How Bernie Sanders Lost the White Working Class

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Chicago, Ill., March 7, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

By reworking his rhetoric to appeal to a different constituency, he ended up losing more than he gained

Bernie Sanders’s 16-point loss to Joe Biden in the Michigan primary came almost four years to the day after Sanders’s stunning upset of Hillary Clinton in Michigan on March 8, 2016, which became the most important moment of Sanders’s 2016 campaign. Michigan was the first really large state to Feel the Bern. Hillary’s weakness with white working-class voters in Michigan, which took pollsters by complete surprise, would take them by complete surprise again on Election Day in November.

White working-class voters were the essential element in transforming the youthful-activist “Bernie Bro” base into a coalition strong enough in 2016 to win not only Michigan but Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Maine, West Virginia, Rhode Island, and a bushel of Western states, and run a very close second in Illinois, Missouri, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Connecticut, Iowa, and South Dakota. Most, but not all, of Bernie’s 2016 wins were by lopsided margins: his only 2016 victories by less than double digits were Michigan (49.8 percent to 48.3 percent), Indiana (52.5 percent to 47.5 percent), and Montana (51 percent to 44.6 percent).

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Last night, Sanders proved unable to reprise that victory against Biden. Biden’s easy wins in Michigan and Missouri, his upset win in Idaho, and a too-close-to-call result at this writing in Washington spell the end of any realistic prospect that Sanders can win the nomination. This is not simply a matter of Biden’s headline strength with African-American voters. It also shows a wider weakness with the white working-class voters who carried Bernie to so many 2016 wins. Sanders has now lost five states to Biden that he won last time: Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Maine, and Idaho. What happened?

A Different Playing Field
Some of the shift can be explained by different opponents, a wider field, and different methods of voting. The Democratic field was much more crowded this year in New Hampshire, which eroded the size of Sanders’s advantage there. It was still a four-way race on Super Tuesday, with the big-spending Mike Bloomberg and the left-populist Elizabeth Warren going after elements of the Sanders coalition from different angles. Joe Biden, while no less a creature of corporate-donor Democrats than Hillary Clinton, has more of a common touch.

One thing that has plainly hurt Sanders is that Democrats switched most of their 2016 caucuses to primaries. Minnesota, Maine, Idaho, and Washington all flipped from caucus victories for Sanders to primary losses or dead heats as the electorate expanded. (North Dakota switched to a modified party-run primary, which Sanders won.) The pattern of diluting Sanders’s support in a much broader electorate has held across the states that changed formats. In every state, the number of Bernie voters went up, but the turnout went up a lot more:

This is unsurprising, given how caucuses favor more ideological candidates with devoted activist followers. But it doesn’t explain a head-to-head primary like Michigan. For that, we should look deeper at the specific erosion of Sanders’s support among a key element of his 2016 base.

They Call Me the Working Man
Exit polling is never entirely reliable, and is not equally available across every contest; caucuses can be polled only at the entrances, and pollsters do not ask the same questions every time. I’ll present an unweighted average at the bottom of each chart just for reference. But we have a strong enough sample across multiple states to see a powerful pattern in key categories of Sanders’s 2016 support. First up, white voters without a college degree:

Outside of Missouri, this was a heavily pro-Sanders voting bloc in 2016; outside of New Hampshire, he has consistently lost these voters to Biden. Notice as well that non-college white voters have actually tended to be a larger share of the vote in 2020 than in the 2016 primaries.

White voters as a whole:

The Democratic electorate in many places is less white than it was four years ago. Sanders won white voters in all of these states, in many cases by double digits. Outside of New Hampshire, he has been losing them to Biden.

White men and unmarried men:

The lopsided pro-Sanders vote among these two overlapping groups in 2016 is undoubtedly partially driven by gender and Hillary Clinton’s uniquely grating impact on men. In either case, Sanders is now regularly losing white men, flipping from a 25-point advantage to a two-point deficit in Michigan. He has also lost almost his entire broad advantage among unmarried men: “Bros for Joe.”

Focusing on the economic bracket that was strongest for Sanders in 2016, voters making between $30,000 and $50,000 a year:

There is also a somewhat smaller sample in 2020 exit polls, but the falloff in Michigan and Missouri is visible. Finally, independents:

Sanders utterly dominated independents in 2016. He still runs ahead with them, but not by anything like the same margins.

Nate Cohn found a similar falloff when examining county-by-county results on Super Tuesday:

Mr. Biden defeated Mr. Sanders by 10 points, 38 percent to 28 percent, in counties across Maine, Minnesota and Massachusetts where white voters made up at least 80 percent of the electorate and where college graduates represented less than 40 percent of the electorate . . . This is a marked departure from 2016. Back then, Mr. Sanders tended to excel among white, working-class and rural voters across the North. This made Michigan, where white voters represent a well-above-average share of the Democratic electorate, one of his stronger states. He dominated in Michigan’s small towns and rural areas, losing only in few counties that tended to have older voters.

Last night, Sanders lost every single county in Michigan.

Tío Bernie
As Cohn notes, “Mr. Sanders has often made up for losses in white, working-class areas this year with gains among Latino voters and white voters who live in left-liberal areas.” That goes a ways to explaining how he won California, a Hillary Clinton stronghold in 2016. Why is Sanders stronger with Hispanics and weaker with the white working class?

Some commentators have suggested that part of his problem is that Donald Trump has seduced some of Sanders’s 2016 voters away from the Democrats. Even if that is true on an individual level, however, there is no sign that white working-class voters have disappeared in droves from Democratic primaries. Looking at the five states where we have comparable exit polls for both years, white voters without a college degree went up in all five. The issue is not declining participation, it’s declining support. Which leads us to one possible explanation: immigration.

Bernie Sanders is, famously, consistent over time and averse to changing his mind about anything. But that does not mean he is entirely immune to the tendency of politicians to “evolve” and swim with the tide of their party in search of votes. Part of his appeal to white working-class voters — many of them ancestral Democrats — in 2016 was his economic nationalism. In state after state, voters who told exit pollsters that trade was bad for America sided with Sanders. He won those voters 56 percent to 41 percent in Michigan, 60 percent to 39 percent in Wisconsin, 56 percent to 44 percent in Illinois, 54 percent to 46 percent in Indiana, 53 percent to 46 percent in Missouri, and 54 percent to 30 percent in West Virginia. That clearly overlaps with his strong support in those states from white working-class voters, independents, union households, voters “very worried” about the economy, and voters “angry” at the government. The trade question has not been asked in the 2020 exit polls, but the decline among related groups is suggestive.

What other policy view do these voters tend to share? They are likelier to see immigration, like trade, as unwanted economic competition. It is no accident that Donald Trump did well with this class of voters in the Midwest and Northeast by combining hostility to trade with hostility to immigration. Now, consider how Bernie Sanders sounded on immigration in the last campaign, as illustrated by a 2015 interview with Ezra Klein:

Ezra Klein: You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view. I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the U.S. are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders . . .

Bernie Sanders: Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.

Ezra Klein: Really?

Bernie Sanders: Of course. That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. . . .


Ezra Klein: It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn’t it?

Bernie Sanders: It would make everybody in America poorer — you’re doing away with the concept of a nation-state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation-state or in a country called the United States or U.K. or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country . . .

You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? . . . You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?

I think from a moral responsibility we’ve got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty, but you don’t do that by making people in this country even poorer . . . what we need to be doing as a global economy is making sure that people in poor countries have decent-paying jobs . . . That is a moral responsibility, but you don’t do that, as some would suggest, by lowering the standard of American workers, which has already gone down very significantly.

In 2007, Sanders opposed Democratic proposals to widen the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and expand guest-worker programs. He charged on the Senate floor that Democrats favored “bringing into this country over a period of years millions of low-wage temporary workers with the result that wages and benefits in this country, which are already going down, will go down even further.” He told Lou Dobbs, “If wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are right now.” In 2006, he even joined Republicans in a vote siding with the border-security group the Minutemen against the Mexican government. There’s more in his record from this period that border-security hawks and immigration restrictionists would like, and open-borders advocates would not.

During a March 2016 debate in Miami, even while trying to sell the conventionally progressive aspects of his immigration proposals, Sanders continued to stress the immigrant threat to working-class employment and wages:

[Question]: Were you concerned with working conditions for guest workers, or really because you think immigrants drive down wages and take jobs from Americans?

Sanders: You have guest worker programs that have been described . . . [as] akin to slavery, where people came in. They were cheated. They were abused. They were humiliated. And if they stood up for their rights, they would be thrown out of the country. Of course, that type of [thing] leads to a race to the bottom for all of our people.

Four years later, Sanders has changed his tone and emphasis in speaking on these issues, and changed some of his positions as well. He supports breaking up ICE, decriminalizing illegal border crossings, and placing a moratorium on deportations. He proposes to extend taxpayer-funded free health care and free college to illegal immigrants. Sanders has also, unlike in 2016, relied on high-profile surrogates — most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar — who are popularly associated with the more radical open-borders elements of the Democratic party. This sort of thing plays well in California and Nevada, but less well in the Midwest.

Republicans are not the only ones who encounter contradictions and tradeoffs between appeals to the economic nationalism favored by white working-class voters and efforts to broaden their coalition to welcome Hispanic and other immigrants. The Bernie Sanders of 2016, who regularly lost Hispanic voters to Hillary Clinton, dominated the white working-class vote in the 2016 primaries. Sanders’s effort to put away his rhetoric about competition from immigrant workers and expand his support with Hispanics has been a success, but it is likely not a coincidence that it has been matched by a sharp decline in his support from the white working class.

Dan McLaughlin is an attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation in New York City, and a contributing columnist at National Review Online.

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