“Pragmatic” Democrats Must Vote for Bernie

November 5, 2015
No Comments

*Note: this is Part One of a multi-part discussion.


“I really like Bernie Sanders, but I’m voting for Hillary. We’ve got to be pragmatic; we can’t afford to lose the White House.”

This is the sentiment that I’ve heard innumerable times from party-line Democrats in the few months since the Presidential campaign has gotten underway. Every time that I encounter this silly notion, I want to rip my hair out. Although I understand the general logic of it, the idea that Hillary Clinton is the pragmatic choice is as ridiculous as it is unfounded.

The idea behind this sentiment is that Sanders cannot win a majority of support from the country at large, while Clinton can. In order to consider the accuracy of this premise, we have to look at what it takes to win a general election. We then have to decide which candidate better demonstrates those abilities.

So what do you need to win an election? Now, the US makes things weird by using the electoral college. That factor makes it a little harder to apply raw data, because it breaks things up by state rather than by simple population. However, the electoral college is supposed to be roughly based on population. It is determined by congressional representation, which is itself based largely on residency numbers. If we all remember 9th grade Civics, there are 538 members of Congress (435 of which are distributed based on population,) giving us 538 electors in the college. A candidate must win the majority of–or 270–electors, meaning that they have to get over 50% of those possible. So if we consider that the electoral college is generally determined by population, and it requires a majority vote, we can reasonably conclude that a winning presidential candidate must be able to garner a majority of the popular vote in order to win the general election through the college. This is supported by history, in which only four candidates have lost the popular vote but won the electoral college. The majority of the time, the candidate needs to win the popular vote.

It must be said outright that it is not enough to win the full support of one’s particular party. As of 2014, 43% of Americans identified as Democrat or leaning Democrat. 39% identified as Republican or leaning Republican. However, when we include a category for Independents, the Democrats only get 32% support, with Republicans getting 23%. A full 39% of Americans consider themselves Independents, with no party loyalty or allegiance. So no Democrat or Republican candidate can win a general election merely by winning the support of their party, even if 100% of their party is behind them. A candidate has to appeal to those outside of the party as well. 

This need for cross-appeal is what makes Donald Trump such a poor candidate on the Republican ticket. While he is wildly popular with a large chunk of Republican voters, there is not a Democrat alive that wants to vote for the man. He is largely disliked by anyone to the left of “Far Right” on the political spectrum. So no matter how well-liked he is within his party, he has no ability to appeal to voters outside of it. A more successful candidate would be someone like Governor John Kasich. He is at least acceptable to most Republicans–there is no one who actively dislikes him, even if he isn’t most Republicans’ first choice. But he could also appeal to a decent number of Independents and moderate Democrats given his own more moderate positions on several key issues. However, he likely won’t be the Republican nominee despite his wider appeal, simply because the majority of Republicans like someone else better. When a party focuses on who is most popular within their own ranks, they often set themselves up for failure in the general election. That is why we have to consider a candidate based not on his party popularity, but on his general appeal with the population at large.

Favorability Ratings as Measures of Appeal

This notion is lost on many people when they support their candidate by citing favorability ratings within the party. A poll that says that 85% of Democrats have a favorable view of Hillary Clinton is largely worthless. A party-loyalty poll will only have great significance if we get into hugely unpopular numbers: if 46% of Democrats have unfavorable views of a candidate, then that is important. But it is a safe assumption that, once a candidate is chosen to represent the party in a general election, the large majority of party supporters will support that candidate in the general. There is no significant difference between 92% of Democrats liking Hillary and 89% of Democrats liking Bernie (Those aren’t the real numbers–just an example!) No matter who wins the nomination, party loyalists will by-and-large support the candidate.

The favorability numbers that really matter are those that look at a candidate’s reputation with the country at large. It doesn’t matter if Bernie Sanders is liked by 78% of Democrats if he is hated by 52% of the entire country. So how do Bernie and Hillary compare with nationwide numbers?

When we look at sampling from the general populace, Hillary currently has a 43.3% favorability rating, with a 49.1% unfavorability rating. That means she is net -5.8%, with more people disliking her than liking her. 92.4% of people had an opinion, which means that only 7.6% of people aren’t sure how they feel about her (or don’t know who she is.) These numbers should make any Democrat freeze: 50% of the country at large already knows that they dislike Hillary. Only 43% of people like her at all. And there isn’t much room for her to improve those numbers, given that most people are very familiar with her and have an opinion already. There are very few people left to convince.

Bernie, on the other hand, has a 39.6% favorability rating, with a 32.7% unfavorability score. He is net +6.9%, which means that, of the people who know who he is, more like him than dislike him. And only 72.3% of people had an opinion, leaving him 27.7% to win over. The tendency to be liked should have a lot of weight compared to Hillary’s tendency to be disliked. The takeaway from these numbers should be that Bernie is much more likeable–a 13-point swing in his favor. All that is required is to get more people familiar with him and his message. 

So just on favorability ratings, Bernie should be considered the better candidate. He is more appealing to the general populace. Of course, these numbers are not set in stone–opinions can change–but we have to ask ourselves what the chances are that, given the broad familiarity that voters have with Hillary Clinton, she might see some drastic shift of opinion in the relatively little time we have left before the election. She has had varying favorability ratings in the past, but being an active official allowed for significant change. Things happen when one is a senator or the Secretary of State, and people’s opinions can be affected by that. Her ratings nosedived in the months following the Benghazi attack. But because she no longer has an active career that her numbers can be anchored to, we shouldn’t expect to see as much variation. The simple truth is that many people know exactly how they feel about her, and her lengthy public life leaves few with any room for a change of opinion. Thus, we feel comfortable predicting that Hillary will remain somewhat disliked. Bernie seems to be the candidate with more widespread appeal.

Facebook: the World’s Largest Informal Survey

We can find more evidence to support this notion. Just as an informal experiment, I searched Facebook for groups both in support of and against the Democratic candidates. Searching “Republicans for Bernie Sanders” brings up three pages, with the top one boasting 15,000 followers. There are eight Facebook groups that claim to be Republicans supporting Bernie. There are two pages for “Conservatives for Bernie Sanders,” and there is a group of the same name.

Searching “Republicans for Hillary Clinton” also yields three pages, but the top page only has 271 followers. Searching among Facebook groups, we only find groups who are threatening to vote Republican if Hillary is the Democratic nominee. “Conservatives for Hillary Clinton” has a single page, with 145 followers.

Working in the opposite direction–measuring their dislike among their own party–we can search “Democrats Against Bernie Sanders.” There are only two pages reflecting this sentiment, the most popular of which has about 1000 followers. There are no groups of this general name. There is a page called “Americans Against Bernie Sanders,” and it has 44 followers. There is another page that calls itself “Bernie Sanders Sucks,” and it has 492 followers. That is the extent of the anti-Bernie sentiment that I can find on Facebook. There are no negative results for “Liberals against Bernie” or “Progressives against Bernie.”

Hillary, on the other hand, is much more disliked, even by members of her own party. “Democrats Against Hillary Clinton” brings up three pages, the most popular of which has 5150 likes. There are two pages for “Liberals Against Hillary Clinton.”

All in all, if I tally up the cross-support for both candidates, there is a pretty big discrepancy between them. Bernie garners 16,743 votes from self-identified Republicans and conservatives, while Hillary gets just 536. When looking at how disliked they are by their own party, Bernie gets 1481 total dislikes, while Hillary gets 6147. Clearly, if Facebook is any indication, Bernie is both more liked by the opposition and less disliked by his own party as compared to Hillary. Both characteristics make him a better option for a popular vote. Of course, Facebook analysis is by no means scientifically rigorous, but it is an interesting glimpse into general opinion.

So this was a first step into the discussion of why Bernie Sanders would be the more successful nominee for the Democratic Party. We’ll explore the idea further next time, looking at voter turnout and election match-ups. Stick around for the conversation! Let me know in the comments what you think of my analysis so far.