Mellman: Is there a Sanders turnout surge?

Mellman: Is there a Sanders turnout surge?
© Getty

As noted here previously, the walking national disaster that is Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders says he wouldn't 'drop dead' if Trump decided on universal healthcare Overnight Health Care: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | Democrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next relief deal | Fauci says death toll could be around 60,000 Hillicon Valley: State officials push for more election funds | Coronavirus surveillance concerns ramp up pressure for privacy bill | Senators warned not to use Zoom | Agencies ask FCC to revoke China Telecom's license MORE has focused Democrats on electability like never before.

Primary voters are consistently more interested in a candidate who can defeat Trump than in one who reflects their views on issues.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSteyer endorses Biden for president Sanders says he wouldn't 'drop dead' if Trump decided on universal healthcare Sanders 2020 press secretary: Democratic leadership interested in 'corporate status quo' or 'they're planning to replace Joe' MORE’s (I-Vt.) core electability argument, repeated regularly at his rallies, brags that his “is the campaign that can bring millions of people into the political process who normally do not vote.”


It’s a potentially powerful case, with one critical weakness — there’s no evidence it accurately represents reality. In fact, while the general election could be different, primaries and caucuses thus far, suggest Sanders is not bringing in large numbers of new voters.

The electorate may be bigger, but not because of new voters, and new voters who are going to the polls aren’t all, or even mostly, turning up to support Sanders.

This year’s turnout is generally higher than in 2016 when Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden releases plans to expand Medicare, forgive student debt The Memo: Sanders's influence endures as campaign ends The two infectious diseases spreading across America MORE faced off against Sanders, but it’s a bit lower than it was in 2008, when it was Clinton versus Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama warns group of mayors that the 'biggest mistake' is to 'misinform' during the pandemic Biden releases plans to expand Medicare, forgive student debt Trump's self-interest is at odds with safe coronavirus policy MORE.

Turnout rates alone don’t substantiate the notion that Sanders is ushering in a whole new electorate.

In some states, exit polls offer a little more purchase on the matter, asking individual voters whether this is their first time participating in a Democratic primary or caucus.

The data is not perfect — people don’t always report this information accurately — so definitive analysis must await the availability of updated voter files, but who can wait that long?


These data too offer precious little evidence of surging interest from those formerly outside the political process.

Last month in Iowa, 37 percent of caucus attendees were first timers, which sounds like a lot until you recall that four years ago it was 44 percent, and 12 years ago, 57 percent were first timers.

So, this year’s Iowa caucuses had fewer new recruits than the two previous competitive events.

In New Hampshire’s primary as well, the percentage of first-time participants was down from 16 percent in 2016 to 12 percent in 2020.

But how can turnout increase without new voters coming to the polls? Virginia, much ballyhooed for its 69 percent increase in total turnout, helps explain.

In both ’16 and ’20, 23 percent of Virginia voters were new to the process.

Yet 2020 turnout increased massively over 2016. The jump from 2008 was a far lesser, though still impressive, 34 percent. Moreover, Virginia’s been setting turnout records for the last couple of cycles in primary elections for governor and state legislature.

Many more Virginians turned out in 2020 than in 2016, but many of those weren’t brand new to the process, having voted in 2017 or 2018 or 2019, and they certainly weren’t all recruited by Sanders, who actually lost new voters to Joe BidenJoe BidenSteyer endorses Biden for president Sanders 2020 press secretary: Democratic leadership interested in 'corporate status quo' or 'they're planning to replace Joe' Biden joins calls to release racial breakdowns of coronavirus cases, deaths MORE by 10 points.

Which takes us to states that did record a surge in new voters, only to find the newbies failing to unite behind Sanders.

In South Carolina, new voters jumped from 13 percent in 2016 to 19 percent this year. However, only 26 percent of those new voters cast their ballots for Sanders. Biden won that segment here too, with 33 percent.

Compare that to 2016, when Sanders captured 63 percent of the smaller group of new voters there.

North Carolina too featured a larger pool of new voters —13 percent in 2016, but 17 percent in 2020. However, Sanders’s margin among them shrank to less than half its 2016 level.

It’s hard to argue you are the one changing the shape of the electorate when the number of new voters is typical or they’re giving you only 25 percent-35 percent of their votes.

Sanders’s electability argument — that he is uniquely able to transform the electorate by motivating large groups of previous non-voters to go to the polls — remains a boast in search of a fact.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.