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Bernie Sanders Is the Ted Cruz of the Democratic Primary

And, in term of the demographics of the states they have won, Hillary Clinton is the Donald Trump.

Geoff Robins/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders has often been described as the Donald Trump of the Democratic Party. They are both abrasive, New York-born outsiders who are shaking the establishment. But in terms of the states he is winning, Sanders is closer to Ted Cruz, while Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is the one who really resembles Trump. 

So far, Hillary Clinton has won twelve states, eight of which are also states on Trump’s victory scorecard: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. In contrast, Sanders has won eight states, only two of which overlap with Trump states: Vermont (where Sanders is a senator and local hero) and New Hampshire (which neighbors Vermont).  

Ted Cruz has won six states, of which three are also Sanders states (Kansas, Maine, and Oklahoma) and two are Clinton states (Iowa and Texas). But it’s worth noting that the overlap with Clinton is somewhat anomalous. Cruz had a home state advantage in Texas, and Iowa was a state where Clinton and Sanders ended up in a virtual tie.

Leaving Iowa and Texas aside as explainable exceptions to the rule, it is fair to say that Clinton does well in states that Trump is likely to win and Sanders does well in states where Cruz is strong. How do we explain this pattern?

The Sanders/Cruz states tend to be very white. Leaving aside Texas, the most diverse state Cruz holds is Oklahoma, which at 72 percent white is still notably more white than America as a whole (63 percent white). Conversely, Clinton/Trump states, clustered around the South, tend to be much more diverse, and are especially likely to have large African-American populations.

But if Clinton and Trump are winning in the same set of states, the demographics of their constituencies are very different. Even in very diverse states, the Republican party is very white. South Carolina is 63 percent white but the GOP primary electorate was 96 percent white. Conversely, 61 percent of South Carolina Democratic primary voters were African-American.

Trump is a highly polarizing candidate who has made issues of America’s ethnic identity central to his xenophobic campaign. The pattern of states he does well in suggests that he wins with white voters who live in diverse states. They seem to feel the tug of Trump’s xenophobia more than white voters in overwhelmingly white states. For her part, Clinton does best with black voters in those very states, voters who might find the rise of Trump-style ethnic nationalism threatening. (Even though the main target of his ire is Latinos rather than blacks, Trumpism promotes a frightening strain of white identity politics that has manifested itself in denunciations of Black Lives Matter and in hostility toward African-Americans at his rallies.)

The flipside is that Sanders and Cruz do well in overwhelmingly white states because issues of ethnic identity are less fraught there, making the electorate more open to pitches that don’t center around such issues. Cruz’s rigid ideological conservatism is more concerned about adhering to supposed biblical and constitutional principles than white identity politics. And although Sanders has an admirable, lifelong history of opposing racism, his heavy rhetorical focus on economic issues does tend to overshadow his actual anti-racist policies.

When Sanders does talk about racism, he often frames it in economic terms, as in the unfortunate comments he made in Sunday’s Democratic debate. “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto,” Sanders said. “You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.” 

To do Sanders justice, his use of the antiquated word “ghetto” was an attempt to make a reasonable point about the persistence of racial segregation, which has the effect of making black poverty much more intractable than white poverty. Further, it can’t be emphasized enough that racism is intertwined with class inequality. Still, Sanders’s equation of racism with poverty is too extreme. Among other things, it elides the fact that many whites do “know what it’s like to be poor” even if the poverty they experience is different than black poverty.

Sanders hasn’t yet found the language to talk about racism as a phenomenon that is both wrapped up in economic inequality and also a distinct evil. This leads him to talk about race in sometimes clumsy ways, and hampers his ability to appeal to African-American voters. So he ends up winning the same overwhelmingly white states Cruz does well in.