How Many Women Will it Take for Bernie to Win the Nomination?

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 11.53.27 AMWith the presidential election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

After 38 Democratic Party primaries and caucuses, Hillary Clinton is leading the race for pledged delegates by just under 250, and outpacing Bernie Sanders among superdelegates by more than a 13:1 ratio. The electoral math appears increasingly challenging for a Sanders nomination, but the Sanders campaign has remained steadfast in its willingness to take on this challenge. As pundits, practitioners and statisticians calculate how Sanders could forge a path to victory, we thought it was worth asking what role women voters might play in determining Sanders’ fate.

The team at, who have been keeping close tabs on delegate counts and projections, reported that Sanders would need about 59 percent of remaining delegates after last week’s New York primary to catch up to Clinton. Using this estimate, we did some calculations about what the gender breakdown of Sanders’ resurgence might look like. Based on these calculations, Sanders would very likely need to win at least half of all women’s votes in remaining Democratic races, in addition to widening his margin of victory among men.

To date, Hillary Clinton has earned 61 percent of women’s primary votes, at least in states where exit polls are available. Bernie Sanders has earned an average of 37 percent of women’s primary votes. Fifty percent of men report voting for Clinton in exit polls, just two points higher than Sanders’ average of 48 percent of men’s votes. The gender gaps in support for Clinton and Sanders matter even more, however, once you consider the gender differences in primary and caucus turnout. Again based on available exit polls, women have made up a larger percentage of primary electorates than men by an average of 16 points; across exit polled states, women are 58 percent of voters and men are just over 42 percent.


These data indicate that closing the delegate gap for Sanders will require that he close an even larger gap in Democratic voters’ support in the remaining contests. Of course, Sanders could increase his share of the overall vote in upcoming states by increasing the gender gap in his support, but that would require winning nearly 90 percent of men’s votes (if he does nothing to increase his average support among women).

A more realistic path to victory requires increasing his margin of support among women and men. For example, if Sanders earns 50 percent of women’s votes in remaining primaries—and if women remain about 58 percent of the primary electorate in those contests—he would need to increase his average percentage among male voters by 22 points (to 70 percent) in order to reach an average of 59 percent support across contests. Of course, if Sanders could increase his average support among women voters by 20 points, to 57 percent in remaining contests, he would only need to increase his margin among men by 15 points, on average, to reach 59 percent of remaining votes, and thus delegates.

As these calculations show, there is no magic number of women’s votes that Sanders needs to make a successful comeback in the Democratic contest. However, they present an important reminder that any realistic resurgence will require a more significant shift in Democratic women voters’ support than in men’s primary allegiances. That task will be tough, but is not yet impossible.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user yashmori licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar.