If Sanders Had Beaten Biden

Predicting how Sanders would have done against Trump

Jon Bell
4 min readSep 13, 2020


The New York Times has a good analysis of the 2020 Democratic primary that contains this graphic. See all that purple? That’s where Biden beat Sanders. Bigger circles mean bigger margins.

Where Sanders Was Strong

But despite all this purple, Bernie Sanders was still a big force. Here’s another map that shows where Bernie’s leads were biggest. (Iowa and Nevada are yellow because that’s where Mayor Pete did well) It’s clear from this map that Bernie’s biggest support is in New England and a band from California to Colorado. He’s also strong in Washington, Minnesota, Michigan, and Texas.

The Six States That Matter Against Trump

We know that any Democrat will win California, and any Republican will win Montana. In fact, there are over 40 states where the result is not in doubt. If you call out swing states by colouring them beige, the map looks like this:

Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are the Six States That Matter this year. So all we need to do is see who did better in each of these six states during the primary. Here’s that data.

Sanders vs Biden in the Swing States

Biden didn’t just win. He absolutely dominated in the swing states. The explanation is simple: Biden’s centrism, the very thing that Bernie Sanders voters are most upset about, is what made him so competitive in more centrist states. If a state is half Republican and half Democrat, the way to succeed is to target the broadest coalition, meaning the centre.

But all this centrism doesn’t amount to much if Biden can’t get those states to vote for him in the general election against Trump. So how do those numbers look as of the 13th of September, 2020 according to RealClearPolitics?

Trump vs Biden in the Swing States

Putting It All Together

Biden won all six swing states during the primary and is winning in all six states leading into the general. The two states where he’s weakest are Florida and North Carolina, where he only leads by 1%. But he beat Sanders in those states by an average of 29%. It’s hard to argue that Democrats would be in a better position with someone further left.

A Final Thought

Stephen Colbert has a great line: “truth has a liberal bias.” It’s a brilliant lampooning of the far-right’s tendency to downplay inconvenient facts that go against their party platform. But of course it’s not unique to the far right or the far left. It’s something all humans do.

The political left is 100% convinced that the way to win elections is to put up exciting progressives, and the way to lose is to put up boring moderates. I sympathise with this view. John Kerry didn’t animate the far left, neither did Hillary Clinton, and of course both lost. It’s possible that more liberal candidates would have performed better in those contests, I’ll grant you that.

But in 2020, we have a candidate who is pulling political support from the left to the right, and all points in between. We have a candidate who can win in deeply blue California and is even a few points away from an earthshattering upset in deeply red Texas. This is really, really good news. These are facts, not opinions, and they point to reality having a moderate bias. At least in this election season.

If we had nominated Bernie Sanders, the data tells us he would have struggled mightily in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It also tells us he would have had no chance expanding the map to places like Georgia and Texas. And that he wouldn’t have a lead right now. It tells us he would be heading towards a loss even as he turned Vermont and California bluer.

We picked the right candidate. Now let’s go win.



Jon Bell

Designer, writer, teacher. I love building things.