One of the most common arguments in favor of the nomination of Senator Bernie Sanders as this year’s Democratic presidential candidate is that he gets people excited, especially younger voters, and that this will result in a “Revolution” of voter excitement and participation that will sweep him and like-minded Congressional candidates into the White House.
As a Bayesian thinker, I will allow that this outcome is possible, but very, very improbable. This is why.
First, Sanders’ key base right now includes younger Millennials and GenZ voters (with whom Sanders did very, very well in the Nevada primary). Based on this, the argument is that Sanders can motivate younger voters to turnout at higher rates than in previous elections.
Consider this chart of voter turnout since 1984 by age:
For decades, people under age 30 consistently show up at low, low rates in both midterm and presidential election years. Sanders is arguing that his charisma and revolutionary appeal will be enough to suddenly boost turnout among young people to historic highs. Is that possible? Sure. Is it probable? I don’t think so.
Observe that in 2008, where there was a young, charismatic Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama on the ballot. Young voters indeed turned out at higher rates than in previous elections, but not much more so than was the case with older voters.
In general, turnout in the aggregate between age groups is remarkably consistent from election to election, regardless of the candidates on the ballot.
Second, one could argue that turnout has been so consistent because Bernie Sanders, with his unique charisma and revolutionary appeal, has never before been on a national presidential candidate before. This is true. At the same time, he ran a nation-wide primary campaign in 2016 against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. How did turnout do in 2016?
Voter participation in the 2016 managed to excite roughly 14% of eligible voters to participate: lower than the 20% who participated in 2008 between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In fact, participation in 2016 was roughly average for Democratic primary voters compared to the last few decades.
Bernie Sanders is arguing that his presence on the ballot will produce the Revolution that will turn out voters in droves. The last time he was on the ballot for a presidential primary election, however, turnout was… roughly average. On what basis should we predict, then, that this presence on the general election ballot will increase turnout beyond what is usually the case?
Third, an extremely detailed analysis of voter preferences recently examined potential trade-offs between nominating Bernie Sanders vs. Joe Biden. As would be expected, most Democrats will vote for the Democratic candidate no matter who it is. That said, there were some differences in their coalitions of support:
Sanders does better than Biden specifically among younger voters and perhaps a teensy bit better among lower-income voters. Biden does better among older, wealthier, and better-educated voters.
Decades of voting patterns have consistently shown that older voters and those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds vote regularly and at rates much, much higher than younger voters and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Given this reality, the evidence seems to suggest that, if anything, a Sanders nomination would likely result in somewhat lower turnout than would be the case with another generic Democratic nominee.
(Now, I would be the first to cheer higher turnout rates among younger voters. Given that they consistently choose not to show up on Election Day, year in and year out, decade in and decade out, I’m not holding my breath that a Sanders candidacy will suddenly change the basic patterns of the American political universe.)
BOTTOM LINE TL;DR
Generally speaking, the results of U.S. presidential elections tend to track pretty closely with prevailing economic and domestic conditions and turnout remains remarkably consistent election to election. So, if the economy and other conditions are in bad shape, any Democrat (including Sanders) will probably win the fall. If, however, the economy is booming this summer and Trump maintains his 45%-ish approval rating, he’ll probably be reelected comfortably regardless of whoever the Democrats nominate.
All indicators right now, though, point to a very, very close election this fall, which means that it might make a difference who the Democrats nominate in terms of this year’s general election outcome.
In that case, nominating Sanders is a gamble. Having him on the ballot in the general election will very likely not result in a voter turnout Revolution that will sweep him and other like-minded Democratic Socialists into the White House.
If anything, his nomination might produce a slightly lower level of turnout in the general election than other Democratic nominees (because his core base of younger voters tend consistently to vote at lower rates than just about every other voter demographic).
There are times when political parties have the luxury to take a gamble. Given the stakes of this year’s presidential election, this is not one of them.