By potentially siphoning away support among working-class whites and voters of color, Biden could have made it easier for Sanders to amass a winning plurality in some states behind a coalition of better-educated whites and young people. Now Sanders faces an unforgiving equation.
Even if the senator from Vermont maintains a lead among whites—as some recent polls have shown—he is unlikely to carry many key states unless he can dent Clinton’s commanding advantage among voters of color. “It seems to me the expectation would be that however much Sanders cut into the [upscale] white liberal vote, Hillary would still get a fair number of those votes, and it would be much more disproportionate for her on the minority side,” said longtime Democratic analyst Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Mark Mellman, a long-time Democratic pollster unaffiliated in the race, said Biden’s departure could benefit Sanders by allowing him to unify Democrats who, for whatever reason, oppose Clinton. But the larger factor, Mellman believes, is the opportunity Biden’s departure could provide Clinton to consolidate the Democrats’ growing share of non-white voters. “To win the nomination it is a prerequisite that Sanders is able to appeal to voters of color,” said Mellman. “So far he has not done so. He can’t win the nomination without expanding his appeal to that segment significantly.”
In the 2008 primaries, exit polls found, non-white voters cast at least one-third of the ballots in a long list of Democratic contests, including Tennessee, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina, New Mexico, New Jersey, Illinois, California, and Maryland. Voters of color cast a majority of the primary ballots that year in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Eight ensuing years of demographic change could have tilted the balance in many of these states even further toward voters of color, heightening the pressure on Sanders. Since 2008, nonwhites have increased their share of the overall eligible voter population by about five percentage points in Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Florida; by about four points in Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina, and fully 7 points in Nevada.
Teixeira cautions that increase in voting potential may not translate into actual turnout unless Clinton can motivate nonwhite voters as effectively as she and Obama did eight years ago. Just as Biden’s departure increases the pressure on Sanders to court nonwhite voters, it also heightens the need for Clinton to mobilize the diverse constituencies that loom as her firewall in what now has more clearly become a two-person race.