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Bernie Sanders is creating a new and untested electoral force in American politics

Bernie Sanders, building coalitions.
Bernie Sanders, building coalitions.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The conventional wisdom has been that Bernie Sanders is running some version of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign strategy — a strategy based on a coalition of wine-track young liberals and small-donor donations.

This conventional wisdom is wrong, or at least radically incomplete.

Sanders's coalition looks very different from what Obama created, or what most experts had expected. According to pollsters and political science professors, Sanders appears to have combined elements of both Obama and Clinton's 2008 voting blocs — he's building something new and untested as an electoral force in American politics.

There are key ways Sanders's support looks more like Clinton's 2008 coalition than Obama's — and vice versa.

"The irony of this Democratic primary so far is that Hillary Clinton's path to victory involves winning the voters she lost in 2008. And Bernie Sanders's path to victory depends on winning the voters Hillary Clinton won in 2008," says Dave Wasserman, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "That's a remarkable turn of events in just eight years."

Sanders is winning white working-class voters, who overwhelmingly supported Clinton against Obama. In Iowa, Sanders won by a 57-to-41 margin among low-income voters. He followed that up by crushing Clinton among those at the bottom of the income distribution by a 71-to-25 margin in New Hampshire, according to CBS's exit polling data.

"It's remarkable: The Bernie coalition isn't at all what we were expecting," says Wasserman. "The fact that you have a core support group for Hillary Clinton in 2008 suddenly showing some intrigue for Bernie makes this race a whole lot more interesting."

On top of his support with this group of Clinton's 2008 backers, Sanders adds two other elements of Obama's 2008 coalition: liberals and young people. Meanwhile, Clinton's strongest supporters appear to be the well-educated and minority voters who backed Obama over her in 2008.

"It looks like Clinton's coalition from 2008 is definitely not her coalition in 2016, which is fascinating," says Kyle D. Kondik, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "It's almost like Clinton 2016 is taking some pieces from Obama and some pieces from her own coalition, and Sanders is doing the same thing."

The red states that Sanders may need to win the Democratic primary

The result is that Sanders's best chance of winning the Democratic primary may rest on winning many of the conservative red states that broke for Clinton in 2008.

The experts stress that there's no guarantee the white working class in the rest of the country will follow the voting patterns of those in Iowa and New Hampshire. But if they do, Sanders could pick up many of the states traditionally thought of as friendly to conservative, "Blue Dog" Democrats.

"The question is if Bernie Sanders's message will resonate with low-income whites outside of New England and Iowa," Wasserman said. "If it does, that's where Sanders could start giving Hillary Clinton fits in the delegate chase."

In 2008, Obama won many of the southern states — South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia — where minority voters make up a big share of the Democratic primary electorate.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on the debate stage in January. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

But he didn't do as well in conservative states where white voters had a larger share of the vote. During the 2008 election, for instance, Hillary Clinton beat him by 13 points in Tennessee, 23 points in Oklahoma, and 41 points in West Virginia.

In 2016, Clinton appears poised to take the minority-heavy states she lost last time around. But if the trends from New Hampshire and Iowa hold up, many of her safest states from 2008 could suddenly be thrown into play, according to pollsters.

It's unclear whether Sanders would have enough delegates if he managed to add these states with his New England base. But, Wasserman notes, "There are a lot of Democratic delegates at stake in those red states."

The potentially massive problem with this theory

There's one potentially huge flaw with the idea that Sanders will be able to perform as well in Oklahoma with the white working class as he did in New Hampshire.

That problem is ideology. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are much more likely to think of themselves as liberal than they are in red states, and that likely applies to working class voters as well.

"New Hampshire has just a more liberal electorate than Oklahoma, though both states are white," Kondik says.

In Oklahoma's 2008 Democratic primary, for instance, 37 percent of voters described themselves as liberal, 44 percent as moderate, and 19 percent as conservative, according to CNN's exit polls.

Photo by Hal Yeager/Getty Images

(Hal Yeager/Getty Images)

New Hampshire looks a world apart. In 2016, the Granite State's Democratic primary voters were 26 percent "very liberal," 42 percent "somewhat liberal," 27 percent moderate, and just 4 percent conservative, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"Clinton may have lost a kind of the white working class — the liberal white working class — but that doesn't mean she'll lose the white working class in less liberal states," Kondik says.

A key potential battleground: Latino voters

But if Sanders really does have strong support with low-income white voters, and Clinton retains hers with African Americans, the campaign may hinge in large part on Latino and Hispanic voters, according to Wasserman.

"If you're looking at Bernie's path to victory as similar to Clinton's in 2008 — a group of lower-income whites that is up against high-income, well-educated whites and African Americans, the key demographic will be Latinos," Wasserman said.

In 2008, Hispanics broke by a 2-to-1 margin for Clinton, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. Most recent polling has found Clinton retaining the margin, with NBC News finding in January that Clinton leads 54 to 33 among Latinos nationwide.

"A lot of Hillary's strategy is that the demographics will pull her way in Nevada and South Carolina — and the polling suggest that that's accurate," said Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. "She has better traction among Latino and African-American voters."

It's tough to imagine Sanders being competitive in big states like California and Texas without improving his current numbers. But as Vox's Dara Lind explains, Sanders's camp has made concerted efforts to reach Latinos.

Will it work? Nobody knows for sure, of course. But given how Clinton's other key voting blocs from 2008 have acted this cycle, Sanders may have reason to be hopeful.