top of page

Logic Checking Super Tuesday

For our first fact-checker of the season, in which we will apply what you’ve already learned on this site to current events, let’s logic-check an argument about the biggest news story of the campaign season: the surprising results of Super Tuesday.

I say “surprising” since many commentators who saw the momentum Vice President Joe Biden gained from his big South Carolina win still assumed states like Texas would go to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a candidate who had bested Biden in the early primaries and caucuses.

Most polls taken before the vote did not predict the scale of Biden’s victories, revealing yet again how difficult it is for survey-based polls designed to capture public opinion at a specific point in time to predict the outcome of fast-moving events with many variables.

An explanation for Sanders’ poor showing on Tuesday was provided in this editorial by Tiana Lowe from the The Washington Examiner (duplicated in full below).

Before looking at the argument underlying Lowe’s piece, keep in mind that the Examiner is a conservative newspaper and the editorial writer regularly posts harsh criticisms of Sanders, Democrats and liberal politics in general, which means we should be on the lookout for biases influencing her analysis. At the same time, those who disagree with the writer’s world view should avoid letting their own biases prevent them from listening to arguments from which one might gain useful insights, just because they are provided by a political opponent.

Before analyzing her argument, we must first reduce her editorial to a set of clear premises leading to a conclusion, applying principles of accuracy, charity and economy to the translation process. This can help us avoid being distracted by things like the writer’s tone (which could be perceived as snarky and gloating) and get to the meat of what she is trying to say, which I believe is this:

Premise 1: Bernie Sanders’ strategy for winning the Democratic nomination is based on generating high voter turnout which would include many new young voters who may not have voted previously.

Premise 2: The Sanders’ strategy presumes new voters will support Bernie Sanders more than his rivals.

Premise 3: In Nevada (where Sanders won) and Iowa (where he lost or tied), voter turnout was lower than in 2008.

Premise 4: Sanders lost to Biden in two states (Minnesota and Oklahoma) where he defeated Hillary Clinton in the primary in 2016.

Premise 5: Exit polls indicate that young people are not voting in larger numbers.

Premise 6: In Virginia, voter turn out did increase since 2016 but that was a state Biden, not Sanders, won by a large majority.

Conclusion: Bernie Sanders’ campaign strategy is a failure.

Presuming you agree with my translation process, the first thing to keep in mind is that this is an inductive, rather than a deductive, argument in which we can determine the strength of the argument by deciding how likely the conclusion is to be true if the premises are true.

Remember that accepting the premises as true is a temporary but vital part of the logic-checking process, requiring you to put aside any issues you might have with one or more premise for now. This is not an intuitive thing to do, given how prone our minds are to reject anything that smacks of falsehood. But, as you will see, there will be ample time to judge the premises, but only after we determine if they successfully support the conclusion.

In this case, accepting the premises does seem to provide strong support for the conclusion. Now the truth or falsehood of the conclusion can only be known for certain in the future and, as we’ve already seen this year, the dynamics of a race that has changed many times can change again. In addition, the conclusion is rather definitive, so weakening it somewhat (by changing it to “Bernie Sanders’ strategy is likely to fail,” for example) would actually make the argument as a whole stronger. But, at least for now, the logic connecting the premises to the conclusion seems to be pretty tight.

With that step completed, we can now begin to scrutinize the premises more closely, keeping in mind that, since we’re talking about an inductive argument, one or more bad premises can weaken the argument without destroying it entirely (as one bad premise can do to a deductive argument).

Premises 3-6 are statements of fact, supported by Super Tuesday election numbers and exit polling data, so they seem to be on sturdy ground. But notice that Premise 3 is making a comparison not between two elections in which Bernie Sanders was running (2016 and 2020) but between this year’s vote and 2008 (an election with its own dynamic). In fact, turnout in Iowa was slightly higher this year than in 2016 (172,300 Democratic participants in the causes vs. 171,109 in 2016) and Nevada (14,490 vs. 12,002).

These increases are small, so they don’t wreck Premise 3 entirely (especially given the confusion surrounding this year’s Iowa results, and changes to election rules in Nevada). But they should make us wonder if the arguer has chosen to “cook the books” by comparing an apple to an orange, a move that weakens the argument’s overall strength.

While Premises 1 and 2 do not involve numbers that can be checked for accuracy, they do represent statements any reasonable person who has followed the Sanders’ campaign would agree represents their strategy (although possibly not their only one).

So even with the flaws mentioned above, I'm still going to rate this argument at 4/5 dumbbells, meaning it is Fairly Strong. [Note to readers: I swapped my original graphic with a new 1-5 dumbbell ranking I'll be using from now on.]. As mentioned previously, this judgement is not simply a matter of opinion but rather a statement of fact (in this case, a fact about the strength of Lowe’s original argument).

Fairly Strong

As a final note, I hope this analysis shows you why it might be worth listening to people you generally disagree with. For if there is a strong case to be made that Sanders’ strategy for winning the nomination is flawed, Sanders supporters should be most interested in knowing this so they can find alternatives for victory while there is still time.

Original Article

Super Tuesday debunks Bernie's 'turnout' theory of victory by Tiana Lowe

Super Tuesday finally put to bed the inane theory that Bernie Sanders could win the White House by driving unprecedented voter turnout.

He seems to have raised turnout, all right, by Democrats looking to deny him their party's presidential nomination.

People should have seen this coming. Despite winning the first three states of the 2020 primary, Sanders actually underperformed in Iowa and New Hampshire. The Vermont senator barely beat Pete Buttigieg in the latter state and technically lost to him in the former, despite starting the race with much better polling and name recognition. And although Sanders did overperform the polls in Nevada, like in Iowa, turnout was a lot lower than that of 2008.

Despite the anecdotal evidence, Sanders continued to boast that he'd drive out unprecedented turnout. Super Tuesday finally debunked his promise, all thanks to the astounding and perhaps confounding resurgence of Joe Biden.

After Jim Clyburn endorsed the former vice president, delivering him a blowout in South Carolina and undoubtedly saving his campaign, Biden was back. But the polls failed to predict just how much momentum the once and future front-runner had going into the night. Yes, Biden deserves plaudits for vital victories in Virginia and North Carolina, but most impressive were the upsets that put the final nails in the coffin of the Sanders turnout theory.

For starters, despite barely campaigning in the state, Biden won Massachusetts, beating Elizabeth Warren in her home state and Sanders in his own backyard. More impressive were two states Biden took that Sanders once won against Hillary Clinton.

In 2016, more than 125,000 voters helped Sanders beat Clinton by 23 points in Minnesota. In Oklahoma, 174,228 helped him best her by more than 10. Tonight, Biden earned the votes of nearly 200,000 Minnesotans, beating Sanders by more than 8 points. Biden beat Sanders by more than 13 points in Oklahoma, or by more than 40,000 votes.

Meanwhile, turnout in Virginia doubled from 2016 and surpassed that of 2008, only to give Biden a 400,000-vote lead over Sanders. North Carolina saw its turnout slightly slide since 2016, but only to give Biden a lead over Sanders even greater than what Clinton earned.

Meanwhile, exit polls continue to reflect a fundamental fact of voting: Young people, the crux of the Sanders campaign, simply don't turn out to vote.

Sanders's boom came when the primary field was most fractured. He promised he could carry a win with turnout, but, as Biden's resurgence proves, the only way to win isn't to wish for invisible voters to emerge from the sidelines but rather build coalitions of voters you already know are there.

There's a turnout juggernaut in this race, but it's Biden, not Sanders.

1 Comment

Simply outstanding. While one can quibble/disagree with specific points here and there --most of which Jonathan has self-identified--this is a refreshing, clear and timely analysis that I can easily see working very well in my 100-level critical thinking classes. I particularly like the framing of the potential bias issue--avoiding the two popular extremes of either avoiding the arguments entirely due to suspected bias, or blindly ignoring the potential bias entirely (usually because one agrees with the author/position). The writing style is great too--efficient and punchy--but not at the expense of detail and rigor. One of the challenges of teaching these days is the limited attention span of many learners. This Logic Check proves that you can have a very vig…

bottom of page