Why Bernie's Still Losing

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About a month and a half ago, I wrote a post about why Bernie Sanders was losing the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. Since then, Sanders has done much better in various state primaries, and has closed Clinton's delegate lead from 24% to 10%. Nevertheless, his chances of winning are much lower now than they were then, because there aren't many more delegates up for grabs. In order to win the Democratic nomination now, Sanders would need to secure over 97% of the remaining delegates, and even if we pretended that there was no such thing as superdelegates, he'd have to win over 70% of the remaining non-super delegates when he's only won 45% of them up until now.

It's a virtual certainty that by the end of day tomorrow, when all the remaining Democratic primaries except for the District of Columbia's take place, Hillary Clinton will have secured a majority of both the total delegates and the pledged (non-super) delegates, even if Sanders wins every state by a huge margin. (While the polls suggest that he's more likely to lose in both California and New Jersey, the two biggest remaining states.)

I've been seeing a lot of hope lately in my extreme Bernie supporting friends — I say "extreme" because I'm a Bernie supporter, too, but just not to the degree that they are — due to his narrowing of the gap with Clinton, but I'm afraid that after tomorrow, I'll see a return to the bitterness over a "rigged system" that prompted me to write that first blog post. So I've decided to write this followup to address the one issue from that first post likely to be taken up again by some Bernie supporters this time around: election fraud.

In that first post, my basic argument against the idea that election fraud was the reason Clinton was winning was this: If you look at both the polls and the makeup of the Democratic primary electorate, you would expect pretty much the results that we got. If anything, Sanders did better than expected. Those who voted in the Democratic primaries this year were not very liberal (though they were encouragingly more liberal than those who voted in the 2008 primaries) and Sanders and Clinton very approximately performed in accordance with pre-election polls on a state by state basis. (State by state polls varied quite a bit in their accuracy, but they erred in both directions and collectively got the right answer overall, and if anyone did better than they predicted, it was Sanders.) Furthermore, though Sanders caught up quite a bit during the course of the campaign, he never once passed Clinton in national polling, and spent a great deal of time well behind. So, if every objective indicator you have suggests that Clinton should win the primary comfortably, and she does just that, and if anything, doesn't quite do as well as expected, where is there room for a decisive effect due to election fraud?

Which is not to claim that no election fraud can possibly have occurred. Only that if it did, it can't have had a big effect, because the results we got were already more than adequately explained by…well, by everything else. Which is also not to say that election fraud isn't a serious matter. I have no idea how much of it, or if any of it, occurs in U.S. elections, but if it does, it's obviously something to be vigilant for, because, though it's very unlikely it can ever have a big effect on an election, even a small effect can swing a close election.

Like the 2000 election, for example, which was the second closest presidential contest (by electoral votes) in American history. In an election that close, and with the Electoral College system that awards all of a state's electoral votes to the winner of the vote in that state no matter how narrow the victory magnifying the effect that just a handful of votes can have, election fraud (or voter suppression, or, most likely in this case, simply bad voting infrastructure) can possibly make a difference.

However, the Clinton – Sanders contest has not been, and will not end up being, close enough at all.

Which leaves the question of why many extreme Bernie supporters will still cling to election fraud as an explanation for his defeat. In this post, I'd like to propose some possible answers. They are all based on the logical fallacies of confirmation bias and what I call "confirmation exaggeration."

I've written an explanation of both of them that you might read before proceeding with this post. For those who skipped it, the tl;dr is that confirmation bias is when we give weight only to evidence that supports our beliefs while finding ways to ignore or dismiss evidence that threatens them, while confirmation exaggeration is when something is indeed objectively proved, but we attach way more weight or significance to it than what was proven.

In order to believe that election fraud robbed Sanders of a primary victory, you have to believe that

  1. He would have won if the voting systems were perfect, and
  2. Election fraud was sufficient to not only overcome that gap, but put Clinton in the lead by about 3 million votes, or about 13% of the total votes cast.

I believe that extreme Bernie supporters believe that Bernie ought to have won in a fair election, primarily due to various instances of confirmation bias:

  • Most of their closest friends are Bernie supporters, too, and they may live in especially progressive areas, so that they forget that the nation as a whole is still pretty conservative.
  • They have constructed a view of Clinton that demonizes her to an extent that is unusual even for political campaigns, so that it becomes difficult to imagine why anybody would vote for her.
  • They've generated dozens of narratives that explained why Bernie must surely win, and treat those speculations as evidence, while ignoring the actual evidence of voter demographics and public opinion polls.

Then, they overestimate the potential power of election fraud through confirmation exaggeration:

  1. They lump together three forms of electoral problems — outright fraud, voter suppression, and general problems with our voting infrastructure — and count every instance of every type as evidence of an anti-Bernie conspiracy. There were some Bernie supporters, for example, who actually seemed to believe that every one of the 125,000 Democratic voters erroneously purged from the New York voter rolls before their primary was going to be a Sanders voter.
  2. They also lump in many incidents that were not voting irregularities of any kind, such as the case of the televised vote counts for the Kentucky primary that suddenly went backward at one point. (This was due to one county temporarily withdrawing its count in order to do a recount, and the numbers were restored later in the evening, but the viral video of the event is still being passed around.)
  3. They treat reports that many voting machines are hackable as evidence that they were hacked.
  4. They do find some genuine problems that Sanders supporters had voting that Clinton supporters would not have had. (Mostly due to the rules around switching parties, which were not set up with the idea that people might rapidly switch their affiliations back and forth just before an election.)
  5. Finally, even though all the items from 1-3 should not have counted as having hurt Bernie's vote totals, they take the few actual problems found in #4 as proof of election shenanigans, and then invest them with all the weight of 1-3. It's like accusing someone of ten different crimes, some of them very serious, but then discovering that they're actually innocent of four of them, and five of them aren't even crimes, and they only committed the one small crime that remained — and then sentencing them as if they had committed all the crimes.

Essentially, they convinced themselves that Bernie ought to win, and when he didn't, exaggerated a limited set of voting problems into sufficient cause for the reversal.

It's important to dispel the myth of the rigged system as the primary cause of Sanders' defeat, because if we don't, then a lot of Sanders supporters are going spend the coming months wasting their time fighting the wrong battles, and possibly doing harm as a side effect. As I stated in my first blog post, the real reason Sanders is losing is that the electorate simply isn't progressive enough yet, and that's where the real fight lies: in the engagement, education, and enlightenment of our fellow citizens. The Sanders candidacy, by focusing more attention on the problem of economic inequality, has advanced that mission significantly. Now let's hope his followers don't undermine his good work.