The Bernie Sanders Factor in US and Australian elections


As the US election year warms up with caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, it is worth noting that the spectacle of the nomination process can mute certain realities. Candidates generate quite a bit of heat and noise within their party, but whether a presidential nominee actually wins the majority of votes in the Electoral College is another matter.

Bernie SandersThere is also the longer, post-election context: how much would your nominee set back the party for future races, if they lose?

One factor that has become inescapable, particularly for Republicans, is that their white conservative base is shrinking. Projections by Pew Research Center indicate that in 50 years white Americans will constitute less than half of the population.

So while the Republican slate has perhaps enlivened some of its constituencies with nativist campaigns and evangelical appeals, it is difficult to imagine such a strategy securing the longevity of the party.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres wrote in the Wall Street Journal in March 2015: 'Groups that form the core of GOP support — older whites, blue-collar whites, married people and rural residents — are declining as a proportion of the electorate.' Minorities, along with young people, gays and single women, are not only growing but lean Democratic.

Ayres concluded that in order to win presidential elections, Republican candidates would have to bear 'an inclusive message, a welcoming tone and an aggressive effort to appeal to the new America that is already here'. It goes without saying that the complete opposite has ensued.

While it is not entirely sensible to extrapolate developments in the United States to Australia, it is worth speculating on the impact of our own changing demographics. Are the Liberal and Labor parties equipped to take advantage of these shifts? Are they appealing to a new Australia that is already here?

The 2011 Census indicates that more than a quarter of the Australian population was born overseas, and a further fifth has at least one overseas-born parent. The proportion of our Europe-born population has declined (52 per cent in 2001 to 40 per cent in 2011) even as our Asia-born proportion has increased (24 per cent to 33 per cent).

Such migrant patterns would surely have an impact on the composition of our electorates. It is hard to tell at this stage whether any major political party is accounting for the policy sensitivities of this increasingly significant cohort.  

For now, the apparent advantage lies with Labor. Veteran psephologist Antony Green found that the Labor vote is higher in electorates with a higher proportion of the population born in a non-English speaking country. Out of 26 electorates with more than a quarter of such residents, 24 are usually held by Labor (Bennelong made 25, when Maxine McKew took it from the Liberals in 2007).

There are of course complexities around the way migrants vote, including the fact that factors such as class can play as significant a role as ethnicity. But it remains to be seen whether they will continue to be an asset for Labor, given that young, second- and third-generation migrants are less partisan than previous generations.

In this regard, it bears pondering whether the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, captured by the ridiculously narrow margin between him and Hillary Clinton in Iowa, offers any strategies for non-majors. Sanders — along with Jeremy Corbyn's successful bid for UK Labour leadership and the rise of Podemos in Spain — demonstrates the rhetorical potency of renewal; of politics and business not as usual.

It is the sort of thing that resonates most strongly with disaffected young people, particularly the post-recession generation. The prominence of Sanders, Corbyn and Podemos' Pablo Iglesias is due to their critique of not just the other side of politics, but their own. They called out, within their particular contexts, the complicity between major parties. It has given them quite a bit of mileage.

Beyond the tumult of this election year, then, political parties on both sides of the Pacific may well have no choice but to contend with the challenges posed by electorates that are compellingly diverse, newly empowered and increasingly hostile to the status quo.


Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .

Topic tags: Iowa caucusFatima Measham, US Election, Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump



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Existing comments

My sense, as someone who has watched Bernie here for many years, is that his allure as a candidate is his startling consistency; Bernie has never wavered from his conviction that America as a society dismisses and abuses its poor and broken. In a way he is an anti-politician, which I think is why he is doing so well now. Trump is also attractive to voters because he is isn't a politician at all. But I am pretty sure it will be one politician v another in the Grand Final -- Hillary v. Rubio. In the end the job requires a manager who can play well with others.
Brian Doyle | 05 February 2016

At my age, I'm very sceptical of generalisations about 'young people' If one should be wary of drawing inferences about Australia from the US or UK, one should also be wary of assuming that 'young people' have similar attitudes and experiences in these different countries.
barry hindess | 05 February 2016

Fatima has asked the right questions: but given the way the mainstream Australian parties are run, it is difficult to see how those with ideas that are not business as usual can emerge. My guess: change and fresh energy will come from a new party or parties.
John Alexander | 05 February 2016

Is the phenomenon about which Fatima speaks being reflected in the Australian Senate vote where at the last election one quarter (11/40) senators returned were from non-major parties? As John says, it's hard to see how the majors can adapt from within, and people are looking for an alternative.
Ginger Meggs | 05 February 2016

There are people in America officially classified as Hispanic Whites (as against Hispanics of other/mixed ancestry). Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are both members of this group. I am not sure if the demography Fatima quotes takes account of this. This group already seems to be leaning towards the Republicans, especially in the South.
Edward Fido | 05 February 2016

No doubt demographics play a part but I don't think it tells the whole story. There is definitely a shift, however technology has played a major role which needs to be acknowledged. The disaffected may embrace change for change sake but I don't think it's that simple.
Stan | 05 February 2016

I'm 76 and would love to see Sanders win. Wishful thinking, I suspect. I find a lot of young people quite conservative, really. I do hope Fatima is correct in her analysis but I can't help but have my doubts.
Anna | 06 February 2016

Terrific comments. In Australia, where the impact of the GFC has been much softer, I think social issues such as same-sex marriage, refugees and republicanism might have more cache for Gen Y (and for boomers). What do you think?
Fatima Measham | 08 February 2016

I think Hilary is going to win over Sanders, because although Sanders is pulling a majority favoritism with the younger people, the problem is older democratic voters are still locked in on Clinton. The older democratic voters in my opinion still have most of the pull in this situation. And as far as the republicans go Donald Trump is going to win with more electoral votes, and his unconventional approach to politics.
Richard Murphy | 26 April 2016


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