“Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South. No question about it. We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country. That’s the fact. But you know what? We’re out of the Deep South now. And we’re moving up.” -- Sanders on CNN
“Well, one can argue — people say, Why does Iowa go first? Why does New Hampshire go first? — but I think that having so many Southern states go first kind of distorts reality as well.” -- Sanders on The Nightly Show
There are a couple of problems with this logic, which the author Charles Blow brought to light. For starters, three of these southern states that he lost -- North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida -- are key states in which the Democrats hope to be strong contenders (North Carolina being the most conservative of the three and plagued by voter ID problems, and the other two voting for Obama in both 2008 and 2012). Secondly, in southern states, a large share of the Democratic primary voters are African American, a demographic group with which Sanders continues to struggle.
Sanders and his supporters have made (especially in the context of discussions about superdelegates) rhetorical flourishes about Sanders' successes in caucus states such as Wisconsin and elsewhere have reflected a surge in support and the "will of the people." It is undeniable that Sanders has vastly outperformed what many expected of him, and for that he should certainly be proud. But given the demographics of the states in which he has been successful (e.g., Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Alaska, Idaho, etc., as opposed to the more diverse states in which Clinton has been successful such as Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, etc.), it is nevertheless difficult to accurately characterize such outcomes as the will of the people, much less the will of the Democratic Party overall, which relies on the support of the African American community. Moreover, while Sanders touts his average campaign contribution of $27 -- and indeed it is admirable and impressive to have garnered such financial support from so many small contributions -- he has sharply criticized Clinton for taking larger contributions and for benefiting from large fundraisers from such people as George Clooney, despite much of the money going toward not Clinton herself, but to the Democratic Party and down-ticket races, suggesting potentially a broader engagement in the Party and its supporters.
Part of the reason why we should take Sanders' support with a grain of salt comes down to the nature of the primary system. Much of Sanders' support has come from caucus states, which many have characterized as undemocratic given, for example, the logistical challenges posed for lower-income workers, families without child care, students, and seniors (all demographic groups that he argues that he represents), in addition to the generally haphazard nature in which votes often are cast and counted. Further, and applying to both Clinton and Sanders, not only are primary elections low turnout relative to the general election, but political scientists have noted that primary voters tend to be more ideological than are general election voters. Thus, there is for all states a problem of representativeness.
With this caveat of less-than-representative subsets of the American electorate determining the Democratic nominee for president, Nate Silver notes that Clinton is doing far stronger in states that more closely resemble the national Democratic Party. Not only do the states in which Clinton boasted victories have large populations of African American and Hispanic voters, both central to the Democratic Party if it will be successful, but Silver argues that North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and Texas (all supporting Clinton) "are among the most demographically representative of the diverse Obama coalition that Clinton or Sanders will have to rely on in November."
There are demographics in which Sanders has been more successful than Clinton -- notably, young voters and in particular, 18-29 year-old women -- and Clinton will need to ensure that they turn out in November given that young voters tend to be less reliable voters. Sanders has also scored well with independents, which may prove important in an election in which there is so much uncertainty with respect to the Republican Party nominee. However, for Sanders and his supporters to argue that his recent successes represent the "will of the people" or a tidal wave of support that should be noted moving forward to the convention is indeed misleading. Sanders may indeed prove valuable in working to bring new people into the party. But if key demographic groups for the Democrats continue not to "feel the Bern," and if he fails to address this limitation in his mobilization, he will continue to face an uphill battle.