Bernie Sanders has a problem with the Democratic primary process.
On Comedy Central's Nightly Show, the presidential candidate complained that southern states vote early in the calendar, suggesting it as a reason he trails Hillary Clinton in the nomination race.
“People say, ‘Why does Iowa go first, why does New Hampshire go first,’ but I think that having so many Southern states go first kind of distorts reality as well,” Sanders told host Larry Wilmore after he was asked Wednesday if the primary system is rigged. “We started off this campaign having to run in the Deep South,” he said. “We didn't do all that well—it's a conservative part of our country. But since we've been out of the South, we're doing pretty well.”
It has become a recurring talking point for Sanders. After winning Utah in late March, Sanders told supporters, “We knew from day one that we were going to have, politically, a hard time in the Deep South. That is a conservative part of our country. But we knew things were going to improve as we headed west.”
Large victories—first in South Carolina on Feb. 27, then in Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia on March 1—have helped propel Clinton to a lead of about 250 pledged delegates, according to an Associated Press count.
But does Sanders' argument hold up?
Evidence suggests his losses in the South are more clearly traceable to Democratic divides over race, and not the dominant conservative political ideology of the region, a force that has little practical effects on the opposing party's nomination process.
Exit polls show that Sanders lost big among the disproportionate share of black voters in the region, who constituted more than one in five Democrats nationally in 2012. Clinton overwhelmingly won African-Americans—by 86 percent in South Carolina, 80 percent in Texas, 85 percent in Georgia, 89 percent in Tennessee, and 91 percent in Alabama. (In 2008, Barack Obama, the preferred candidate of the left, won the Deep South by large margins against Clinton.)
Meanwhile, Sanders also lost across ideological groups in each of those states—spanning self-identified “very liberal,” “somewhat liberal” and “moderate” Democrats. (“Conservative” Democrats were too small in number to be meaningfully evaluated).
Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon called Sanders' argument “strange.”
“I don't know what point he's making there,” Fallon said Thursday on CNN. “I don't think that the Democratic primary electorate in those quote-unquote ‘southern states’ is conservative. It's certainly diverse. I don't know if he's making a suggestion about the diversity of those states and their placement on the calendar.”
There is also no clear correlation between the Republican or Democratic lean of a state and its preference in the Sanders-Clinton primary. While Clinton has won her share of red states, she has also won blue Massachusetts and Illinois, and purple Florida and Ohio. While Sanders has won his share of blue states, he has also won red states like Oklahoma, Idaho, Kansas, Alaska, and Wyoming, and purple states like Wisconsin and Colorado.
Though the South favored Clinton, Sanders was buoyed by strong concentrations of his strongest supporters in the very beginning of the primary calendar. Iowa and New Hampshire, which historically have outsize influence over the outcome, are among the three most Sanders-friendly states in the primary, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of the share of white progressives in their Democratic electorates.
A Washington Post analysis that randomized Democratic calendar found that Clinton would likely be leading at this point no matter the order of the contests.
Dan Pfeiffer, former senior adviser to President Obama, called Sanders' argument “misguided and/or disingenuous on so many levels.” He said on Twitter that “Sanders is losing [because] he does terrible with African American and Latino voters. The order of the contests doesn't matter.”
A Sanders spokesman didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.