Three Reasons Why Bernie Sanders’s Underperformed on Super Tuesday

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders thinks that to beat Donald Trump, Democrats will, as he explained during the South Carolina Democratic debate, “need to bring working people back into the Democratic Party. We need to get young people voting in a way that they never have before.” Obviously, Sanders believes that his campaign is the best position to increase voter turnout, pointing out to huge number of supporters who attend his rallies or his grassroots movement’s energy.

Compared to former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, the Sanders campaign had all the advantages, entering the Super Tuesday primaries. Yet, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders underperformed and here are three reasons why.

First, and probably most important, voter turnout increased in many of the Super Tuesday’s primaries. But rather than supporting Sanders, voters by in large backed Biden, as the next graph illustrate.

The numbers for California are eye-popping. Even though California is still counting votes  — it still has to process 6% of the vote —  the lower-than-expected turnout may have hurt Sanders the most. His campaign’s plan was to win big in California to expand his small lead of pledged delegates entering Super Tuesday. Today, Biden leads with 664 delegates to Sanders’s 573.

The second reason is probably the most worrying given Sanders’s opinion that his campaign is the best positioned to turnout young voters. The exit polls show that Sanders won most voters between the ages of 17 and 44, but he did poorly with voters older than 45. While he needs to find a way to get more support with older voters, his campaign’s biggest challenge is mobilizing and turning out these voters, who stayed home. Had he been able to mobilize and turnout these voters, the outcome of Super Tuesday could have been very different. 

For instance, 18% of North Carolina’s primary-goers in 2016 were between 18 and 29. The number declined by 4% on Tuesday. In Texas, 20% of young voters participated in the primary in 2016. The turnout rate in 2020 decreased to 15%. We saw this problem for the Sanders campaign in New Hampshire were the young vote declined by 5% to 13%. Massachusetts and Virginia experienced the same drop, from 19% in 2016 to 16% in 2020.

Finally, we have assumed that Sanders has strong backing from Latinx voters. But a closer look at exit polls data shows that he has very strong support among young Latinxs and not older ones. 

The first set of graphs looks at California’s Latino vote in more detail, which represented 26% of the electorate. Sanders’s won California with 34% of the vote, while Biden received 27%. 

The exit polls estimate that Sanders’s won 49% of the Latino vote and Biden captured 22%. The Vermont Senator’s victory is explained in part by his decisive win of the Latinx vote in three out of the four age categories. But, it is important to highlight that older Latinos are less supportive of Sanders’s message. 

The story in Texas is different. while Sanders received 30% of the vote, Biden won Texas by 5% points. According to the exit polls, the Latinx voter turnout did not increase in the last four years. It represented 32% of the electorate. The next graph breaks down this group into different age categories.

Unlike California, Sanders did not do well with Latinx voters aged 45 and higher and this explains in part why he did not win Texas. 

Will Sanders win the next states with substantial Latinx voting populations? His strengths in Western states indicate he should do well in New Mexico and Arizona. But, he is going to face an uphill battle in Florida, where many Latinxs are critical of socialism. Sanders’s most immediate challenge however, is younger voters’ decision to sit out the primaries. If Sanders wants to win the next big primaries and stop Biden’s momentum, his campaign has to figure out how to turn the energy of his rallies and the passion of his grassroots movement into votes and it has to do so fast.