Is Bernie Sanders a transformative political figure whose candidacy could make a lasting impact on the Utah Democratic party? Not if you look at the numbers.
Utah Democrats are still crowing about the “unprecedented” turnout at the March presidential preference vote. It made for wonderful news coverage and fantastic visuals. However, in this case, perception is not reality.
Sanders supporters point to the large crowds and his big win that night as proof Utah is ripe for the kind of political revolution Sanders is calling for. That’s certainly one way to tell the story. But, if you look at the numbers, you find the truth is much different.
Simply put, Sanders backers need to pump the brakes on any talk of political revolution in Utah, because the numbers don’t back them up.
Sure there were long lines and what looked like a big turnout among Democrats this year. But, in reality, the 2016 Democratic vote was not even close to turnout for the 2008 Utah Democratic primary.
In March of this year, 76,999 Utahns cast ballots in the Democratic vote. In February of 2008, nearly double that number, 131,403, showed up to vote in the Democratic primary.
On Tuesday night at the Utah Democratic State Central Committee meeting, one Sanders supporter told the assembled group of Democrats that Bernie Sanders had awakened a revolution that was “swarming” all over Utah. That’s nothing but political hyperbole at best and fabulist reasoning at the worst.
Bernie Sanders pulled in 61,333 votes in the 2016 contest. That’s about 15,000 LESS than Barack Obama got in Utah eight years ago. And it’s only 10,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton received in 2008.
So, somewhere Democrats lost more than 55,000 presidential votes between 2008 and 2016. There are a few reasons why those numbers are down. The 2008 election was a state-run primary, meaning voters could go to their polling location and cast a ballot, which was much more convenient than the party-run primary this year. Utah Democrats had to hold their own vote when the legislature refused to fund a primary, which resulted in the long lines we saw in March. Many voters saw those lines and reportedly went home. But, it’s hard to believe that 55,000 of them gave up because of that.
The weather could have also played a factor. It was cold on caucus night, which usually holds turnout down. But, that would not account for why turnout for this year’s Democratic vote was down 42% from 2008.
Another reason is the exclusionary nature of caucuses. It’s difficult to get people to show up at a certain place at a certain time to stand around for hours to cast a ballot. Sanders has done very well in caucuses this election season because those kinds of contests tend to reward candidates with diehard supporters. Sanders’ supporters, especially in Utah, are nothing if not passionate. That probably accounts for his large margin of victory. If Utah had held a primary election, history suggests that the margin between Sanders and Clinton would likely have been much closer, more in line with what happened in 2008 where Obama bested Clinton by a little more than 23,000 votes.
The most likely reason for the 42% drop in the vote this year? Utahns outside of their base of supporters are not inspired by either candidate. How else to explain why Clinton got nearly 36,000 fewer votes this time around than in 2008 and why 55,000 Democrats stayed home this year?
Bernie Sanders supporters argue he brought thousands of new voters to the process on caucus night in March. That’s probably true. Let’s assume a third of Sanders’ total from March were new voters. That’s about 20,000. However, that means another 20,000 Democrats from 2008 stayed home this year, bringing the total to about 75,000 who were MIA in 2016.
Earlier this year, our polling suggested Sanders could beat presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump in a head-to-head contest in Utah. Since Trump has locked up the Republican nomination, those numbers have reversed, putting Trump in perfect position to continue the GOP winning streak that stretches back to Richard Nixon in 1968.
Democrats are wringing their hands trying to figure out how to keep the new Bernie Sanders supporters in the fold once Hillary Clinton wins the nomination in July. Perhaps a better strategy would be to find those missing Democratic voters and bring them back home.