Bernie Sanders is to the left. I don’t think that’s why all these middle-aged white men are voting for him. These are not socialists.
Judy Garber

Mega Tuesday: Gender gap could keep Sanders in the game

Emerging trend among Democratic primary voters could change course of U.S. presidential nomination, says political scientist Judy Garber.


The U.S. primaries are heading into the second-biggest day of the season for potential delegate wins, with five states holding their presidential primaries. Mega Tuesday, as March 15 is now being called, will see Republicans facing off to win a potential 398 delegates. The stakes are even higher on the Democratic side, with 691 delegates up for grabs across Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.

To stay in the race, Bernie Sanders will have to take a significant percentage of those delegates. Hillary Clinton currently leads the Democratic race with 748 delegates to Sanders’ 542, and she is also expected to take the majority of the superdelegates, putting her estimated current total at 1,231 to Sanders’ 576.

That seems like an increasingly insurmountable difference, but University of Alberta political scientist Judy Garber says an emerging trend among Democratic voters may yet shift the balance for Sanders: the tendency of Democratic men, particularly white men, to vote for Sanders even when they don’t necessarily identify with his more socialist platform.

“One of the huge stories about Bernie Sanders is that, in every state he’s winning, he’s doing as well as he is doing because white men really aren’t voting for Hillary Clinton.”

Until now, the conversation about gender in the campaign has largely been about feminists’ support (or not) for Hillary Clinton, with a focus on an apparent divide between second-wave feminists and the Gen X/Millennial-associated third wave, which came to the fore after remarks by Gloria Steinem, who (perhaps jokingly) suggested that young women might be supporting Sanders because “the boys are with Bernie.” Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright added fuel to the fire when she said that there was a “special place in hell” for women who didn’t support other women.

Since then, Garber says, the conversation has shifted. “There was this narrative about how feminists were abandoning Hillary Clinton. And then people just stopped talking about gender.”

This trend is less evident among Millennials, who show strong support for Sanders as a whole, but it becomes increasingly evident among older Democratic supporters, where the gender gap widens.

“For young people—and this includes younger African-Americans and Latinos—I think there is an attraction to Bernie Sanders because he’s more progressive, he’s different, they don’t see him as attached to Wall Street. He’s like their grandpa, but he’s their really cool grandpa.”

The split begins to appear in voters over 30, where the divide starts to widen among white voters in particular. Clinton is strong with women in general, especially when African-American women are included—Clinton earns 66 per cent of those votes—but between white women and white men, the gap is clear.

Garber cites Oklahoma as one example of a state with a large pool of white voters and a big gender gap: “In Oklahoma, where 74 per cent of the voters in the primary were white, there was a 15 per cent gender gap”—meaning the rate of men who voted for Bernie Sanders was 15 per cent higher than the rate of women who did. She notes that in states such as Kansas and Oklahoma, large public universities are playing a role in Sanders’ wins, but that’s not enough to account for the difference.

Michigan, where Sanders scored a big upset, is indicative of the gains Sanders is making among men, especially because it's demographically like many important swing states. In Michigan, “70 per cent of the people who voted in the Democratic primary were white, higher than any other large state that has had a Democratic primar​y. And men ​were about half of the white voters, whereas in almost all the other states, white male turnout has been really low," Garber explains, "Michigan was the first test of what the Sanders-Clinton matchup would be like in a state ​that is diverse but has a white majority, and where white men will turn out almost equivalently to white women." The 11 per cent gender gap between men and women in that state may be a warning sign of what's to come for Clinton.

“For older, middle-aged and elderly men, particularly white men, they don’t like Hillary.”

Garber adds that, particularly in states like Oklahoma, Sanders is winning despite exit polls with voters who say they don’t support Clinton because she is too liberal. “Bernie Sanders is to the left. I don’t think that’s why all these middle-aged white men are voting for him. These are not socialists.”

Take me out to the Bern game

Garber attributes this to a couple of potential factors. One may be voter identification with the candidate. She notes a growing media trend connecting Sanders strongly to sports, especially baseball.

“Bernie Sanders, like many New Yorkers of his age, would have been a huge Brooklyn Dodgers baseball fan. They were unceremoniously moved to Los Angeles in 1957. Many people have never gotten over that, and Bernie Sanders is one of those people. There have been all these stories about Bernie Sanders and the Dodgers and his love of baseball. And Sanders has been picking up high-profile endorsements from athletes like Ronda Rousey and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”

This association with sports resonates with older men, who are likely to have warm associations with nostalgic language about a childhood playing baseball in Flatbush. “Bernie Sanders and sports: tell me who that appeals to. There’s plenty of American women who like sports, and in particular baseball, but this is so weird. I have never seen anything like this before. It’s so gendered.”

It’s hard for Clinton to compete with that kind of down-to-earth approachability with a life lived so much in the public eye. Her achievements, Garber says, make her incredibly qualified for office, but those same accomplishments make it hard for voters to relate.

“What narrative does she have? My husband got a blow job in the Oval Office and I stayed with him, and then I became Senator and Secretary of State? That makes me so overly qualified for the job that it’s unbelievable, but how relatable does that make me? I’m a grandma? Do you go with the ‘I’m a grandma’ thing?”

The Clinton campaign seems to be struggling to relate in general. “When she ran for office the first time in her Senate election in New York, she was a fabulous campaigner. It’s not just that the ground game was good; she really connected with the voters.”

But this time around, Clinton isn’t making the same connection. She fell flat in Michigan in part, Garber believes, because of too much focus on Clinton’s track record supporting the auto industry bailout in a time when people in Flint are still drinking poisoned water and Detroit is still not recovering. Sanders, meanwhile, connected strongly with his opposition to Wall Street.

Her failure to read the landscape well is a problem for her campaign: “She’s assuming that she’s got votes that she doesn’t necessarily have. He’s building up momentum.”

This momentum is helping to frame a narrative that positions Sanders as the energetic candidate who is gaining ground on the staid, establishment Clinton. “Bernie Sanders winning Michigan by 1.7 per cent is seen, explained and communicated to people as an astounding victory. People are saying it’s the biggest upset ever in a primary in the United States. And that affects people.” And though Clinton continues to win more delegates, the perception of momentum could shift voter intentions with so many making their voting decision in the final day before the primary.

Billary backlash?

Garber compares Clinton’s campaign with that of Jeb Bush, a Republican with similar dynastic history and lacklustre connection to voters. “She’s pushing 70, and the whole Billary dynasty is kind of tiresome to a lot of people, including a lot of Democratic voters. So it’s not just that there’s a generation gap—older people are getting Billary overload.”

She’s also tarnished by the association with her husband, something most male candidates don’t have to face. “Bill Clinton did all sorts of really unsavoury stuff, personally and in terms of policy. DOMA was Clinton; ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was Clinton; welfare reform was Clinton; bringing back the federal death penalty, that was Clinton. All those things were Bill Clinton.”

Although he remained popular at the time and could likely have won a third term if allowed, Garber says the political context is significantly different now. “I think voters cut him slack more than they’re cutting her slack. But a number of things have changed. Bill Clinton was young and charismatic when he got elected. She’s a senior citizen—that was a long time ago. That was 1992, 24 years ago, that Bill Clinton got elected for the first time.”

“Whites will vote, in presidential elections, for the Republican. But if white women get close to 50 per cent support for the Democratic candidate, white women being the largest demographic in the electorate ... Hillary Clinton can win. Because white men don’t vote for Democrats.”

Nevertheless, Garber thinks, Clinton can probably pull off a win in the general election if she can sustain the support of women voters. Clinton’s support is strong among African-American women—even in Michigan, where pundits have talked about a shift to one-third of those voters going to Sanders, she’s held a strong lead, and in other states, she’s carried nearly all of that voting group. But she will need more than minority women to win the presidency.

“Whites will vote, in presidential elections, for the Republican. But if white women get close to 50 per cent support for the Democratic candidate, white women being the largest demographic in the electorate, then Barack Obama can win. Hillary Clinton can win. Because white men don’t vote for Democrats.”

But to pull off that win, she will have to navigate carefully. If she tries too hard to appeal to women voters by taking a stronger stance on women’s issues, she risks further alienating men and losing the nomination.

Obama 2.0, minus the charm

“Female candidates are caught in a tough spot. I don’t see Bernie Sanders as having any advantage in specifically gendered issues, unless you think of economic issues as specifically gendered, which in some cases they are—minimum wage, for example. But she supports an increase in minimum wage. So it’s really hard. Does she go after females and try to hang her hat on that?” If she does, she may increase the anti-Hillary vote among older men who may be further put off by a strongly feminist message.

Still, she’s a solidly moderate candidate with policies nearly identical to those of the sitting president, policies that have helped her win the same states this time around that she lost to Obama in 2008. “Hillary Clinton is really a lot like Barack Obama. And this is one of the ironies. She lost badly to Obama in the states where the Democratic vote in the primaries is heavily African-American. Now, she’s more likely to get the votes of people who approve of the Obama presidency. So I think that suggests she’s in about the same place on the ideological scale as Barack Obama on essentially everything. But he was young and cool and charismatic. She’s not young, she’s not cool and she’s not charismatic.”

But Clinton’s moderate stance is likely to help her carry the day this time around. It doesn’t look like the clear path to the nomination that Garber initially foresaw, but she still believes Clinton will win the nomination.

“I still assume that she’s going to win the superdelegates. The number of superdelegates or unpledged delegates the Democrats have is so much bigger than the Republican version of superdelegates—it does make a really big difference. And she will get them. But this could drag on for awhile. Things could get really weird after Tuesday for her.”