One line of thinking about the Democratic primary follows a peculiar logic. It goes like this: if Sen. Bernie Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren drops out, you can just add the polling numbers of one to the other. They’re splitting the progressive voting bloc! Either would be winning against former V.P. Joe Biden if the other just dropped out! Right? Except this isn’t the way voting blocs and demographics work.
Voting Blocs Intersect
Yes, there is a progressive voting bloc that favors Sanders and Warren. However, the argument above assumes that voting bloc isn’t intersected by a variety of other voting blocs. Yet it does intersect with both demographic and issue-driven voting blocs:
There’s a voting bloc of white men that favors Biden and Sanders. There’s a voting bloc of white women that favors Warren. There’s a voting bloc of Black voters that favors Biden. There’s a voting bloc of LGBTQ voters that favors Warren. Hispanic voters are generally split fairly evenly between the three top candidates, with Biden and Sanders enjoying a very slight advantage.
People tend to be very comfortable with the perception that there’s a Black voting bloc that’s likely to vote for Black candidates, that women are more likely to vote for women, etc. What’s not discussed or acknowledged nearly as often is that there’s also a white male voting bloc that tends to vote for white, male candidates.
That voting bloc in the 2020 primary largely favors Biden and Sanders. Go back to 2016, and the only demographic split of race and gender that Sanders won in the primary was white men.
Let’s look at second-choice polls in 2020 to see how voting blocs tend to split. Second-choice polls describe who respondents’ second choices in an election are. They’re grouped by first-choice. They do have a margin for error. They’re just like any other poll. However, the fragmentation that’s displayed in them is consistent in nature. Let’s see what happens if Sanders bowed out, and then Warren (just going alphabetically here).
If Sen. Sanders Left the Primary
If Sanders bowed out, Morning Consult’s second-choice poll suggests his voters would split more or less evenly between Warren (31%) and Biden (26%). On the surface, that might not make sense. This is because Sanders’s progressive voters would gravitate to Warren, but white male voters make up the largest segment of his bloc – many would gravitate to Biden. Those who are both would split. There’s a slight edge to Warren, but not markedly so – not to the extent that it would boost her much more than it would boost Biden.
Not all progressive voters are alike. Some would be comfortable shifting their vote to a woman, some less so. Some would be comfortable shifting their vote to a more moderate candidate, some less so.
If Sen. Warren Left the Primary
What if Warren bowed out? A decent amount of her voters go to Buttigieg, possibly because Warren is first by a solid margin among LGBTQ voters. Sanders would get the highest share (30%), but Biden (19%) and Buttigieg (15%) would be close behind.
Sanders’s minor advantage as a second-choice (30-to-19 over Biden, vs. Warren’s 31-to-26) isn’t created by having more appeal. Note that she picks up 31% of Sanders’s voters if he leaves; he picks up 30% of her voters if she leaves. The difference is statistically meaningless. Sanders’s advantage in this poll is that her voters are more likely to chiefly split to three candidates (including him) instead of just two.
Minimizing this advantage isn’t a selective reading. If we use the Quinnipiac instead of Morning Consult second-choice poll, Warren holds a much bigger advantage over Sanders. Here, if Sanders dropped out, she’d be the second choice 35-to-17% over Biden. Whereas if Warren dropped out, Sanders would be second choice 33-to-21% over Biden.
Neither demonstrates a real advantage for one or the other. That’s because the difference is pretty minimal by the time we’re splitting up small numbers into even smaller numbers.
Why the Difference is Slight
By the time you’re splitting up 15-20% of national polling into thirds, the difference between getting 20 and 30% of those voters is a matter of closing a losing margin by one or two percent.
Think about it this way: Biden is polling at 27%, Warren at 16% at the time of this article. Let’s say Sanders drops out. She’s down by a margin of 11% in the polls, but now Sanders’s 20% in national polls is up for grabs.
Warren gains 31% of Sanders’s 20% of voters. That translates to an additional 6.2% in national polls for Warren.
Biden would gain 26% of Sanders’s 20% of voters. That translates to an additional 5.2% in national polls for Biden.
In other words, Biden improves by about 5 points to 32%, and Warren improves by about 6 points to 22%. She’s gone from being down 11 to down 10. That helps, but what we’re really talking about is closing the margin by a whopping 1% in polling averages.
Best Case Scenarios
The very best case scenario for Sanders or Warren getting near Biden would be Warren exiting under the Morning Consult poll. Her current polling average is 16%. Sanders would gain 4.8% in the polls. Biden would gain 3% in the polls. Buttigieg would gain 2.4% in the polls. In other words, Warren dropping out means Sanders would have closed his margin by an astonishing 1.8% in polling averages. Biden’s advantage over Sanders would have started at 27-to-20, and ended at about 30-to-25. I’m sure Sanders would gladly take being down about 5 instead of down 7, but he’d still be down to Biden in the polls.
Let’s take the absolute best case scenario for shifting total number of votes, from the Quinnipiac poll where Warren gets 35% of Sanders’s voters, and Biden gets 17%. That still nets Warren an additional 7%, and Biden an additional 3.4%. She closes the margin by 3.6%. She goes from being down 27-to-16 to being down by a little over 30-to-23.
The point is that neither Sanders nor Warren exiting would put the other over the top. It would come nowhere close. They’d both still be down at the end of the day.
Both historical data and polling data has heavily suggested for the last year of this primary (this has been going on a long time already, hasn’t it?) that one or the other of Sanders and Warren bowing out doesn’t really give the other any major boost.
Voting Blocs Do Not Order by Hierarchy
These are the kind of situations that are likely. Neither Sanders’s nor Warren’s entire number would transfer over. Those voters would split according to a range of priorities and tendencies. You’re not talking about adding Sanders’s 20% in polls to Warren’s 16%. That’s not the way it works. You’re talking about splitting up their voters according to a range of intersecting voting blocs and priorities.
Neither Sanders nor Warren is particularly hamstringing the other. Progressive voters act as a bloc, but that bloc doesn’t exist in a vacuum. White voters, Black voters, LGBTQ voters: all of them have their tendencies and priorities, and those blocs are just as important and functional as a progressive voting bloc is. That’s just dealing with demographic blocs, before even getting to voting blocs that favor single issues.
Looking at politics in a monolithic way, where your voting bloc must magically supersede all others and make them irrelevant and inapplicable, will only teach you to look at electoral histories and polling information inaccurately. Acknowledge and recognize that other demographics exists, and that their priorities can be just as legitimate. When talking about voting blocs, don’t assume they’ll all follow a certain action. They intersect with other priorities that mix their tendencies. Don’t expect other demographic or voting blocs to follow yours. Understand why they might not.
In no world would Sanders’s and Warren’s entire voting blocs combine, even if they were hunky-dory and the best of friends. The best you might hope for in a field with a number of candidates like this is a breakdown where you might get about 40% of a dropped candidate’s voters, and another major candidate gets 20% of them. That closes margins of loss, but it doesn’t come close to evening them out – let alone changing the leader.
Neither Sanders nor Warren is holding the other back from swallowing up the other’s entire group of supporters. Those supporters would split pretty widely and somewhat evenly across the other major candidates because more voting blocs exist than “progressive” alone.
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