December 29, 2019 📊 Democratic voters might be more loyal to their party than they were in 2016

Concerns about far-left and anti-establishment voters supporting Republican and third-party candidates are overblown

Welcome! I’m G. Elliott Morris, data journalist for The Economist and blogger of polls, elections, and political science. Happy Sunday! This is my weekly email where I write about politics using data and share links to what I’ve been reading and writing. Thoughts? Drop me a line (or just respond to this email). Like what you’re reading? Tap the ❤️ below the title and share with your friends!


Dear Reader,

This week’s main read: Merry Christmas, happy holidays and a happy New Year to you all. I’m writing a short note expanding on a series of tweets that I sent this weekend. Which Democrats might not support the eventual nominee in next November’s general election? And should we be worried about them costing Democrats the presidency?

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Democratic voters might be more loyal to their party than they were in 2016

Concerns about far-left and anti-establishment voters supporting Republican and third-party candidates are overblown

Some people argue that supporters of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign cost Hillary Clinton the White House by voting for her opponent, Donald Trump. Although these concerns are overblown—Democrats and Republicans don’t always vote 100% for their party anyway, and it’s impossible to know what other events could have determined the outcome of the election—it is nevertheless true that small changes in voting behavior can make big differences in close campaigns. So wrote political science professor John Sides in 2017:

An analysis of a different 2008 survey by the political scientists Michael Henderson, Sunshine Hillygus and Trevor Thompson produced a similar estimate: 25 percent. (Unsurprisingly, Clinton voters who supported McCain were more likely to have negative views of African Americans, relative to those who supported Obama.)

Thus, the 6 percent or 12 percent of Sanders supporters who may have supported Trump does not look especially large in comparison with these other examples.
Was this enough to cost Clinton support in key states?

This is a huge hypothetical, of course. Clinton’s losses in the Rust Belt, which cost her an electoral college majority, can be attributed to many factors. And a lot depends on the exact number of Sanders supporters who did not vote for her.

Schaffner generated some state-level estimates, which G. Elliott Morris quickly noted were large enough to exceed Trump’s margin of victory in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Even if we assume that the overall percentage of Sanders supporters who voted for Trump was 6 percent and not 12 percent, and assume therefore that we can cut every state estimate in half, the estimated number of Sanders-Trump voters would still exceed Trump’s margin of victory.

But again, attach a lot of caveats to that analysis.

[But] it may be hard to know exactly how many Sanders-Trump voters there were, or whether they really cost Clinton the election. But it doesn’t appear that many of them were predisposed to support Clinton in the first place.

Voters’ predisposition against the Democratic establishment is also a relevant question for the 2020 election. If voters that support some candidates are not willing to vote for others in the general, one could make an argument that those candidates need to do more to encourage them to be party loyalists (if indeed winning an election is a party’s ultimate goal).

Looking at survey data, it seems that 2020 is going to be different from 2016. Although supporters of, e.g., Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard do not look like typical Democrats, supporters of the party’s major nominees mostly look more loyal than they did last time around. 97% of Elizabeth Warren’s voters say they’ll vote Democratic in November. So do 94% of Biden voters—and 87% of Sanders voters. That’s much higher than the 75% of Bernie’s coalition that cast ballots for Clinton in 2016.

This is not all too surprising. As political polarization has increased over the past few decades, the number of split-ticket voters has fallen. We naturally expect that Democrats and Republicans will be loyal to the nominee that their party selects regardless of whether they are their preferred candidate. This is the role of parties, after all!

To me, this all suggests that some narratives about the dangers posed by far-left and anti-establishment candidates is overblown. In 2016, 90-95% of Democrats and Republicans cast ballots for their party’s candidate in the general election. So far, it looks like that number might be even higher this time around.

And here are some selected links to the work I read and wrote last week:

Posts for subscribers:

What I'm Reading and Working On

I’m on a pseudo-holiday again next week, so won’t be writing anything in particular. The week after next will come with big news, though, so stay tuned!

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