birdie sanders

Nice caucus, (Bernie) Bro: Lessons from the biggest, brownest caucus in the contiguous US

This past weekend, Bernie Sanders picked up 55 delegates with three victories in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington state caucuses. The big wins round out a nice 5-0 run of small states that have seen the Sanders Camp finally put up the big numbers that they they’d previously been beaten by on Super Duper Tuesday.

This is good news for Sanders and his supporters. Keep an eye on the scoreboard though, as Hillary Clinton still has a 263 delegate lead: 1,243-980.

Coming out of this weekend, there are two pieces of national political conventional wisdom, as they relate to caucuses, that haven’t dominated the national narrative but are still worth re-examining: First, that Washington1 is white and rural but it also has Seattle so it’s white more than rural. Secondly, higher voter turnout has long favored progressives/liberals, but then why does Sanders keep crushing caucuses—a voting apparatus that, riddled with barriers, stifles turnout?

A plurality of diversity

All jokes aside, Washington state’s caucus is actually the biggest caucus in America as determined by state population2 and delegates available.3 Of all the 12 cauci,4 it also happens to be the second most diverse, next to Hawaii. In fact all three of this past weekend’s cauci were the most diverse of the cycle thus far.

The national press tends to brush Washington5 with the same Titanium White broad brush stroke.6 Washington gets a bad rap for being very white.7 It is. But so is America. Relative to the rest of the Union though, Washington is among the most diverse. Wallethub put out the a list 2015’s Most Diverse Cities in America, and 3 of the top 10 hail from the Evergreen State.8. And several websites that track this stuff and put out top 10 most diverse states9 have Washington as mainstays on their lists.

Despite Washington’s diversity, the Clinton campaign’s lock on Black voters was not tested at our caucus.10 Certainly, Washington’s less than four percent Black population is less than a third of the national average—12.6%.11 For context, states like Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi have Black populations represented at 10 times our rate—31.4%, 32.4%, and 37.3%, respectively. Clinton has done tremendously well in these states, crushing Sanders with the Black electorate to the tune of 60, sometimes 70 points.

Clinton’s success with Black voters has, in turn, fueled a narrative that Bernie Sanders’ supporters are—and more insidiously, must be—hella white. They’re not. We’re not. I’m not.

Perhaps that’s why we saw this week the rise of #BernieMadeMeWhite. A trending Twitter meme that, for the first time in this election gave voice,12 to the exclusion felt by non-White, non-Black, non-Hispanic voters. Do I imagine we’ll get another moment? No.

Let’s not forget, my socially progressive friends and industry peers13 that write, cover and read political stuff, that when we talk about diversity, it is not so black and white.

Washington state results

So how did all these brown people that we’ve established actually do live in Washington actually vote? I couldn’t tell you. No one conducted exit polling during this weekend’s cauci.14 At the state level, caucus-goers voted overwhelmingly in favor for Birdie Sanders, 72.7% casting a vote his way.

Since we don’t have exit polling from which to fabricate relevant narratives, I’ve correlated county-by-county Democratic caucus with 2008 and 2012 election results and 2010 US Census data so that we can paint each county by slightly-smaller-but-probably-still-too-broad brushstrokes.

First of all, some throat-clearing: Sanders swept all 39 counties. The most populous county—King, court of liberal stronghold and our hometown Seattle—handed Sanders the third least ideal victory at 67.3%. Garfield and Asotin Counties were the only other counties to show less approval of Sanders with 60% and 67.2%, respectively.15 The ham-handed impact of King County—which holds nearly 10,000 delegates, four times the next largest county—should not be understated.

Of the nine most conservative counties,16 seven were above the state average.

Of the nine most Hispanic counties,17 seven voted for Bernie at above the state average. Chelan and Walla Walla were the only counties to fall below the 72.7% threshold, but nearly all have been reliably Republican in previous cycles.18

Of the four most Asian counties,19 half voted above 72.7%

All of Washington’s eight most millennial counties20 voted above the state average for Sanders.

In these demographic slices, we see old ground covered. King County, the seat of the Democratic Party, comes through in a big way for Clinton. Young people in Washington love Sanders.

The force of strength shown by reliably conservative counties is unique though. There is a strange slice of conservative voters that—by virtue of his anti-establishment campaign and unwavering commitment to equitable domestic economic policy—support Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders. Many are from Eastern Washington. A strange cycle in deed.

Arriving to a conclusion about what this data says about race and the Sanders campaign in Washington State is near impossible without visibility into the demographics of caucus turnout by county. The fundamental question remains: Was the racial makeup of each caucus reflective of its county?

Probably not.

Caucus problems

Caucuses suppress turnout, disproportionally affecting poor and brown voters who otherwise work on Saturdays and can’t take at least half a day off to stand in a school gym to debate the merits of Clinton’s environmental policy. Caucuses require an investment of human organization and resources. There’s confusion about whether or not voters have to be in person to cast a ballot, which is the exact opposite of an all-mail ballot system that the electorate just got used to in a state like Washington.

Conventional campaign wisdom says higher turnout portends positive outcomes for the most liberal candidates. So why does Bernie do so well in caucus states? 3 reasons:

  • Caucuses rely on enthusiasm, a characteristic Sanders’ supporters have in spades. Washington is a state that favors activism and has a strong history and culture of governing by the ballot.
  • Caucus states are smaller. Washington is the second most populous state Sanders has won. The only two caucus states the Clinton camp really cared about were Iowa and Nevada, both strategic to the campaign narrative, not the math.
  • Caucus states aren’t very diverse. With the exception of this past week’s cauci, we’re talking about states like Utah, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, and Minnesota that rank somewhere in the pure undriven snow category of whiteness with over 90% white people. More pointedly, caucus states have very small black populations

For more real insight on Sanders caucus victories, check out FiveThirtyEight’s take on it.

Where do we go from here?

The establishment media v. the will of the people has been an undercard narrative for much of the campaign. In the last week, we’ve seen it emerge and become a real force. As Sanders’ victories get under-reported,21 it riles up his base on social media even more.22 Let’s be clear, Sanders has never had a greater chance at a primary victory than he does today, but time—and in many ways, the electoral structure of the Democratic primary—is certainly not on his side.

From a communications point of view, the worst thing that could happen right now is that the press overhype Sanders ability to come back and snatch up the nomination. It would invite complacency at a time where Sanders needs the utmost zeal from his supporters in states like New York and California. 23

Immediately up next, is Wisconsin though, which puts its 86 delegates up for grabs on Tuesday. Sanders has pulled ahead of Clinton in recent polling, but remains within the margin of error. A big win is needed to eat into the delegate deficit, but in a slow primary month, any victory will keep the momentum—and more importantly, the momentum story—strong for a solid two weeks before New York, New York.


  1. And Alaska, but I’m not going to write about Alaska because I don’t know anything about Alaska except Sarah Palin. You don’t want me reppin you, Alaska.
  2. Just under seven million.
  3. 26,316.
  4. Cauci is absolutely not a word. It’s a lame, probably problematic, and borderline appropriative Latinization of an originally Algonquian word. It’s a funny word to look at though.
  5. And Alaska. I’ve heard.
  6. Snopes’ Brooke Binkowski published a great piece on the “Demographic Dissonance” between he national press and, you know, reality.
  7. Even from Washingtonians, especially Seattleites.
  8. Renton (6), Kent (T-7), Federal Way (10)
  9. Sourced from US Census data.
  10. If it hasn’t been made clear quite yet, this blog lives in the Washington. Well, it lives in the cloud, but that cloud is probably Washingtonian, dripping with culturally diverse agricultural passive aggression and pot. Lots of pot.
  11. Unless otherwise noted, all demographic data comes from the 2010 US Census. Yeah. Demographic shifts have probably accelerated as they tend follow exponential curves, but you have to dance with the one that brung ya. Ya dig?
  12. Brief as it may have been.
  13. *wink wink*
  14. The things the national media chooses to care about is its own 1,500 word take down, but I’m not ready for that yet.
  15. Like the US President it’s named after, Garfield is a forgettable county in the middle of nowhere with a population roughly that of a small liberal arts college. #FairAndBalanced
  16. Adams, Benton, Columbia, Douglas, Franklin, Garfield, Grant, Lincoln, and Stevens counties as determined by the last two presidential election results—each voted above 60% for Mitt Romney in 2012, with seven voicing roughly the same support for McCain in 2008.
  17. Adams, Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Okanogan, Walla Walla, and Yakima counties having higher percentage Hispanic populations than the national average’s 16%. Adams and Franklin are majority Hispanic.
  18. A fun fact about Eastern Washington is the intersection of reliably conservative and heavily Hispanic counties. As of yet, Latinos in these communities are and have been heavily underrepresented, but by 2020, many of these will have broader, browner engagement and turn reliably Democratic.
  19. Pierce King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Whitman counties. Compared to Hispanic counties, none are reliably conservative. Romney won Whitman without a majority in 2012 while Obama took the county by 5% in 2008. The rest are part of the Greater Seattle metropolitan area.
  20. Whitman, Franklin, Adams, Kittitas, Grant, Yakima, and Benton Counties have a median age under 36. Also, I know, I can’t believe I’m writing this sentence either.
  21. Are his victories under-reported? It really doesn’t matter so long as the perception exists and can be manipulated.
  22. Also thank goodness for Birdie Sanders. I don’t know what took so long for the BS camp to realize that you can make curmudgeony cute.
  23. Crazy, high-risk-high-reward campaign strategy theory: Fuel the mainstream media under-coverage narrative, and the subsequent social media outrage by going to California, bumbling a couple pressers and seeming out of your depths. Really invest in a ground game. Send all your Susan Sarandons to Pennsylvania. Get more highly-suspect media coverage for your myopic approach. The BS camp needs 70% of California to wipe out any lead HC takes even outperforming polling expectations in New York. Benefit from the ground game of your myopic approach, while getting burn out of the no-one-respects us national narrative. Win where you’re going to win. Don’t get shellacked where you’re going to lose. Suddenly, California and New Jersey are the whole ball game.

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