To say I’m disappointed in the Ohio Democratic primary results is an understatement. I spent most of last night in shock, and most of today trying to figure out what happened.
Going into the primary, polls had shown Sanders within 5 to 9 points of Clinton. We know these polls undercount Sanders supporters because they are usually of “likely Democratic primary voters,” which means people who have voted in previous Democratic primaries. Many Sanders supporters are independents, lapsed voters, or new voters who would not be contacted in such surveys. Many surveys also use landlines only which skew against millennials who mostly have only cell phones. And often these surveys talk to less than 500 Democrats, leaving a margin of error of 5 to 6 points.
Given that, plus the huge poll-defying victory last week in Michigan, I thought Sanders had a good chance to win Ohio, and if he lost, it would be by maybe 5 points. But he lost Ohio 56.5% to 42.7%, a margin of 13.8 points, picking up 62 pledged delegates to Clinton’s 79.
I have been able to identify a combination of two things. First, the fact that the Ohio primary occurred during spring break for many of the state’s major colleges and universities hurt us. Ohio State University alone has 60,000 students. The Sanders campaign did its best to get students registered to vote before the February 16 deadline, and out to the early voting center before the March 15 primary, but in Franklin County that is a 45-minute bus ride or 20-minute car ride from campus. Without organized help from the Democratic Party -- which we did not have -- it was impossible to get more than a small number out to vote.
The college vote
According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, 167,000 of Ohio’s 575,000 college students were on spring break this week. Using back-of-the-napkin calculations, I figured that if these students had been in town, and if they had voted at the same rate as the rest of the population (42%), that would have garnered 70,140 votes.
In Michigan, about 58% of voters 18-29 voted in the Democratic primary and about 42% in the Republican primary. Using that as a parallel for Ohio, we could estimate 40,681 youth voters in the Ohio Democratic primary. In the Democratic primary, 81% of those voters were for Bernie, for a possible total of 32,545 youth votes.
Some of those student voters may have voted early, but most did not. Still, we could fairly estimate that because the Ohio primary fell during spring break for so many students, Bernie may have missed about 30,000 youth votes he otherwise would have gotten.
That definitely hurts, but it’s not the main factor. According to the Ohio Secretary of State’s unofficial voter results, the actual vote counts in the 2016 primary were Clinton 679,266, Sanders 513,555, with a total Democratic primary vote of 1,202,069. If we added 30,000 more votes to Bernie’s total, he would have gotten 543,555.
Adding the other 19% of the missing youth Democratic vote, or about 7,500, to Hillary’s total would have brought her to 686,766, and the total Democratic primary vote to 1,230,321. Of that total, had Ohio students been around to vote during the Democratic primary, Hillary still would have gotten 55.8% to Bernie’s 44.2%. That’s only a percentage point or so better than he actually did.
The Trump factor
The second factor I’ve been able to identify is the presence of Donald Trump in the Republican primary. Polls going into the Ohio primary showed Ohio Gov. John Kasich either tying with or barely beating Trump -- in other words, the state was a tossup. In the days leading up to the Ohio primary we saw violence erupt at a Trump rally in Chicago and a man try to charge the stage at a Trump rally in Dayton.
The Republican establishment has been doing everything it can to rid itself of Trump. Mitt Romney gave an unprecedented speech denouncing Trump as “a phony, a fraud” on March 3. More than 100 national security experts signed a letter saying they cannot support Trump. But because Trump has been winning so many Republican primaries, pundits were warning that the only hope of stopping him was for Rubio to win Florida and Kasich to win Ohio.
Kasich had gotten the Ohio primary moved from March 8 to March 15 specifically because states can make Republican primaries winner-take-all after that date (delegates are awarded proportionately on the Democratic side for all states). If Kasich could take all 66 delegates from Ohio, the reasoning went, Republicans would be split going into the July 18-21 convention in Cleveland, and it would be possible to nominate someone other than Trump.
As it happened, Rubio lost Florida early and big last night, so he dropped out of the race, handing its 99 Republican delegates to Trump. Kasich had said he would drop out of the race if he lost Ohio -- but he didn’t. He beat Trump 47% to 36% with 13% going to Ted Cruz and 2% to Rubio.
Looking a little closer at these results, however, yields additional information about the voters. First, the Republican primary in Ohio attracted a whopping 1,952,685 voters -- far higher than previous Republican primaries in 2012 (1,213,279 voters) and 2008 (1,136,668 voters). It was also far higher than the Democratic primary turnout of 1,202,069.
What on earth was going on? Ohio is an open state, meaning voters need only request the ballot of the party they want to vote for at the primary, regardless of which party they have voted for in the past. They do not need to register as a voter in a specific political party.
Exit polls showed that about 7% of voters in the 2016 Ohio Republican primary were actually Democrats, and 28% were independents. Usually some people cross party lines during Ohio primaries, but not that many. Of voters in the 2008 Ohio Republican primary, 3% were Democrats and 17% were independents.
Given the large overall Republican primary voter turnout in 2016, we can surmise that a large number of voters crossed party lines -- and given Kasich’s decisive win in Ohio, we can conclude that most of them voted for Kasich. It’s hard to tell exactly how many, but based on figures for 2008 and 2016 Republican primary turnout from the Ohio secretary of state, and on percentages of those voters who were Democrats and Independents, we can calculate that the Republican primary of 2016 attracted 35,372 more Independent voters and 102,587 more Democratic voters that in 2008.
In other words, over 100,000 more Democrats and 35,000 more Independents than usual crossed party lines to vote in the 2016 Ohio Republican primary, and most of them voted for Kasich.
Ohio Republican Primary Vote, 2008 and 2016
|2008 Ohio Republican Primary VOTER TURNOUT
|2016 Ohio Republican Primary VOTER TURNOUT
|Difference in voter TURNOUT 2008-2016
Anyone but Trump
The numbers can help tell us what happened -- but they can’t tell us why. For that we have to actually talk to people. And there, at least for the people I have heard from, the story is clear: Voters were so afraid of Trump winning in Ohio and sealing the Republican nomination that they crossed party lines in droves to vote for Kasich in an effort to keep out Trump. Here are some accounts from an Ohio Bernie Sanders discussion board I am on:
Cynthia: I just talked to a friend of mine who is a strong Bernie supporter. She decided to change to GOP and vote for Kasich to help him win Ohio over Trump. I told her that the Ohio vote will be close on the Dem side and Bernie needs every vote. She said, "I plan to vote for him in November." ... She canvassed for him, phonebanked, etc. she thought he had it in the bag.
Ismahan: I managed to convince one friend to stick voting for Bernie but couple of them were very adamant about casting their vote for Kasich to keep Trump from winning.
Kim: I had a long talk discouraging a friend thinking the same thing. I was mad as hell that people think that way.
Nancy: I ran into this as well and couldn't get my pal to understand!
Michelle: So many people I know did this today just to get at Trump. Basically f<€£Ed over Bernie. ... I know 5. ... These were actual friends. One was asking because she was undecided. Everyone chimed in. The one deemed "the most intellectually sound" of the group said to vote Kasich. She was a Hillary supporter.
Crystal: I had several friends do this as well.
Jessica: I rarely use expletives on FB but today I'm pissed! I'm pissed at all the people who voted against rather than for, including my husband.
Beth: I actually know four people that voted Republican to vote against Trump instead of Bernie. ... I didn't find out until afterwards. They're older Dems who don't see anything wrong with Hillary. If I had but known this was a plan I would've tried to reason with them.
John: A Dem friend of mine just posted that he voted for Kasich, strategically.
And a first-hand account from a voter who did this, shared by a friend of a friend:
Kelly: I am not a huge Bernie Sanders fanatic but I really thought he had it in the bag here in Ohio! Better him than Hillary! On the other hand... I am not Republican and did what I thought was right. I voted Kasich. I made the best decision for me and my family. And since Third party candidates don't have to worry about the primaries, I had an open vote. Actually, most of the people I know that voted Kasich are just like me, 3rd party or really don't like any of their choices and went with what was familiar. For the same reason I think Clinton won.
Since I am not personally in any Ohio Hillary groups, I don’t know if Hillary voters switched as much as it seems Bernie voters did. But given the number of Democratic and Independent voters that Bernie has attracted in other states, it is fair to conclude that this “strategy” did hurt him in the Ohio primary. Had fear of Trump not been the overriding concern in Ohio, Bernie’s vote would likely have come much closer to Hillary’s -- and if we add in the student vote that Bernie missed due to spring break, it’s possible he could have beat Hillary in Ohio.
I find two big takeaways from this analysis. First, if you have a choice between casting your vote based on fear and casting it based on what you believe, choose what you believe. It looks very much as if the overriding factor for Ohio voters in 2016 was fear -- but what will be the result?
According to the numbers, Kasich would have to win 110% of the remaining Republican delegates to clinch the nomination -- a mathematical impossibility. He could possibly get a brokered convention, but already Trump and Cruz are aligning to keep this from happening by forcing Kasich out. So it is very possible that the “Ohio strategy” of voting Kasich to keep out Trump will be useless in the end.
The second lesson is: Bernie supporters should not give up. As progressive commentators from Alan Grayson to Robert Reich to poligirl have pointed out, everyone knew that March 15 would be the low point for Sanders, as that is the date for the last two southern states (North Carolina and Florida) to vote. After March 15, however, the primary moves into much friendlier territory. Sanders does have to win upcoming states by a higher margin than he would have if he had won Ohio, but it is still possible to win the nomination.
The winning Democratic candidate needs 2,383 delegates to get the nomination, and as of March 16, Clinton only has 1,139 delegates to Sanders’ 825. Less than half the Democratic pledged delegates have been claimed, and as Tom Cahill points out, Sanders needs 58% of the remaining delegates to win.
Considering that Bernie won Colorado by 58%, New Hampshire by 60%, Minnesota by 61.6%, Maine by 64.3%, Kansas by 67.7%, and Vermont by 86.1%, it’s possible he could get an average of 58% of the vote in the remaining states, which include Arizona, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, New York, Nebraska,West Virginia, Oregon, Washington, and California on June 7 with 475 pledged delegates up for grabs.
It’s also worth remembering that Obama did not win Ohio in the 2008 Democratic primary. He lost to Hillary by a similar margin as Bernie: 53.5% to 44.8%. In fact, Obama took the 2008 Democratic primary all the way into June, and it’s likely Bernie will as well.
Sanders himself seems undeterred by the loss in Ohio and other states on March 15. A short statement from his campaign reads, “I congratulate Secretary Clinton on her victories on Tuesday. I also want to thank the millions of voters across the nation who supported our campaign and elected delegates who will take us all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. With more than half the delegates yet to be chosen and a calendar that favors us in the weeks and months to come, we remain confident that our campaign is on a path to win the nomination.”
Rather than wallowing in a loss, Sanders moved ahead that night, delivering a fiery speech in Phoenix that mainstream corporate media refused to cover, but which is available through C-SPAN.
We Bernie supporters in Ohio need to take a little time to lick our wounds, catch up on housework, and tend to tasks left undone over the past several months of this campaign. In Central Ohio, Bernie Sanders supporters have been going strong since June. But once we’ve caught our breath, we need to get back to the campaign trail and help with phone banking and possible trips to help get out the vote in other states.
Bernie never let an electoral loss stop him. He has labored for the past 30 years as an Independent, often alone without a party structure to fall back on. But he has never stopped fighting for ordinary Americans just because the times got tough. We can’t stop fighting for him either. The farther we can take his campaign, the more we can put truly progressive values back into the Democratic Party platform. It’s worth continuing the fight even if he doesn’t win the nomination -- and it’s still possible he will.
And what would giving up accomplish? If a better world is worth having, it’s worth fighting for. The alternative is at best the status quo under Hillary, and at worst fascism under Trump. We deserve better than that. The Ohio results may be a setback in the 2016 Democratic primary, but they are not a defeat. Bernie has planted the seed of a truly progressive movement, and sooner or later we will make a better world the reality.