Why Bernie Sanders’ Primary Challenge Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency

For four years, Democrats across the country asked themselves the same question. Why did Hillary Clinton lose to Donald Trump?

Some say it was because of Clinton’s own errors and scandals. Others say a declining economy in the Rust Belt caused enough white working class Obama voters to vote for Trump, who delivered an appealing message. Misogyny and racism are also pointed out as reasons. And it’s heavily believed that the letter by FBI director James Comey, released just days before the election reopening Clinton’s email investigation, was the final nail in the coffin for Clinton’s campaign.

But using a model that accurately predicted Clinton’s loss nearly two months before the 2016 election, there might be one person to blame for her loss.

Bernie Sanders.

Professor Allan Lichtman’s 13 Keys model has correctly predicted the outcome every presidential election, except for 2000. Two weeks ago, I wrote an article of how the model suggested that the cause of Trump’s loss in 2020 was due to a chain of events set off by the COVID-19 Pandemic. In it, I explained how the keys work.

“The model is based on 13 factors occurring during a president’s most recent term. Lichtman calls each of these factors keys. In order for a candidate of the incumbent party to win the election (whether the candidate is the incumbent or not), they must have eight of those keys. If they have less than eight, they lose the election.”

In 2016, Lichtman stated that seven keys were false or turned against Clinton, predicting that the candidate of the party opposite of the incumbent would win the presidency. Here’s what the keys were.

Key 1: Party Mandate (After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm elections) FALSE

Key 2: Contest (There is no serious contest for the incumbent-party nomination) FALSE

Key 3: Incumbency (The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president) FALSE

Key 4: Third Party (There is no significant third party or independent campaign) FALSE

Key 5: Short-term Economy (The economy is not in recession during the election campaign) TRUE

Key 6 Long-term Economy (Real per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms) TRUE

Key 7: Policy Change (The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy) FALSE

Key 8: Social Unrest (There is no sustained social unrest during the term) TRUE

Key 9: Scandal (The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal) TRUE

Key 10: Foreign/Military Failure (The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs) TRUE

Key 11: Foreign/Military Success (The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs) FALSE

Key 12: Incumbent Charisma (The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or a national hero) FALSE

Key 13: Challenge Charisma (The challenging-party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero) TRUE

In order for Clinton to have won the election, two of those seven false keys must instead have been true. The keys we will be focusing on will be Keys 2 and 4.

How Bernie Sanders Turned Those Keys False

Key 2 states that a contested primary in the incumbent’s party hurts their eventual nominee. Lichtman defines a contested primary as the nominee winning less than two thirds of the delegate vote.

In 2016, Sanders won 23 out of the 57 primaries (U.S. Territories have primaries, despite getting no electoral votes in the general election) and 43 percent of the vote. Even with Superdelegates, Sanders still won nearly 40 percent of the total delegates, enough to make this a seriously contested primary and turning Key 2 against Clinton.

The next key is a lot more controversial, but I believe that Sanders’ primary challenge also turned Key 4 against Clinton.

In 2016, third party candidates received the highest amount of support since 1996, winning a combined 5.7 percent of the vote. Lichtman defines a significant third party challenge as a candidate winning more than 5 percent of the vote.

Now there is some controversy about whether this key actually turned in favor of Trump, as it is unclear if one candidate must receive more than 5 percent of the vote or the percentages of votes all third party candidates receive must add up to more than 5 percent. When he made his prediction, Lichtman predicted that Gary Johnson would receive more than 5 percent of the vote based on how he polled. But in the end, he only received 3 percent. Some believe this meant that Key 4 should have turned in favor of Clinton. But in my opinion, there is no difference between one candidate getting 5.7 percent and three candidates getting 5.7 percent. The spoiler effect will still be the same. So this key still goes to Trump.

The major reason third party candidates did so well in 2016 was because both Clinton and Trump were so unpopular. According to exit polls, Clinton’s approval rating among voters was 43 percent and Trump’s was 38 percent. As we know, Trump won voters who held negative views of both candidates 47–30. But 23 percent of those voters voted for a third party candidate.

Pundits and analyists debated the effect third parties had in the weeks following the election. Many argued there was no way we could know for sure if enough of those voters would have voted for Clinton had there been no third party candidates on the ballot. Some might have stayed home or even voted for Trump. However, the most damming piece of evidence might have come four years later. In 2020, 60 percent of voters who voted for a third party candidate in 2016 voted for Joe Biden, so there is evidence to suggest enough of those voters would have backed Clinton to push her over the edge in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Jill Stein also made a clear pitch for Democratic voters while Johnson made pitches to voters from both parties.

But for the sake of this article, the more important question is why there were so many voters who disapproved of both Clinton and Trump, causing the surge in third party votes. And that’s how Bernie Sanders factors into all of this.

Sanders attacked Clinton heavily from the left, portraying her as a Wall Street insider, a war hawk and a homophobe. Many of those attacks mirrored Trump’s attacks on her in the general election.

The attacks seemed to have affected voters’ perception of Clinton. During the 2016 Democratic primaries, Clinton’s approval rating declined from 45 percent in June 2015 to 37 percent in June 2016. Her approval rating rebounded after the Democratic National Convention in July, but the damage had already been done. It’s very likely Sanders’ attacks played a bigger role in this than Trump’s attacks. Trump was still very unpopular among voters at this time and he was still mainly focused on attacking his GOP rivals.

This decrease in approval rating might have caused enough Democrats to cast protest votes in favor of third party candidates. One of the most notable figures in this category was Nina Turner, who supported Clinton before switching to Sanders. Turner refused to endorse Clinton in the general election (although she never explicitly endorsed Stein). She’s now the favorite to win a House seat in Ohio.

Had Sanders not run in the primary, Clinton’s approval rating might not have been low enough in the general election to trigger the surge in third party voting, which caused Key 4 to turn in favor of Trump. And with 2016 third party voters overwhelmingly backing Biden in 2020, I believe enough of them would have voted for Clinton to push her ahead in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and perhaps in Florida as well.

Going back to Key 2, Sanders’ attacks on Clinton might have also caused enough Democratic voters to stay at home. Remember, Trump actually received fewer votes in Wisconsin than Mitt Romney did in 2012 and voter turnout in Detroit was way down from four years earlier, despite overall turnout in Michigan increasing. Many progressive voters might have been alienated by Clinton thanks to Sanders’ attacks and abstained from voting.

In conclusion, Sanders’ primary challenge to Clinton turned Keys 2 and 4 against her. If both those keys had been true, she would have eight keys, enough to win the election. Now, just like last time, this is only one model and we don’t have parallel universes. But given how they can explain the outcome of an election that defied nearly all predictions, Democrats should make sure they have all their keys in a row before each presidential election.



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