Bernie Sanders’ presidential run is all but dead. While many of his supporters cry foul at the Democratic National Committee for conspiring to nominate Hillary Clinton and hold onto an inkling of hope that he might be able to sway 507 superdelegates to defect to him before tonight’s roll call vote, Sanders will not be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States in 2016. Clinton has been the presumptive nominee since the beginning of June, and while Sanders has not technically suspended his campaign, he’s endorsed Clinton as a means of ensuring that Donald Trump won’t win.
But suppose Sanders withheld his endorsement from Clinton and felt that she wasn’t progressive enough to be president of the United States and decided to take his political revolution outside the confines of the Democratic Party. How would the election look, and what would the polls have to say? How many states could he ultimately win, and could he win outright? Or would he hand the presidency to Trump? That’s exactly the sort of scenario Jill Stein, presumptive Green Party nominee, has urged Sanders to consider, offering to step aside and let him run on her party’s ticket in order to continue his political revolution. Stein thinks that the Democratic Party has been engulfed by neoliberalism and corruption and used its party machinery to suppress the insurgent Sanders.
If Sanders took Stein’s offer and headed the Green Party ticket, rest assured chaos would erupt like nothing this country has seen since 1912. But to what degree Sanders would affect the election depends on a handful of factors. First of all, he would have to decide whether to run on the Green Party ticket, which already has ballot access to 336 electoral votes in 22 states and Washington, D.C.—and write-in access in Indiana—or run as an independent and fight to get his name on as many states’ ballots as possible. Running on the Green Party ticket would limit Sanders from a national standpoint, but it could also help him by giving him the incentive to focus his campaign on key states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon, Hawaii, and Maine where he performed quite well during primary season. The issue with this strategy is that Sanders’ only path to victory would be to deny Clinton and Trump an electoral majority of 270 electoral votes, putting his fate in the hands of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives that would almost certainly elect Trump.
This of course ignores the fact that Sanders’ national profile could enable him to secure ballot access in a number of other states across New England and the Midwest, like Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Iowa. However, without expanding ballot access to all 50 states, Sanders’ only path to winning the election outright would require him to win Southern states where the Green Party already has access—e.g. Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina—that overwhelmingly preferred Clinton in the primaries and will overwhelmingly support Trump in November.
Now, let’s suppose Sanders’ Green Party does get on the ballot in all 50 states, or that, as an independent, he does the same. What other factors would determine how well he’d perform in the general election? For one thing, turnout among millennials and independents, two demographic groups where Sanders enjoyed an advantage, would be key. Historically, millennial turnout is low, and in primary contests where turnout remained low, Clinton benefited. Sanders would have to mobilize his army of young voters to have any shot at winning. A plurality of independents currently support Trump, so Sanders would have to fight to sway them back and convince them to turn out as well.
Another important factor would be the number of Sanders supporters currently throwing their support behind Clinton—90% of whom are doing so—that return to his camp. Some of Sanders’ supporters, especially registered Democrats, might see him as a sore loser and spoiler and decide to stick with Clinton in order to prevent a Trump presidency. Others could renege on their support for Clinton and jump back onto the Bernie bandwagon. Regardless, the person that would benefit most from a Sanders independent or Green Party run would be Donald Trump, who could turn his single-digit deficits in key swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio into sizable leads, as well as win states that traditionally lean blue, like Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Oregon. Even Connecticut and Maine, very blue states, might produce small Trump pluralities that turn them red.
As far as the polls are concerned, Sanders would probably come in third place in the popular vote based on his performance during primary season, putting up somewhere between Ross Perot’s numbers in 1992 (18.9%) and George Wallace’s numbers in 1968 (13.5%). His numbers would not surpass those of Clinton, who had more votes in the race for the Democratic nomination; she would probably hover around 30% of the popular vote while Trump would likely reach the 40% benchmark. The remaining voters would be dispersed among various third party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, both of whom would suffer greatly from Sanders’ presence in the general election.
In closing, a Sanders independent or Green Party run almost definitely would hand the election to Donald Trump by splitting the Democratic and left-wing vote, much like Theodore Roosevelt’s third party run in 1912 did to the Republican vote. Realistically, Sanders would have little to no shot of winning the election because he wouldn’t be able to take electoral jackpots like California, New York, or Illinois from Clinton or win any major red states, even if he may have performed better head-to-head against Trump than Clinton would have. But with this election cycle defying all conventional wisdom, just about anything is possible.