Political prediction guru Nate Silver believes Bernie Sanders is capable of winning back to back victories over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to hold contests in the 2016 presidential race. Silver has earned a reputation for being the nation’s best political prognosticator, especially after his data-based model correctly predicted the presidential outcome in every state in the 2012 election.
Now, in a piece written on his blog site “FiveThirtyEight”, Silver argues that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has a good chance of winning Iowa and New Hampshire over Hillary Clinton. Sanders is widely regarded as an underdog in the race, so if he were to defeat Clinton in both states, it would send political shock waves reverberating across the country.
Silver does caution, however, that a Sanders victory in the two early contests would not necessarily portend doom for Hillary Clinton, and that she could recover from those defeats to win the nomination anyway. In fact, Silver argues that New Hampshire and Iowa’s Democratic electorates are so demographically different than the rest of the country, that Clinton could theoretically lose Iowa and New Hampshire, but still carry every other state (except Sanders home state of Vermont).
Silver’s argument essentially boils down to this: Sanders runs strongest with white liberal Democratic primary and caucus voters, and no state aside from Vermont has a higher proportion of white liberal Democratic voters than either New Hampshire or Iowa. Using data from 2008 (a bit dated since it is from seven years ago, but the most recent comprehensive data available), Silver calculates that roughly 59 percent of Vermont Democratic primary voters, 54 percent of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters, and 50 percent of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers were white liberals in 2008. Massachusetts was the only other state where half of the Democratic primary electorate was comprised of white liberals.
Silver argues that Sanders will run strong in those states, because opinion polls have shown that to be Sanders’ base, while he has not polled as well with moderates or with minority voters. At the other end of the spectrum, many Southern states have very few white liberal Democratic voters. Just 15 percent of Louisiana’s Democratic electorate consists of white liberal voters for example. White moderate and conservative Democrats, plus African-Americans and other minorities, make up 85 percent of Louisiana’s Democratic voters.
Notably, the delegate rich states of Texas and California, also have relatively low percentages of white liberals in their Democratic electorates, making them potentially strong states for Hillary Clinton, and possible trouble spots for Bernie Sanders.
Silver is probably correct both in arguing that Sanders could win Iowa and New Hampshire and in declaring that even if he does, Hillary Clinton would still be favored to win the Democratic nomination. Silver’s analysis does seem however to imply that Clinton’s support with minority voters would not diminish even if she lost both Iowa and New Hampshire.
That sort of static model assumption seems to overlook the prospects that Sanders’ support with minority voters, and moderate voters for that matter, might improve if he pulled off improbable victories in the first two states. Often early wins create momentum and polling bumps. For example, prior to Barack Obama’s stunning victory in Iowa in 2008, polls found that African-American voters in South Carolina and other states preferred Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama. That dynamic changed once Obama scored his big Iowa win, and he eventually went on to carry South Carolina and several other states on the strength of black voters.
This isn’t to imply that minority voters or moderates would necessarily abandon Clinton if she lost two early primary contests, but voter behavior in the early primary season is volatile enough so that it is possible. As it stands now, Sanders’ white liberal base may have enough strength to carry the Vermont Senator to two upset wins to start out the Democratic primary calendar. If that happens, it may not sink Hillary Clinton, but it would certainly signal that the Democratic race will not end quickly.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.