(This is about the election. Because so many Democratic and progressive voters are still debating what happened, and because a forthright postmortem is essential to the Democratic Party moving forward effectively [and is, to all indications, something they don’t actually care to do], I’ve researched what the numbers actually tell us. I find it interesting. If you don’t, that’s fine. If your highest caliber response is to school me on paying attention to this when you want me to pay attention to something else I’m probably also paying attention to, just keep it to yourself.)
Would Bernie Sanders have won? Did Hillary Clinton lose because of Russia/FBI/Mercury retrograde? Was she a good candidate? Was he?
In a discussion elsewhere of factors which led to Donald Trump’s win, I pointed out that Clinton’s favorability ratings throughout her entire 2015/2016 campaign remained historically awful, never hitting a point where a majority of voters saw her positively. Someone asked about the polls before the election which seemed (unlike the polls throughout the months prior) to show her handily beating Trump. Nate Silver was mentioned.
The thing is, though Clinton enjoyed bumps in the polls toward the end, in most cases her edge remained within the margin of error. Real Clear Politics, which tracks and averages all the major polls, had her lead at only 3.2% going into election day. This was just slightly better than her polls against Trump had generally been all along (you might remember those weak numbers during the primaries because some people said they indicated she might lose).
The big numbers predicting her win were projections of probability of her winning according to the biases of those making the projections. Silver, for example, gave Clinton a 71.8% chance of winning (and he was actually accused of being too pessimistic). This didn’t mean he expected her to get 71.8% of the vote. In fact, he predicted she would get 48.5% and Trump would get 45%, a margin of only 3.5%, a number which was, you guessed it, within the margin of error.
But the polls pitting the candidates against each other were only part of the story. Just as, and possibly more, important were the candidates’ favorability polls which indicate how liked and trusted each was. This should have been an important consideration because no candidate had ever won the presidency with a net negative favorability with voters.
When she entered the race in April 2015, Hillary Clinton’s favorability/unfavorability rating was 44%/52%. A net negative of -8 points.
When he entered the race in April 2015, Sanders’s favorability/unfavorability was 20%/27%. Lower scores in both, and a net negative of -7 points. But 54% of voters had no opinion because they didn’t know him, compared to 4% for Clinton.
By November, 2015, Clinton’s favorability/unfavorability was 41%/52%. Net negative -11 points.
By November, 2015, Sanders’s favorability/unfavorability was 41%/37%. Net positive +4 points.
By the Democratic National Convention at the end of July 2016, Clinton’s favorability/unfavorability was 42%/56%. Net negative -14 points.
By the Democratic National Convention, Sanders’s favorability/unfavorability was 53%/36%. Net positive +17 points.
By the election, Clinton’s favorability/unfavorability was 43%/56%. Net negative -13 points.
By the election, Sanders’s favorability/unfavorability was 59%/33%. Net positive +26 points.
So what we see is that throughout the entire primary season and the general election, Hillary Clinton’s favorability scores remained roughly static. Nothing she did after November 2015, months before the email leaks or FBI fishiness, boosted her numbers. Likewise, none of the allegedly critical negative events of the election dropped her scores much further. She stayed at her net negative score, with a constant majority seeing her unfavorably, from DAY ONE up to her loss. Voters had pretty much made up their minds about Hillary Clinton before she even started running.
Would Sanders have fared better in the general, as so many of us think? He did, after all, go from a -7 net negative as a relative unknown to +26 net positive. And he managed to close Clinton’s initial sixty point lead to give her a very tense fight through the primaries.
Clinton, meanwhile, not only just got less popular, she, a globally renowned candidate with a huge war-chest of corporate cash and the support of the entire Democratic establishment, squandered a sixty point lead to a little known, grumpy old senator from a small state.
And, of course, Sanders always beat Trump in the polls by double digits, while Trump was the only GOP candidate whom Clinton would usually beat, though always by a narrow margin. Like that 3.5% Nate Silver spun into a 72% probability of victory.
Sanders now has 56% favorability (32% unfavorability; Clinton has 40% favorable, 54% unfavorable). Among Democrats, he has 80%. Among Republicans, he has 31%; that’s right, nearly a third of GOP voters actually like and trust Bernie Sanders. Among Trump voters, 27% favorable. You know, those voters we’re told would never have crossed over to vote for him?
And how does he score with Clinton voters? 86% favorable. That’s twice Clinton’s favorability on election day, while the majority of her voters (54%) said they were voting for her only to vote against Trump.
A lot of people run with that line about how the Republicans would have attacked Bernie in the primary, and maybe his numbers would have fallen to Clintonesque levels as a result. They never seem to grok the fact that Clinton was already down there, and Bernie would have had to fall thirty-one points in the short time after the convention to sink to her level.
I think the numbers tell the tale. I tell you only because I’m sick of seeing Clinton fans slander Sanders and blame her loss on him (one I saw just before starting to put this post together said, “OMG Bernie people, just STFU and think about how you ruined everything!”). All the data indicates that Bernie had a big chance of winning, while Hillary had a slender chance and was so relentlessly unpopular that the slightest puff of ill wind (an ambiguous FBI announcement, evidence of unethical collusion with the DNC, refusal to take a stand on the Dakota pipeline…) might destroy her shot.
The fact is, Hillary Clinton ended her race as she began, the single most unpopular Democratic candidate in history, while Bernie Sanders started as a relatively unknown, impossible long-shot and finished as literally the most popular politician in the United States.
Anyone who thinks that wouldn’t have (probably) made all the difference is in denial.
By The Numbers, Part 1: How Democrats Continue to Lose
By The Numbers, Part 2: Who’s Our Champion Now?