The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Democratic Party’s divide isn’t as big as it was in 2008

Hillary Clinton attends a panel discussion on health care in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in September. (Alvin Baez/Reuters)

Last weekend's angry Democratic state convention in Nevada brought tensions within the Democratic Party to the surface. A group of angry Bernie Sanders supporters in the room and a handful of aggressive, threatening ones outside of it led to a formal letter of complaint against Sanders's campaign from the state party. An undercurrent of frustration felt by the Sanders campaign at the behavior of the national party erupted in force, leading to reports that Sanders planned to go to the mattresses against the DNC.

But then some people who've been around for at least eight years took a deep breath and pointed out that, the social-media-fueled drama of the moment aside, they remembered the party being in worse shape during the contest eight years ago. People like Dan Pfeiffer, who worked on Barack Obama's campaign that year.

And people like MSNBC's Steve Kornacki, who figured out a way around Twitter's character limit.

Kornacki's overview of what happened is thorough, but we can make the point that the split eight years ago was deeper more easily by looking at the numbers.

We've noted the big-picture mathematical similarities (and differences) between the two contests, including that Hillary Clinton that year was closer to Obama in the delegate and popular vote counts -- but had no path in May to actually catch him. (Sanders can technically win more pledged delegates, but he needs to win California and New Jersey by nearly Kim Jong Un-level margins.) What we haven't really done is looked at how Clinton supporters felt about the end of the race.

CBS and the New York Times released a new poll on Thursday that included a question about whether the protracted campaign was helping or hurting the party. Happily, the pollsters had asked the same question in June of 2008, so we can compare directly.

Back then, 54 percent of Democrats thought that the party was being hurt. In contrast, the new poll shows 59 percent thought the campaign was making the eventual nominee stronger.

It's likely that the results of 2008, as Kornacki suggests, have colored most people's perceptions of the possible fall-out from the Sanders-Clinton fight. Democrats at large -- not just the social media loudmouths -- may think that the nominee will emerge stronger precisely because Clinton and Obama united in 2008 and he went on to beat Sen. John McCain easily.

In the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, conducted in March, we found that supporters of Sanders looked at Clinton about as favorably as supporters of Clinton looked at Obama in April of 2008.

But when asked if they would support the Democrat or Donald Trump in a potential general election match-up, Sanders supporters in March were much more likely to say they'd stick with their party than Clinton or Obama supporters were willing to say they'd support the other candidate in November 2008.

Bear in mind that this data on the current race is from March -- and a lot has changed since then. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver used data from YouGov polling to show that unfavorable views of Clinton from Sanders supporters have increased dramatically over the past month-and-a-half. Silver also pointed out a few reasons on Twitter why the assumption that the party will unite in the same way eight years later may be a bit Panglossian. His arguments include that Sanders's rhetoric (calling for a "revolution") and base of support (heavily from people who aren't loyal to the party) makes such unification trickier. "This being a year when many precedents have been violated," he concludes, it is "worth considering these differences in case we're 'surprised' later."

It's true that, on the whole, Democratic primary voters (not all of whom are Democrats) are less split over the unity of the party than they were eight years ago. (The Times and CBS also asked Democrats if their party was united at this point. Half said yes; only 14 percent of Republicans said that about their own party.) But it's also true that assuming everything will play out as beneficially for the party based on one non-equivalent previous example offers its own risks.