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Voters cast ballots in West Virginia's primaries Tuesday, as do Republicans in Nebraska.

  • Lower-stakes West Virginia primary could offer clues to general election challenges for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
  • Bernie Sanders is more liberal than Clinton, yet he still wins among conservative Democrats
  • Ted Cruz says he will reconsider his run if he wins Nebraska's primary
  • Clinton and Trump to battle for coal support in West Virginia in their likely general election matchup
  • Don't get too excited one way or the other about that poll showing close swing-state races

Why the more liberal Bernie Sanders beats Hillary Clinton among more conservative Democrats

 (John G. Mabanglo / European Pressphoto Agency)
(John G. Mabanglo / European Pressphoto Agency)

Hillary Clinton will almost certainly lose Tuesday's primary in West Virginia, adding to a string of defeats in conservative, heavily white states, including Oklahoma and Indiana.

Sen. Bernie Sanders' ability to beat Clinton in conservative places may seem counterintuitive. He is, after all, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist. But the results fit into a consistent pattern: The Democratic Party doesn't have a lot of conservative voters in its primaries any more, but those who remain have tended to favor Sanders.

It's a fair bet that most of those voters are not Feeling the Bern. The evidence suggests they are not so much voting for Sanders as voting against Clinton, much as voters in some of the same places sided with Clinton eight years ago because they did not want to vote for then-Sen. Barack Obama.

The best evidence on Sanders' conservative vote comes from a new compilation of exit poll data done by Langer Research Associates for ABC News.

Voters were asked whether they would like to see the next president pursue policies that are more liberal than President Obama's, more conservative or about the same.

Not surprisingly, Sanders has beaten Clinton by better than 2-1 among those who would like to see a turn to the left. Clinton, by contrast, has prevailed by an even larger margin among the biggest group — those who want to continue along the route Obama has followed.

The surprise comes among the 12% of voters who said they want to see more conservative policies than Obama's. By a narrow margin, they have voted for Sanders. They make up about one in seven of his voters overall.

The exit polls are consistent with a pattern of Sanders victories in conservative states, such as Oklahoma, and in conservative parts of more liberal states. In New York, for example, Sanders won heavily white, conservative areas including parts of Staten Island, Howard Beach in Queens and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn.

Evidence that these are primarily "vote against" ballots rather than "vote fors" comes from a pattern that Nate Cohn noted in the New York Times : Sanders has won conservatives mostly in states that have closed primaries, in which only registered Democrats are eligible to vote.

A significant number of conservative voters have kept their Democratic registrations even though they almost always vote for a Republican presidential candidate. In some cases, they vote for Democrats on the local level. Others may stick with their existing registration just because they have no strong motivation to change it.

In states with open primaries, conservatives usually have voted in Republican primaries if they have taken part at all. Sanders hasn't gotten very many conservative votes in such states. But in states with closed primaries — New York and Oklahoma, for example — those who do want to take part in a primary can only vote in the Democratic one, and they've often voted for Sanders.

West Virginia has a "semi-closed" primary — Democrats and independents can take part. The state also has a heavily contested Democratic primary for governor, giving voters an added incentive to participate.

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