Analysis: Demographics, political planning aid Sanders win 

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Sen. Bernie Sanders’ recent Super Tuesday win in Oklahoma’s Democratic primary came as the result of a perfect political storm: political will, targeted demographics, strategic media buys and a killer app in the form of independent voters.

For the Vermont senator’s national presidential campaign, the Oklahoma win was make-or-break, a prime indicator of whether a strategy centered on attracting support in states with heavily Caucasian voter bases could generate enough momentum to defeat Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sanders’ voters tend to be white, while Clinton is overwhelmingly favored among African-American voters. Oklahoma became important to Sanders’ campaign because of its hard demographic slant.

“Bernie Sanders put together a white Democrat strategy,” said Bill Shapard, founder of, one of the state’s leading public opinion polling organizations. “He won Oklahoma on Super Tuesday. He then won Kansas, and then he won Nebraska.

“He targeted states where the Democrats had a low African-American percentage of the vote. That’s why he didn’t go after Alabama or Georgia or Tennessee, for example.

“And so Oklahoma ended up being the first test case for him — that’s why he came to the state multiple times; that’s why he put a staff on the ground and why he spent money here.”

Voter demographics

According to an ABC News exit poll, almost three-quarters of Oklahoma’s Democratic primary voters were white, and their ranks came to support Sanders over Clinton by a double-digit percentage.

However, states that share a similarly conservative political leaning with Oklahoma, such as South Carolina, had a different story.

“In South Carolina, he just got annihilated,” said Keith Rollin Eakins, a University of Central Oklahoma political science professor. “In South Carolina, only about 35 percent of the voters were white.”

But ethnicity tells only part of the story. Sanders also led among male voters and voters under age 45.

In fact, according to a CBS News exit poll, Sanders won over 80 percent of the 18-to 29-year-old vote.

“Anecdotally, I can tell you there were a hell of a lot of young people at my poll,” Eakins said. “He’s just killing with the youth vote.”

Media impact

This win did come with a significant price tag. Sanders for President outspent Hillary for America on Oklahoma media buys $689,590 to $378,229. Shapard said that disparity, combined with Clinton not visiting the state, resulted in a late swing toward Sanders in the final week before the primary.

Shapard said this could be part of the reason his Sooner Poll findings, released on Super Tuesday, favored Clinton. The poll, taken Feb. 23-25, showed her beating Sanders by 9 percentage points.

“Now, why would people break late for Sanders? I believe it’s because when the opposition doesn’t answer dollar-for-dollar, person-for-person and appearance-for-appearance, a lot of people shift in the last couple of days,” Shapard said. “Hillary Clinton did not come to the state, she didn’t have a ground game and she didn’t spend the money. I believe that if Hillary had come to the state and matched him, she would have performed better and possibly won the state.”

Independent voters

But even equivalent ground games and cash outlays do not account for the rise of the independent voters. In July 2015, Oklahoma Democratic Party delegates voted 314-137 to allow registered independents to vote in its primary elections.

According to Eakins, this decision laid the groundwork for a Sanders victory in the state.

“I think opening up the Democratic primary to independents really did help Sanders quite a bit,” Eakins said. “If you look just at the self-identified Democrats in the CNN exit poll, Clinton would have won 52 to 43. But among the independents, who were 27 percent of those who voted in the Democratic primary, Sanders won 69 to 21. So they definitely tipped it into Sanders’ camp.”

Of course, exit polls only provide snapshots of what happened March 1. Pollsters such as Shapard are waiting for the Oklahoma State Election Board to provide county-by-county breakdowns on political party identification. According to the election board’s public information officer, Bryan Dean, it could be a while before all the data comes in from the counties.

“Generally, two to three weeks is what we tell folks,” Dean said. “The smaller counties get done pretty quickly, while the larger counties have a lot of precincts to deal with, so it’s going to take a lot longer.”

Print headline: Chasing votes, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ victory in Oklahoma’s Democratic primary came as a result of demographics and a strong ground game.

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