I’m seeing a lot of posts from Sanders supporters saying he can still win the nomination, and then the presidency. I consider this delusional. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think Sanders can win, provided by winning you mean something much larger. I think Sanders has a good chance of being remembered as a harbinger for a substantial shift left within both the Democrats and wider American politics.
It’s true that most of Clinton’s best states have voted. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sanders managed to win the majority of votes from now on. But to actually win (even if the Superdelegates vote in line with their states, not their preferences) he has to go close to 60% of the remaining votes. That includes states like New York, California and Pennsylvania and New Jersey all of which he will need a miracle even to win. If he scrapes through with 51% in those he needs almost 70% of the rest. Not going to happen.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the Sanders’ campaign will disappear. In the long run I think Sanders will be judged ahead of his time, just as he was with his support for many of the issues now widely accepted in the Democrats.
One of the most noticeable features of the Democrat primaries has been how big a difference age makes to voting. I can’t remember ever seeing a losing candidate get more than 80% of the under 30-vote, as Sanders did in Iowa and Nevada. His win in Michigan was built in large part on young voters being similarly strong for him, and coming out in greater numbers than anticipated. Only in the south is Sanders not dominating the youth vote to an unprecedented extent.
A lot of people looking at this are probably thinking, “sure, but the young always lean left, then they get older.” We’ve all heard the sayings, “Not a socialist at 20, got no heart, still a socialist at forty, got no brain,” “A conservative is a liberal with teenage daughters” etc etc ad nauseum. The perception that it is normal for people to move to the right as they age isn’t entirely untrue, but it is greatly exaggerated.
There is a much longer essay in why people believe this exaggeration, but for the moment I will just say this: The evidence is that generations that start left tend to stay to the left, even if they experience some shift back towards the middle. This applies even for those, such as the people who came of age in the late 60s, who were politicized primarily by an issue that subsequently went away.
Meanwhile, those people who reached voting age under Eisenhower and Reagan started off voting Republican, and have kept on doing so ever since. (more up to date but not as clear graphic here) In fact, while young voters have not stood to the right of the electorate for a long time, there have been a number of elections, such as 1984 and 1992, where they were in line with the overall vote. The youth vote didn’t really become influential until 2008.
Nor is this just about the votes. Numerous studies have been done of the values of different American age cohorts, and they have found that those who came of age in the 80s stand well to the right of those both older and younger than them.
These studies make clear that the millenials backing Sanders are not just caught up in something cool – their values are well to the left of anyone in the last 40 years, and those turning 18 appear to be further left still.
With time, this group is going to become larger and more influential. It’s possible that those who are currently aged around 10, for example, will see the world differently, but it is almost certain that at least those slightly too young to vote now will also be strongly left.
Moreover, while the ending of the Vietnam war cooled the passions of the early Baby Boomers, and ushered in a more conservative era for their younger siblings, millenial politics is being driven by racism, sexism, wealth inequality and global warming. Sadly, none of them are likely to go away.
Those who follow in Sanders’ footsteps may have the same problems the Democrats currently do; turning out their supporters at mid-term elections, and left wing voters being badly distributed for winning control of Congress. However, when it comes to electing future presidents – and probably Congress – in those years, the left will be very well positioned.