Why Bernie Sanders is so competitive in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Is a Dark Red State. Here’s Why Bernie Thinks He Can Win It Tuesday Night.

Oklahoma Is a Dark Red State. Here’s Why Bernie Thinks He Can Win It Tuesday Night.

The Slatest
Your News Companion
March 1 2016 4:48 PM

Oklahoma Is a Dark Red State. Here’s Why Bernie Thinks He Can Win It Tuesday Night.

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Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally on Monday in Oklahoma City.

J Pat Carter/Getty Images

This year’s Super Tuesday map is not a friendly one for Bernie Sanders. About half of the 11 primary states—along with two of the three with the most delegates—are dark red, so not exactly the most welcoming terrain for a Brooklyn-born senator from Vermont. He trails Hillary Clinton in the polls by 20-plus-point margins in Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia. If Bernie wants to avoid a near-sweep, he’ll have to win the more competitive races outside of the South, places like his home state and Minnesota.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

Still, there is one state on Tuesday’s slate where Sanders has a much better chance than you might expect: Oklahoma.

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Oklahoma has voted Republican in every presidential election in the past half-century and went for Mitt Romney by a 2-to-1 margin in 2012. And, earlier that same year, Democrats picked Clinton over then-Sen. Barack Obama by a 24-point margin in the state primary. And yet Sanders entered Tuesday down a scant 2 points in the RealClearPolitics state average, and Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight team see it as a virtual toss up. Why is a democratic socialist so competitive in the Sooner State?

The easy answer is that Oklahoma is something of a tweener. It’s more conservative than some of its Midwestern neighbors, but it doesn’t have the same demographic makeup of its Southern ones; it is dark red on the electoral map, but it’s much whiter on the ground. More than 75 percent of Oklahoma’s 2008 Democratic primary voters were white, a far cry from the 35 percent of Democrats who voted in this past Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, where Hillary won by nearly 50 points. Oklahoma’s nonwhite voters, meanwhile, are more likely to be Hispanic or Native American than black, a demographic that Sanders has struggled mightily to win over this year. That gives Bernie hope that white Democrats will turn out to vote for him in Oklahoma in similar numbers to what they did in Iowa, where he lost to Clinton by a historically small margin, and in New Hampshire, where he crushed her by a historically large one.

There’s another factor that’s often cited as a reason why Sanders could sneak out an Oklahoma victory: The state actually has something of a socialist tradition. As the New Republic pointed out this week: “At one point there were five Socialist state representatives, and when Socialist candidate Eugene Debs ran for president in the 1912 election, he won more votes in Oklahoma than any other state except Nevada.” I won’t completely rule out that such a tradition might be helping Sanders ever so slightly in the state, though it’s probably a mistake to conclude that electoral results from more than a century ago are what has allowed Sanders to cut so much off of the 25-point lead Clinton held there as recently as January.

What’s helped more, I’d imagine, is that Bernie has made winning Oklahoma a Super Tuesday priority. He’s made repeated stops in the state, spent big on the airwaves, and even predicted victory. If he pulls it off, it will give his team a chance to spin the results into proof that their candidate can compete in states far outside his wheelhouse. The problem, though, is that it still won’t be clear that he actually can.