The Myth of the Democratic Rift: Despite Media Hot Air, the Data Show Sanders Supporters Will Embrace Clinton

Bernie Sanders has bowed out of the Democratic primary race and endorsed Hillary Clinton. Yet, some questions remain about whether Sanders supporters will embrace Clinton (some pundits, including Paul Krugman, suggested that Sanders would not support Clinton).  Incidents like Susan Sarandon’s ambiguous comments about possibly supporting Trump (or not voting at all) raised many eyebrows.

In the Daily Beast, Christopher Ketcham argued there is a significant contingent of Bernie supporters itching to vote for Trump (though the only one he could get on record was a friend of his living in Brooklyn). Increased use of Twitter among journalists and pundits has exposed them to more extreme positions, which they then project onto broad groups of people. Some have suggested “Bernie Bros,” a term of derision aimed at a group of leftist Bernie supporters who harbor misogynistic and racist views, represent Sanders supporters in general and may vote for Trump in large numbers (Trump has also courted Bernie supporters).

However, more data-driven approaches often fail to support these narratives. Data don’t show widespread misogynistic attitudes among Bernie Sanders supporters, nor do they suggest widespread racial resentment or stereotyping. Moreover, I find that there are strong reasons to believe Sanders supporters will ultimately reject Trump, and most will end up supporting Clinton. Despite hot takes suggesting otherwise, the Democratic Party is currently quite unified, and there is no evidence the Bernie supporters will support Trump en masse.

Bernie Supporters Don’t Like Trump

The American National Election Studies 2016 pilot study allows us a unique opportunity to explore whether Bernie supporters would back Trump: it asks respondents both which Democratic and Republican candidate they prefer (with the option to choose none). For the purposes of the analysis explored here, I only examine respondents who choose either Bernie or Hillary and consider themselves either Democrats or Independents (throughout the whole piece). That’s because the fact that respondents are asked which Democratic or Republican candidate they would support regardless of party could distort results (if a large number of Republicans preferred Sanders to Clinton). The goal is to analyze whether Democrats and Independents who support Bernie will end up supporting Trump.

A large share of Clinton and Sanders supporters said they would support “none” of the Republicans (42 percent of both Clinton and Sanders supporters selected this option). Only 9 percent of Sanders supporters selected Trump (compared to 12 percent of Clinton supporters). Sanders supporters were more supportive of Rand Paul (12 percent) and Clinton supporters of Jeb Bush (13 percent).  Another way to explore the issues is to examine what are called “feeling thermometer” scores. Respondents are asked to place themselves on thermometer between 1 and 100, with 1 being the coldest and 100 being the warmest. Examining Bernie and Hillary supporters who identify as either Democrats or Independents, I find that the mean feeling thermometer score for Trump is 23 for Clinton supporters and 18 for Sanders supporters (not a statistically significant difference). That is, both Clinton and Sanders supporters have cold feelings towards Trump.

Bernie Supporters Are Committed To Anti-Racism

One reason that Bernie supporters will hesitate to support Trump is his racist style of politics. White Sanders supporters in the ANES dataset had lower scores on the resentment scale and stereotype scale (indicating that they are less likely to endorse stereotypes or racial resentment) than white Clinton supporters. An analysis of ANES performed by political scientist Jason McDaniel and provided to Salon suggests that these results remain after controlling for other relevant variables. The fact that Sanders supporters tend to be younger could explain the difference (with Ashley Jardina, I showed that younger people are more progressive on issues related to race).

Other sources support the idea that Sanders supporters are more racially liberal: a Reuters poll of more than 7,800 respondents suggests that Bernie supporters are less likely to endorse racial stereotypes than Clinton supporters and Republicans (the results are similar for both the full sample and among only white respondents). The biggest difference was on the question of whether black people are more “criminal” than whites, where 32 percent of Clinton supporters rated black people as more criminal compared to 25 percent of Sanders supporters.


These data belie the notion that Bernie supporters are somehow uncommitted to anti-racism. Further, these data make it incredibly unlikely that large number of Trump supporters will support a campaign that has stretched the bounds of racism in political discourse. Pundits who compare Trump and Sanders are doing their readers a deep disservice and should stop.

Democrats Are More United Now Than in 2008

By historical standards, the primary was not extraordinarily bitter. Sanders refused to go after Clinton on potential scandals (such the e-mail scandal, which he publicly denounced) and rather ran a campaign to push the Democratic party to the left on issues with broad popular support. Indeed, Sander’s endorsement signals a level of party unity that has occasionally evaded Democrats. In 1992, Jerry Brown called Bill Clinton the “prince of sleaze” and refused to endorse Clinton, even after clearly losing the primary. In 1972 the party was openly divided about McGovern, and he ended up being crushed. Though it has quickly slipped into the memory hole, the 2008 primary was quite vicious, and many Hillary supporters refused to support Obama in the general.

Indeed, the relatively low levels of support among Bernie supporters for Trump signal far more party unity among Democrats than existed in the past. Using the Cooperative Congressional Election Study 2008, I find that 24 percent of those who reported voting for Hillary in the Democratic primary supported McCain in the general (74 percent supported Obama).  According to polls from Washington Post-ABC News, in May, 20% of those who backed Bernie in the primary would support Trump in the general. By June, that number had fallen to only 8%. For comparison, in June of 2008, 20% of those who supported Clinton in the primary said they preferred McCain over Obama in the general.

YouGov data provided to me by polling analyst Will Jordan suggests that support for Trump among Sanders supporters has remained in the low teens, with a high of 18 points and a low of 9. The bigger worry would be that Bernie supporters might support a third-party candidate. Over the last two months about a third of Sanders supporters have supported a third party candidate (or “someone else”). However, as Sanders begins to campaign for Clinton, these numbers will likely dwindle. Pew Research Center data suggest a similar number for Trump support: 9 percent of Sanders supporters say they would support Trump (on the GOP side, 14 percent of those who did not support Trump in primary said they would support Clinton in the general).


Take policy debates: On a battery of issues, including the minimum wage, upward mobility, the environment, inequality and even birth control, Sanders supporters have more liberal views than Clinton supporters (see chart). The evidence, at least from ANES, does give us reason to believe that Bernie supporters are indeed more progressive than Hillary supporters, but these difference are quite modest, and far less important than the differences between Democrats and Trump.


As I’ve argued, the Democratic Party has moved left in ways that are consistent with public opinion and could help them mobilize single women, Latinos, African-Americans and young people, key constituencies. Partisan preferences tend to be sticky (research suggests partisan identification persists over a long time) so young people drawn to Bernie will likely stay in the Democratic Party for a long time. Young people vote at incredibly low rates, so if Sanders brings them out to the polls, he’s done a huge service for Democrats. Finally, political scientist Gabor Simonovits finds that, “the introduction of extreme alternatives into the public discourse makes mainstream policies on the same side of the spectrum look more centrist in the public eye, thus increasing support for these moderate alternatives.” By introducing a somewhat more radical vision of social democracy to the American stage, Bernie has made more modest incremental change possible.

Many pundits have relied on the unhelpful and offensive trope that Trump resembles Sanders. These takes obfuscate far more than they illuminate, and dismiss a group of young Americans who are incredibly progressive on issues of race, gender and economics. Further, the argument is rooted in the mythology that socialists and leftists don’t have the best interests of progressives or the American people at heart. Though the liberal-left and socialist-left may disagree, it’s absurd to think that large numbers of leftists subscribe to a Leninist, accelerationist view. Rather, most want to pull the country in a more progressive direction. Supporting a racist, misogynistic, warmongering ethno-nationalist won’t do that.

There are things in the primary election to be less than excited about: the tenor of the primary has at many times been divisive, particularly online. However, primaries have always been divisive and by historical standards, the Democratic party is not particularly divided. There are rifts, certainly. But the specter of Trump means that most Democrats take the position, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It is incredibly unlikely that Bernie supporters will vote for Trump en masse. It’s unhelpful and lazy to suggest they will.


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