes during the primary and ultimately lost the state by a scorching 35 points. Assuming that Bernie Sanders could have beaten her performance only by his 10% margin of victory, he would only have gotten to 32% of the vote to Donald Trump’s 65%.
The other outlier is Utah where Evan McMullin had an extremely strong showing in the final tally. His run appears to have stolen volume mostly from Hillary Clinton. Most notably, McMullin only joined the race in August, after the democratic primary had been decided in favor of Hillary. Trump’s total share of the vote was 46% to Hillary’s 28% and McMullin’s 21%. If McMullin had not entered the race and Bernie had out-performed Hillary as predicted, it would have been a toss-up with Trump. Together, Oklahoma and Utah total 13 electoral college votes. One or the other does not change an all-out flip of the election to Bernie Sanders, but both do.
Of course, these data points are not a guarantee of victory. Any one of the other states might not have gone for Bernie Sanders while both Oklahoma and Utah might have. Taken together, these data points indicate a more than reasonable chance that Bernie Sanders could have won the election that Hillary Clinton lost.
A few other data points to be factored in are the fact that on a national scale, Bernie Sanders beat Trump by double digits in polling match-ups while Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory was razor thin. In addition to that, Bernie Sanders received a fraction of the free media that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton received. Sanders’ share of media versus Hillary Clinton’s paralleled the level of coverage that Kasich got versus Donald Trump, a ratio of roughly 1:3. Kasich’s final primary tally was 13.8% to Bernie Sanders’ 43%. We will never know how Bernie Sanders’ popularity could have blossomed given his fair share of media attention. This election has most definitely validated the old adage that any press is good press.
What we do know for certain are a few critical things:
- Bernie Sanders had the potential to flip small states purple that had traditionally gone red. The states that Bernie Sanders could have flipped are large in terms of geography but small in terms of electoral votes, making them an underserved element of the election cycle.
- The intricacies of the Democratic primary made it very hard for independents to participate. This left the Democratic party with a major blind spot about how to appeal to those voters.
- The Electoral College has not followed young people in the great Millennial migration from the heartland to metropolitan areas, especially on the coast. As a result, the Midwest exerts disproportionate influence on national politics, even though the Republican policies in those states have not successfully enticed people to stay. This is why 2016 is the second time in 5 election cycles that the popular vote has been overturned by the Electoral College.
As the media, and American population at large, recover from a serious 2016 election hangover, much has been said about the shocking results. I should qualify the term “shocking” with the caveat that to President-elect Trump’s ardent supporters and fans, the results were not nearly so surprising. Trump took the heartland seriously. Across the country, Democrats hold less than 40% of the legislative and executive houses. This is because the DNC has forgotten the heartland in favor of corporate money and power on the coasts. The heartland needs balance as much as the coasts. And what Bernie Sanders taught us is that they are hungry for it too.