During last week’s debate in Iowa, Democrats drew familiar battle lines on a number of issues, including health care, climate change, trade policy, and America’s endless wars in the Middle East. One question that was not debated was whether a female candidate can win the presidential election — literally everyone on the stage, with the possible exception of Joe Biden, is agreed on that point. Of course a woman can win.
For most Democratic voters, the real question was the same as it has been since the primary began: Who is the strongest candidate to defeat Donald Trump?
With a friendly assist from CNN’s moderators, Elizabeth Warren used the podium to deliver an applause line about her superior prowess as a general election candidate — and take a not-so-veiled shot at Bernie Sanders. “Look at the men on the stage,” she said. “Collectively, they have lost ten elections.” Here Warren was apparently counting Sanders’s four runs for office on the fringe Liberty Union Party ticket in the 1970s, along with his two failed independent bids in the 1980s. She continued:
The only people on this stage who have won every single election they’ve been in, are the women. And the only person who has beaten an incumbent Republican any time in the past thirty years is me . . . The real danger that we face as Democrats is picking a candidate who can’t pull our party together or someone who takes for granted big parts of the Democratic constituency. We need a candidate who will excite all parts of the Democratic Party, bring everyone in, and give everyone a Democrat to believe in. That’s my plan, and that is why I’m going to win.
Warren was touting her supposed status as a unifying figure among Democrats — an ironic gesture for a candidate who, by continuing to allege that Sanders dismissed the idea a woman could win the election, was in the process of burning her last bridges to many of his supporters.
But even leaving aside this recent fracas, the larger problem with Warren’s electability argument is plain. To win in November, Democrats do not need to unite “all parts” of their party: they need to win more votes than Donald Trump, especially in key battleground states.
That means that three groups of voters are especially critical, none of which voted Democrat in the last cycle: Obama voters who defected to Trump, Obama voters who did not vote in 2016, and people who typically do not vote at all. Bernie Sanders, as Meagan Day and I have argued in detail, is the strongest candidate to win all three of these key groups. But since Warren raised the issue of the candidates’ electoral history, it’s worth diving even deeper into the records of the two New England senators vying for the “progressive lane” in the Democratic primary. Who has had more success winning over independents and Republicans, and who has brought more voters to the polls, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren?
Sanders Has Won Big for Decades — But Warren Just Squeaks By
At every level, the evidence is overwhelming: for nearly thirty years, Sanders has consistently run well ahead of the Democratic ticket in Vermont, with special strength in the state’s most conservative areas. In Massachusetts, meanwhile, Warren has consistently underperformed relative to national and state Democrats, with special weakness in the state’s most conservative areas.
A closer look at their 2018 reelection campaigns, in particular, shows that while Sanders continues to perform remarkably well in Trump-voting districts, Warren will struggle even to match Hillary Clinton’s historically poor record in Republican-trending rural and small-town communities.
For progressive voters who want to back a winner in November, the implications are clear: Bernie Sanders can win back Trump voters, because he already has. Elizabeth Warren, by contrast, has not — and there are real questions about whether she ever can.
Bernie’s First Political Revolution Ended in Victory
For more than a century after the Civil War, Vermont was one of the most reliably Republican states in the country. Its rock-ribbed electorate gave the GOP almost unbroken control over the state legislature, the governor’s office, Senate seats, and electoral votes for president. (Vermont was one of just two states in the country never to vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt.)
By the 1980s, broader economic and cultural changes, along with significant migration from the Northeastern seaboard, had begun to reshape the state’s political geography. Yet even as Democrats like Howard Dean started winning some statewide elections, Vermont remained a swing state, giving its presidential votes to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and electing a Republican state assembly as recently as 2002.
It was in this mixed political environment — rather than a solidly liberal Democratic state like Massachusetts or Maryland — that Bernie Sanders emerged as a national figure. Running as an independent democratic socialist, he won his first election for Vermont’s statewide congressional seat in November 1990, defeating both the Republican incumbent and his Democratic challenger — all while the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe was playing out on television day and night.
In the twenty-nine years since, Sanders has compiled a formidable electoral record. Facing the enmity of both Vermont’s major parties, and without the support of a national organization, Sanders has nevertheless won eleven consecutive elections, becoming, along the way, the most popular senator in the country with his constituents.Nor have Sanders’s outspoken and supposedly “radical” political commitments — fighting for workers against the billionaire class, supporting a national health-care system for all — cost him in any measurable way. In fact, Sanders has outperformed the national Democratic ticket in every presidential election year since 1992, often by large margins.
Matthew Yglesias has laid out this general history:
- In 1992, Sanders got 58 percent to Bill Clinton’s 46 percent (it was a strong state for presidential candidate Ross Perot, but Bernie also faced a “third-party” challenge from a Democrat).
- In 1996, Sanders got 55 percent to Clinton’s 53 percent.
- In 2000, Sanders got 69 percent to Al Gore’s 51 percent.
- In 2004, Sanders got 67 percent to John Kerry’s 59 percent.
- Sanders was elected to the Senate in 2006, so he wasn’t on the ballot in 2008 or 2016. But in 2012, he won 71 percent to Obama’s 67 percent.
Sanders Doesn’t Just Survive in “Obama-Trump” Counties — He Thrives
You might assume that Sanders outpaced these national Democrats by running up the score in the progressive stronghold of Burlington, where he served as mayor in the 1980s. But the roots of Sanders’s distinctive electoral power are deeper and more interesting than that. Bernie’s greatest strength, compared to Democratic presidential candidates, has actually come in some of Vermont’s poorest, most rural, and most conservative areas.
In the rugged northeastern corner of the state, where household income and education levels lag behind Vermont averages, Essex, Caledonia, Orleans, and Orange counties voted for Reagan and H. W. Bush by landslide margins; they remain areas of relative Republican strength to this day. Yet in every single election from 1992 to 2018, Bernie Sanders has run further ahead of Democrats in these conservative northeastern counties than in the rest of Vermont:
- In 1992, Sanders got 58 percent in northeastern Vermont to Bill Clinton’s 40 percent (an 18-point difference, compared to 12 points statewide).
- In 1996, Sanders got 54 percent to Clinton’s 49 percent (5 points, compared to 2 points statewide).
- In 2000, Sanders got 66 percent to Gore’s 44 percent (22 points, compared to 18 points statewide).
- In 2004, Sanders got 66 percent to Kerry’s 52 percent (14 points, compared to 8 points statewide).
- In 2012, Sanders got 69 percent to Obama’s 61 percent (8 points, compared to 4 points statewide).
In Vermont’s last two federal elections, the effect was even more pronounced and spread even farther across the state. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won a blowout victory in Vermont, but her large majority was highly uneven: in five mostly rural counties (Essex, Caledonia, Orleans, Rutland, and Franklin) she won less than 50 percent of the vote, with Trump running a strong second everywhere and actually defeating her in Essex County, the very poorest corner of the state.
Two years later, Sanders won his Senate reelection campaign against Republican Lawrence Zupan with a 67 percent majority statewide. In the richest and bluest parts of Vermont, including greater Burlington, he ran basically even with Clinton in the two-way contest against their respective Republican opponents. But in those same five conservative counties, where Hillary won just 44 percent of the total vote — running neck and neck with Trump — Bernie earned an outright 58 percent majority.
Looking even more closely at the 2018 election results, the pattern grows stronger. Sixty-one Vermont towns voted for Trump, nearly all of them in struggling communities with wealth and education levels far behind the national average. Many of these places, both in their demographic profile and in their experience of economic hardship, resemble the small towns and rural areas in the upper midwestern states of Michigan and Wisconsin.
Two American Towns, One Clear Lesson
Consider, as just one example, a tale of two Troys. In the very small towns of Troy, Orleans County, Vermont, and Troy, Newaygo County, Michigan, the population is overwhelmingly white; the median household income is under $40,000 a year; fewer than 12 percent of residents have college degrees; and blue-collar jobs in agriculture, construction, manufacturing, retail, and services employ the majority of the community’s workers.
In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama won both towns with ease, but in 2016, Trump captured both Troy, Vermont and Troy, Michigan — carrying the Vermont town by a 6-point margin. Write-in votes for “Bernie Sanders,” however, accounted for 12 percent of the town’s ballots (versus 6 percent statewide). Two years later, Sanders himself reclaimed windswept Troy, winning 55 percent of the vote.
Of these 61 Trump towns in Vermont, many of them resembling the two Troys, Sanders won 47. (By comparison, of 91 Trump towns in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren won back only four.) Taking all these towns collectively, Hillary lost to Trump in 2016 by 8 percent of the two-party vote; Bernie won it back two years later by more than 10 percent — a dramatic 18-point shift from Trump to Sanders. To some extent, these figures reflect a decline in Vermont Republican enthusiasm from the 2016 presidential election to the 2018 race, when Sanders faced off against Zupan’s no-hope campaign. Yet even with lower overall turnout, in an uncompetitive midterm, Sanders still won thousands more votes than Hillary Clinton had managed — and they came, disproportionately, from the most conservative, Trump-leaning parts of the state.
Warren Is One of the Least Popular Senators in America — Bernie Is the Most Popular Senator in America
One could argue that Vermont’s shift from 2016 to 2018 was not so uncommon. Well-known incumbent senators often outperform their party’s presidential candidates on home turf, and 2018 was a blue-wave year: though few did as well as Sanders, nearly every sitting Democratic senator ran well ahead of Hillary Clinton.
But there were three exceptions: Dianne Feinstein in California, who ran against another Democrat; Bob Menendez in New Jersey, who had been indicted three times in federal court — and Elizabeth Warren, who actually ran further behind Clinton than Menendez.
Warren’s electoral struggles in Massachusetts are no secret. While Sanders is the most popular senator in the country in his home state, Warren is among the least popular. Despite her boasts at Tuesday’s debate, at the Massaschusetts ballot box, her record is weaker than every other Democrat who has won a statewide election for national office this century, including Obama, Ed Markey, John Kerry (as senator and president), and Ted Kennedy.
Nor can we simply chalk up Warren’s weak results to a Massachusetts prejudice against female candidates. She not only underperformed Hillary Clinton; in her 2018 election against long-shot Republican Geoff Diehl, Warren ran more than nine points behind state attorney general Maura Healey, seven points behind state treasurer Deborah Goldberg, and two points behind state auditor Suzanne Bump — a major embarrassment for a senator with such a large national profile. Warren’s Massachusetts problems are so glaring that even sympathetic voices in the liberal media, from Vox to the New York Times, have covered them in depth. Election number-crunchers are even more brutally direct about her struggles at the ballot box. As Cook Political Report editor David Wasserman put it last summer:
The fact that Warren underperformed Hillary Clinton in 228 of Massachusetts’s 351 towns, and did so in a blue wave year, speaks to her weakness with working-class white voters on the ballot. Many parts of Massachusetts are culturally more similar to Wisconsin or Michigan than they are to Cambridge or Boston or Amherst. And that has to be a serious concern for next November.
A deeper look at Warren’s performance in 2018 shows that while she was weak almost everywhere, she was especially weak in the most conservative parts of Massachusetts. Among the state’s fifty largest towns that voted for Trump, Warren lost all fifty of them.
In fact, she was pummeled even worse than Hillary Clinton: collectively, in these towns (which account for about a fifth of the state’s population), Clinton lost the two-way vote by 8 percent. Warren lost it by 11 percent. In other words, while Bernie Sanders won back an 18-point net gain in Vermont’s Trump towns, Warren produced a 3-point loss in Massachusetts.
We Know Warren Will Get Clobbered in “Obama-Trump” Counties —Because She Already Did
Some of Warren’s biggest losses came in Massachusetts’s wealthiest conservative suburbs, which voted for Mitt Romney, then swung toward Clinton, and then swung back again to the Republicans. But Warren struggled in less affluent areas, too. Take the ten largest Massachusetts Trump towns with household incomes under the state average — middle-class suburbs like Agawam and Ludlow, outside Springfield. Obama won eight of them in 2012. But Warren lost all ten, by roughly the same margin as Clinton had.
At FiveThirtyEight, Nathaniel Rakich has offered the most detailed look at Warren’s town-level performance in 2018. While he carefully documented Warren’s struggles in “elite suburbs,” Rakich also argued that her relative strength in ten specific Western Massachusetts towns showed that “she could win back Obama-Trump voters.” But this is deeply misleading.
The ten Western Massachusetts towns where Warren did better than Clinton are, in fact, mostly tiny vacation communities in the Berkshires, many of them “fairly bohemian” places, as Rakich admits. In scenic villages like Cummington, Wendell, and Sandisfield, where Warren ran ahead of Clinton, around 40 percent of residents have college degrees, and a plurality of workers are employed in management, business, science, and arts jobs.
There’s a reason why the Boston Symphony Orchestra spends the entire summer in this corner of Western Massachusetts: it is neither economically, culturally, nor politically similar to Obama-Trump areas elsewhere in New England or the Midwest.
Most fatally for Rakich’s argument, none of these supposed “Obama-Trump” towns actually voted for Trump: although they swung somewhat toward the Republicans compared to 2012, they all voted heavily for Clinton, who won nearly 70 percent of their collective two-party vote. Warren’s strength in these singular Western Massachusetts enclaves says almost nothing about her ability to win voters in places that actually flocked to Trump four years ago.
A better way to assess Warren’s electoral record with white, working-class communities is to look at the ten least affluent Massachusetts towns that voted for Trump in 2016. It is here, in former mill towns like Ware, Athol, and Webster, that employment patterns, income, and education levels more closely match the kind of districts that Democrats must win in the Midwest.
And here Warren also struggled mightily. In aggregate, while Clinton had lost these ten towns by about 10 percent of the two-party vote, Warren lost them by about 7 percent. She was not beaten quite so badly here as in the wealthier and middle-class Trump towns, but still she was beaten, and it wasn’t close.These were eminently winnable working-class areas: Obama had carried nine of the ten towns in 2012, and in the same 2018 election, Maura Healey reclaimed eight for the Democrats. Warren carried just one.
In this context, Warren’s attempt to identify herself with other female politicians makes sense: plenty of Democratic women, including her primary rival Amy Klobuchar, have genuinely strong track records when it comes to winning votes in Trump country. The most impressive of all is probably Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin, who, far more than Klobuchar, was targeted by the right-wing donor class, but won a blowout reelection victory anyway.
Baldwin, like Sanders, is a long-time champion of Medicare for All. And, like Sanders, she has managed to take her populist message to Trump-voting small towns and rural areas and win them back for the Democrats.
Elizabeth Warren has done none of the above. Her problem is not that she is a woman or a progressive; it is that she is a weak candidate.
Warren Wouldn’t Just Lose to Trump — She Could Doom the Entire Progressive Project for a Generation
In the final weeks before the Iowa caucus, a majority of the Democratic electorate remains more concerned with electability than any other question. Which Democrat can beat Trump? Who can win crucial swing voters, and bring in crucial new voters, to win in November?
On this key question, the mainstream media typically puts Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the same category. Both are “left-wing” candidates who may hope to fire up a “progressive” base, but who risk alienating moderates and swing voters.
In fact, Sanders and Warren are on exact opposite sides of the electability spectrum. Ideology aside, polls show that in a contest with Trump, Sanders wins the most independent voters of the entire Democratic field; Warren wins the least. In the key battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Sanders runs far ahead of Warren, too.
And in terms of their electoral history, these two progressives are practically on different planets. When it comes to winning in conservative districts, and reclaiming the voters that Clinton lost to Trump, Sanders surpasses or rivals any Democrat in the country. Warren, meanwhile, has perhaps the weakest electoral record in the Senate — and it is weakest in precisely the areas where Democrats must be strong in order to win in 2020.
The media may treat Sanders and Warren the same way on the electability issue, but progressive voters should not. Winning matters. A general election loss to Trump would not just doom the country to another four years of cruel and fraudulent Republican rule. It could fix the stain of defeat on otherwise popular causes like Medicare for All and universal student debt relief if the losing Democratic candidate is a supposed “progressive.”
Nominating Elizabeth Warren, as I argued in the fall, is a bad bet for the long-term future of the Democratic Party, accelerating its evolution into an organization dominated by the professional classes. But in the short term, it is even more dangerous than that.
Warren’s political judgment and instincts, across the 2020 campaign, have already raised many red flags. But her weak electoral record is not just a red flag — it’s a blaring red siren that we cannot afford to ignore.
If voters are looking for a candidate who supports health care, jobs, and education for all — and who can also beat Donald Trump — there is only one choice, and his name is Bernie Sanders.