Closed primaries, early voting, and the media: does Sanders deserve the Democratic nomination?



Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are locked in a tighter-than-expected battle to gain the Democratic nomination for President. Nevertheless, while Sanders holds the momentum with seven wins in the last eight contests including a 13 point victory in Wisconsin yesterday, Clinton is still 249 pledged delegates ahead in the race to reach a majority, and Sanders will have to produce one of the biggest comebacks in political history to gain the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in July. This is a task that requires performing well in the two states with the most delegates still to offer, California and New York – Clinton’s home turf. Even if he successfully overturns what are currently substantial opinion poll deficits in these states, he will then need to overcome another significant political hurdle – convincing establishment-oriented superdelegates, originally brought in primarily to protect against unelectable insurgents, that his anti-establishment rhetoric is worthy of their pledges. But what would this race look like if the electoral system were a little different? Is Clinton really the preferred candidate? Does the system skew the story in one candidate’s favour? And does Sanders still have a chance?


The nomination process can be a little confusing at first. Some states hold caucuses, local meetings offering the chance for last minute campaigning before a final vote, whereas others hold primaries, regular ballot elections. Primaries (and caucuses) can be open (voters of any affiliation – i.e. Republicans, Democrats, and independents can vote in the primary of any party), closed (only registered Democrats of Republicans can vote in their respective primaries), or semi-closed (unaffiliated voters choose which party primary to vote in).


Three states to date have held closed primaries: Louisiana, Florida, and most recently, Arizona, whose election has been much scrutinised and maligned for voter suppression and fraud. Clinton won all three of these states convincingly, and Arizona and Florida were particularly key in checking Sanders’ momentum after he had won 5 of the last 6 states, including an unexpected victory in Michigan. Arizona has more registered independents (1.2m) than Democrats (920k) or Republicans (1.1m), as is the case in 7 other states, and for a state to deny those 1.2 million people who have a vastly important role to play in the general election a vote in the primaries is, in my view, undemocratic. In a country where the populace will only ever realistically choose between two presidential candidates, the whole electorate deserves the right to contribute to deciding who those candidates will be, even if they want to remain officially classified as an independent – many Americans take pride in their registration status, and may not want to rigidly align to one side of what some see as an antiquated two-party system.


In this election cycle, the 13 states that refuse independents this right place Sanders at a significant disadvantage. Independents overwhelmingly support Sanders over Clinton across the country by as much as 9 to 1 – in Wisconsin yesterday, Democrats divided 50-50 but Sanders won independents 71-29, and a similar margin of support in Arizona would have turned a comfortable Clinton victory into close to a tie. Even in many states where Clinton won comfortably, such as Virginia (64-36) and Florida (64-33), Sanders still beats Clinton among independents (Virginia: 42-58, Florida: 41-55). Some of these independents will have re-registered specifically for the primary, but in many states the deadline for re-registering is obscenely early. For New York’s closed primary, in which a poor showing for Sanders will effectively end his chances, voters had to re-register by October, long before his campaign gained any serious traction. When you consider in tandem the small margin (roughly 10%) that Sanders trails Clinton and the substantial weight of independents’ support for Sanders – nationally, independents make up 42% of the electorate – the fact that ten of the remaining twenty states left to vote, and five of the six most delegate-heavy states, are running closed primaries may make a significant difference during the home stretch.


One might look at Sanders’ near clean sweep in caucuses, both closed and open, and belittle the importance of closed status in determining outcomes while holding these victories up as a shining example of an undemocratic process favouring Sanders, not Clinton. However, his success in these delegate-light caucuses is not because, as some argue, Sanders supporters have better stamina in what are often long-winded events, but primarily because they require all participants to vote on Election Day itself.


Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy in April 2015 with universal name recognition, at a time when no one outside of Vermont really knew who Sanders was. The overarching trend in polls since then has been increasing support for Sanders and decreasing support for Clinton.


Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 13.22.18Source:!selected=Clinton,Sanders,Undecided 


However, 34 states (plus DC) allow early voting – the day before the Arizona primary for example, 297,714 Democratic voters had already cast ballots. To put this into perspective, the total number of votes cast in the primary was 399,097 – so that’s 74.6% of ballots that were cast before Election Day. The majority of these early votes are cast before candidates have aired any commercials or held campaign events, at a point when Sanders was a far less familiar name than he is now. This hands a significant advantage to Clinton – she won early voting in Arizona by 61.5% to 36.1%.


On Election Day itself, Sanders tends to tie or beat Clinton. In Arizona’s biggest county, Maricopa County (accounting for roughly 60% of all eligible voters in Arizona), Sanders won live voting by 60.3-38.8%. These figures highlight serious concerns over just how insidious the shocking voter suppression and fraud in Arizona, admitted to by the state’s own Secretary of State, might be. In 2012, Maricopa County had over 200 polling locations for its 1.25 million registered voters, whereas in 2016 it had just 60. That’s one polling station per 21,000 voters. Pima County set up 130 polling stations for its 300,000 voters. As a result, live voting figures in Maricopa County dropped from over 120,000 in 2012 to just 32,959 this year, meaning that early votes comprised nearly 80% of the total vote. This systematically tipped the balance in favour of Clinton. Opinion polls were few and far between in the run up to Arizona’s primary, but one exit poll conducted by a local newspaper in its 4th biggest county showed a logically impossible 37% difference in margin. What’s more is that news networks called the state for Hillary just an hour after polls closed, with less than 1% of the Election Day votes in – i.e. solely on the basis of early voting. This surely will have discouraged the thousands of people still waiting in line at 8.30pm from voting.


This is a phenomenon that extends far beyond Arizona – Clinton won North Carolina by 13.8% but only won Election Day voting 52-48%. In Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio and more, she won early voting but lost on the day. In caucus states such as Nevada and Iowa, there were large decreases in her polling margin, which demonstrates how important the influence of early voting can be. Likewise, instances of voter suppression and fraud are not limited to Arizona – Iowa was the scene of missing results from 90 precincts and a refusal of Sanders’ request for a review of the results that separated the two by 0.3%, and Bill Clinton was accused of unethical electioneering in Massachusetts. More generally, the Supreme Court’s recent strike down of crucial components of the 1965 Voter Rights Act, ruling that states with histories of voting-related racial discrimination no longer had to pre-clear changes to voting laws with the federal government, has resulted in several states orchestrating voter suppression laws, most commonly by requiring specific forms of ID. This has disproportionately affected racial minorities, which harms Clinton more than Sanders, but it has also affected students, who overwhelmingly support Sanders – in North Carolina, thousands of college students were turned away due to insufficient identification.


Aside from direct manipulations of the electoral system, the media has had a hugely important role to play in influencing voting patterns. Exit poll statistics show that voters who feel that the attributes, ‘cares about people like me’ and ‘honest and trustworthy’ mattered most in how they voted tended to back Sanders over Clinton, but that overall, the attribute ‘has the right experience’ is valued most commonly, particularly in the South. In that category, voters overwhelmingly back Clinton by between a 70-90 point margin, despite the fact that she has served only 12 years in government – her latter four years as Secretary of State mired in controversies including her role in the unsuccessful Libyan upheaval, the Benghazi attacks, and the use of an unencrypted private email server for Top Secret official email communication warranting an ongoing FBI investigation – compared to Sanders’ 25 in Congress, sufficiently productive for him to be dubbed “the Amendment King of the U.S. Congress”. The perception of experience, and many other important attributes, is entirely dependent on how media institutions present candidates to the populace, and when organisations like CNN frame his career by detailing his ‘one failed house race, two failed Senate races, and three attempts to be Governor… finally [being] elected as Mayor of Burlington by 10 votes’, rather than his consistent re-election in Congress since 1990, spanning 10 elections and with at least 63% of the vote in every cycle since 1996, you start to see why perceptions don’t always map onto reality. The same video highlights Sanders’ 2006 election to the Senate as the most expensive campaign ever run in Vermont, but this pales in comparison to Clinton’s $36 million spent in re-election to the Senate the same year, more than any other candidate in the country.


Sanders was always going to be fighting an uphill battle when the cornerstone of his campaign directly threatens the fortunes of media conglomerates, and this battle is broadcast every day in the consistent selectivity of their reporting. The New York Daily News is running a front-page story today entitled ‘Bernie’s Sandy Hook shame’, accusing Sanders of opposing efforts of victims of the 2012 Connecticut school shooting to sue gun manufacturers during what has been labeled as close to a ‘disaster’ interview by The Washington Post. Sanders could have been clearer, but the paper and many of those picking up the story are considerably misrepresenting his actual views, made apparent by the full transcript. With the New York primary a couple of weeks away, it’s fair to expect continued onslaught in the coming days.


The media have also played a major role in Sander’s failure to attract the African-American vote. Sanders was out on the streets protesting for racial equality in the 1960s, notably leading a sit-in at the University of Chicago to protest segregated housing for students. Instead of highlighting his efforts, organisations such as Time and The Washington Post, as well as leading civil rights activist and Clinton-supporter John Lewis, cast doubt over whether he was really there, on the same day that the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee announces its endorsement of Clinton. The woman herself was a Goldwater Republican in the 1960s who, during her husband’s presidency, fronted a drive to bring racially connoted juvenile ‘super-predators’ ‘to heel’. Leading civil rights scholar Michelle Alexander scathingly criticised Clinton’s ‘boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine’ and her support of Bill’s decimation of black America. Yet Clinton retains the vast majority of the African-American vote (62-16% in a recent national poll, with 92% of these firmly committed), and the mainstream media’s emphasis of this support rather than whether it is justified has no doubt helped to entrench such views. Without the African American vote it is extremely hard to see Clinton winning the nomination, so these actions have been crucial in keeping Sanders at bay.


Selectivity is apparent too in the reporting of opinion polls. General election-related polls are relevant when showing that many Sanders supporters would support Clinton if she becomes the democratic nominee, but irrelevant when data shows that Sanders outperforms Clinton against Trump in 9 of 12 battleground states and ties her in the other 3. The fact is that while Sanders looks unlikely to win a majority of pledged delegates, it’s very possible that Clinton won’t reach the 59% she needs to win the nomination without any super-delegates. She’s currently hovering around this target but with a more liberal North-Eastern swing to come, and Sanders is making significant gains in the polls in delegate-heavy New York and California. Given that super-delegates were instituted to ensure electable candidates are chosen, Sanders may still be in with a chance.


The vast majority of states Clinton has won so far voted Republican in 2008 and 2012. And if Obama, with overwhelming African-American support, couldn’t take Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, or Tennessee, then Hillary definitely won’t. In 2016 battleground states, Clinton performed well in Florida and Ohio, won but under-performed in Arizona and North Carolina, tied in Iowa, Nevada, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Illinois, and lost in Maine, Minnesota, Utah, Colorado, Michigan, and most recently, Wisconsin – to a candidate that a year ago was down to Clinton in the national polls 61.5% to 6.5%. Sanders’ anti-establishment rhetoric, honesty, and principled nature has the potential to attract a number of the two-thirds of Republicans who dislike Trump and are tired of the GOP’s self-destructive descent into name calling and shouting matches, potentially making past Republican strongholds like Kansas and West Virginia winnable with Sanders as the candidate. Populist anger towards Wall Street and large corporations spills across party lines, and Sanders taps into this in a way no one else has.


Sanders has a positive favourability rating (48-42), whereas Clinton doesn’t (41-55). Sanders retains his positive favourability among Clinton supporters (60-24), but Clinton doesn’t among Sanders supporters (25-61). Sanders beats Trump in general election polls by 12% compared to Clinton’s 10.4%, and outperforms her by even more against Cruz (11.5% vs. 4.7%) and Kasich (4.9% vs. -0.9%). Polls are not akin to crystal balls, but the vast wealth of evidence shows Sanders as the candidate more likely to be successful in the general election. However, whether that will convince super-delegates at the DNC in July in the case of a pledged delegates tie remains to be seen. Given that super-delegates are usually office-holders or influential party leaders, criticism has been leveled that they only serve to ensure that establishment candidates stay in power. If they ignore the above, you can add them to the list of necessary electoral reforms along with early voting, closed primaries, and media influence, as well as Sanders’ flagship policy of campaign finance reform. If they don’t, there’s a chance you might just be seeing Sanders’ name on the ballot box come November.

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