After West Virginia, Bernie Sanders Has a Problem, but So Does Hillary Clinton

Bernie Sanders hit Hillary Clinton about her Wall Street donations
Bernie Sanders hit Hillary Clinton about her Wall Street donations. Jim Young/Reuters

Don't let Bernie Sanders's win in West Virginia fool you: Hillary Clinton is way ahead in terms of pledged delegates and overall votes. She is much further ahead of Sanders than Barack Obama was of her in 2008—or, to go back further, than Walter Mondale was of Gary Hart in 1984. Look at it this way: Clinton is close to clinching the nomination. Sanders needs more than 900 to nail it.

Yet, as West Virginia showed, Clinton is in trouble. She can't increase her support with young voters, white men and other groups that have so far eluded her. Compare her with Donald Trump, who ran up big victories in the mid-Atlantic and Indiana, where he grabbed hold of wealthier suburbanites and evangelicals. Clinton hasn't closed the deal, and there's not much indication that she can before the Democratic convention in July.

Here are Clinton's biggest problems:


In a state like West Virginia, which is only 3.5 percent African-American and 1.5 percent Latino, Clinton is almost doomed from the start. That explains why Sanders has dominated in mostly white states like Maine and Wyoming, and also why Clinton performed well in Mississippi and Nevada, which have more black and Latino voters. There have been some exceptions, like Sanders's win in Michigan—but, in general, more minority voters means Clinton has a greater chance of winning.


Clinton lost 59 percent of the male vote in West Virginia. That's a blowout, but it represents a larger problem she's having with white men. Among this cohort, she can never seem to get the majority. And remember: Those are white men in a Democratic primary.


Clinton got blown away in West Virginia, losing those under 44 by a margin of 73 to 23 percent. Clinton and Sanders were about tied for voters over 45. The West Virginia exit polls were too small to break down the results by college-aged voters. But we know Clinton is lucky when she gets 30 percent of young voters. The threat of Trump may propel some to rally around Clinton and forget about Sanders. But right now, she's not generating the enthusiasm she needs.


A full 76 percent of West Virginia voters found Sanders to be "honest," while only 22 percent thought Clinton was. For whatever reason, Sanders voters continue to view Clinton's character with disdain. Maybe that's homespun enthusiasm for Sanders that'll go Clinton's way once the nomination is secure. But it shows she either has to make up ground or just convince people that Trump is intolerable.

The Desire for Change

One of the maxims of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign was "It's the economy, stupid." Another was "change versus more of the same." Clinton did well with those who believed the next president "should continue Obama's policies." The problem is that only a third of West Virginia voters thought that's what the next president should do. A third thought the next president should be more liberal. Weirdly, yet another third thought the next president should be more conservative, which almost certainly represents Republicans crossing over into the Democratic primary. (West Virginia has a hotly contested Democratic primary for governor while the Republican side is uncontested, so bored Republicans, with Trump already the victor, seemed to have found their way across the aisle.)

What Happens Next

A week from today, voters go to the polls in Oregon, which should go for Sanders. Then Kentucky votes, and while its profile is similar to West Virginia's, the Bluegrass State has more minorities, so Clinton has a better shot at winning. Then there's Puerto Rico, where Clinton should dominate. May ends with New Jersey's primary, which should be a good one for Clinton, followed by California, where Sanders hopes to make his last stand.

Yet whatever happens in those contests ultimately doesn't matter. The contest has been decided. The demographic dynamics of the Democratic race haven't changed much since the first primaries and caucuses. Neither candidate has been able to pilfer supporters in big enough numbers. That's why Sanders's long march, impressive for a candidate who began with nothing, can't end in victory. Meanwhile, Clinton will have lots of work to do come fall, even after she wins the nomination. The specter of a President Trump may help, but so far it hasn't been enough.