No, your socialist superhero wouldn’t have saved the election.
A week has passed since the election. As the world cowers and America riots the accusations fly ever more thickly. In media, blogs, and normal discourse we see a number or narratives about what should or could have been done to prevent the Trump scourge from covering our lands.
One of these stands out above the others because it speaks directly to the doublethink that has currently swept what passes for the progressive voice in this country. By this, I mean the assertion that Bernie Sanders would have won if only the democrats had run a “fair” primary.
Ignoring for now the idea that anything involving the internal machinations of any party could ever be considered ‘fair’, this is fallacy still has dangerous teeth. Those promoting it are living a dream within a delusion. Their anger is both palpable and understandable but instead of being directed towards the improvement of the party, or refining and furthering the arguments in their favor, they persist in a comforting but unrealistic fantasy where their folk hero president swept the nation with anti-business populism, overthrew the bankers and capitalists and led us all to a brave new future.
We know what came about instead. A folk revolution happened, but it rose instead from the hated red states and deplorables. Now the White House will be repainted in gold leaf. To his credit Sanders at least has not denied that this election was lost by the Democrats thorough their own failure. What he has not done is admit that the failure would have been as complete, if not more so, were it his name on the ballots.
Lets consider the circumstances of the election and how that might have happened.
Unless the Democrats have access to a time machine to retroactively remove the electoral college from existence Sanders still would have needed to do what Clinton failed to: earn 270 electoral votes. This requires appealing to a broad cross section of Americans in numerous geographic areas. The arguments for Sanders winning follow one of three basic premise:
- That he could have taken one or more reliably red states by eating into Trump’s support with the rural working class.
- That his nomination would have prevented the third party protest vote that “stole” the election for Trump.
- That he could have drawn out legions of disaffected blue voters in swing states and swung enough of them to take the election.
The first assertion is so unlikely it borders on asinine. Sanders might have done better in the rust belt, but anyone who thinks he’d have swept the more rural counties and painted the red states blue is lying to themselves. The anti-establishment street-cred that won him so many urban 20 somethings would have only alienated the core right base which dominates outside cities. Only a in fantasy world would disheartened country conservatives have chosen an avowed socialist over a red-blooded billionaire selling the tried and true combinations of hope and fear.
The second assertion does merit examination. In a race with two much loathed candidates, it’s easy to imagine voters flocking to alternatives. Whether genuine defections or mere protest votes, the candidates from outsider parties stood to benefit from this dissatisfaction. There is some evidence they did; the question remains, how much benefit? More specifically, how much better did the Libertarian and Green party candidates do in 2016 than they did in 2012 or in 208? Only numbers for these two will be examined because, let’s be honest, someone who voted for the Nutrition or Communist parties was not going to be swayed to support a major candidate regardless of narrative.
Looking at the raw vote totals (at least the best ones available at the time of writing) paints an interesting picture of the development of both parties.
Gary Johnson won a total of 4,319,580 votes in 2016. Compared to the 1,273,168 he won in 2008 that is an increase of 239%. Stein enjoyed a similar, though not as dramatic increase. Her respective totals for the same years were 1,330,831 compared to 464,510, or 187% (it should be noted that Stein was not on the ballot in all 50 states in either year).
While the first glance numbers in both cases support the narrative of a dramatic influx due to major party protest votes, engagement with a third party increases for a huge variety of reasons. Dissatisfaction with the direction or platform, the growing sense of unease at “insider” corruption, increased turnout and enrollment initiatives. All of these play their own part. It is disingenuous to claim that the entire increases was the result of a single candidate’s exclusion from the major party apparatus. After all, both the Libertarian and Green parties had four years to organize and recruit supporters to their respective causes. It’s only natural that they’d enjoy an increase in voter engagement.
A better question is: how much greater an increase did each party see between 2012 and 2016 than between 2008 and 2012?
In 2008 Libertarian Bob Barr won 523,253 votes, while the Green’s Cynthia McKinney won 159,889. These translate into increases of 143% and 191% between 2008 and 2012 respectively. The Libertarian party had nearly 100% greater improvement between 2012 and 2016 than they had between 2008 and 2012. The Greens however actually saw a 4% less gain in the same period.
We can’t know for certain how many of these were directly related to Sanders’ failure to clinch the nomination, but it seems unlikely all of them were. The Green Party’s form of populism seems far more likely to engage the average Sanders supporter than the current Libertarian platform.
Likewise, we shouldn’t forget that there were nearly, if not more, Republicans upset by Trump’s nomination than there were Democrats disenfranchised with Sanders’ loss. That at least some of these voters chose to back Johnson is certain. Still, there persists the belief that these increases were all loyal Democrats who’d been lost to other parties due to the controversies around the nomination.
While both parties clearly increased their voter turnout, and should be rightly pleased with their increased relevance on the national stage, anyone claiming that it was all due the Sanders defectors is at best a misunderstanding of correlation and causation. At worst, it represents the rank, detached superiority which lay at the heart of the Democrat’s defeat.
In the next article, I’ll address the idea that these votes, had they gone for Sanders instead, would actually have been enough to slant the election in his favor.