Bernie Sanders Is on the Rise. But How High Can His Numbers Go?

Bernie Sanders Is on the Rise. But How High Can His Numbers Go?

Welcome to Poll Watch, our weekly look at polling data and survey research on the candidates, voters and issues that will shape the 2020 election.

Senator Bernie Sanders has a solid base of support. That much is clear.

And he has done a remarkably good job of boxing out Senator Elizabeth Warren for the support of the party’s left wing. He is now the choice of nearly half of Democratic voters who identify as “very liberal,” according to national polls; Ms. Warren is stuck in the 20s with that group.

But does Mr. Sanders have room to grow? In a Democratic field overloaded with well-liked candidates, can he expand his coalition beyond the young, liberal base that has always backed him?

Or, in a race this crowded, does he even need to?

While many moderate Democrats blanch at the full-throated leftism of Mr. Sanders’s policies, few in the party actually dislike the senator himself. Nearly three-quarters of Democratic voters have a favorable opinion of Mr. Sanders, while only 20 percent see him negatively, according to a recent Monmouth University poll. That puts his net favorability rating at 53, higher than any other Democrat in the race — and at least 15 points better than any other candidate, with the exception of Ms. Warren (her net favorability rating is 48).

And while his proposals for a single-payer health care system, free public college and a Green New Deal put him firmly on the party’s left flank, polls show that a wide majority of Democratic voters support them.

Still, many centrist Democratic voters have hesitated to get on board with his candidacy. According to polls from Quinnipiac University, Mr. Sanders’s support among very liberal voters rose by 29 percentage points from November to February; among all other Democrats, he gained just seven points over that period.

Likewise, while he is far and away the most popular candidate among Democrats under 50, he has the support of only about one-tenth of those 50 and over, according to the most recent Quinnipiac poll.

Some moderate Democrats still hold Mr. Sanders in suspicion after 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College to Donald J. Trump after a nomination fight against Mr. Sanders. In a CNN poll last month, Mr. Sanders commanded the support of 27 percent of Democrats, but only 16 percent said he was the best candidate to unite the party.

“For many of them, they’ll never forget how he dealt with Hillary Clinton,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who worked on Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, referring to hesitant Democratic voters.

Yet the biggest obstacle for Mr. Sanders, Vermont’s junior senator, may be the perception that his ideas are too radical — and his persona too cantankerous — to win a general election. Democrats this year are largely united by their obsession with defeating Mr. Trump: More than three in five Democratic voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire said they preferred a candidate who could beat Mr. Trump over one who agreed with them on most issues, according to entrance and exit polls. Among those electability-minded voters, Mr. Sanders finished behind Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., in both states, the polls showed.

As Mr. Buttigieg rises in the polls, he has argued that a moderate candidate like himself is needed to win over swing voters in November. But Mr. Sanders has countered with a different narrative, arguing that he will bring millions of low-propensity voters — particularly young and working-class people — into the political process, giving Democrats an uncommon electoral advantage.

Mr. Sanders’s campaign has pushed a “Bernie Beats Trump” slogan since it began early last year, and his proponents have long pointed to the fact that head-to-head polls tend to show him looking roughly as strong as former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. against Mr. Trump. And to a degree, it is catching on: Mr. Sanders is now seen as the most electable candidate by 24 percent of Democratic voters; in the fall, only one-tenth of Democrats saw him that way.

He is also on the rise among voters of color. He has courted Hispanic voters especially and is now the clear favorite among them — a fact that owes partly to the relative youth of the Latino electorate. He is also increasingly popular among African-Americans, many of whom are facing a hard decision about whom to support, now that Mr. Biden’s star is fading.

If Mr. Biden continues to sink, Mr. Sanders may have a relatively open lane with voters of color, since Mr. Buttigieg, Ms. Warren of Massachusetts and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have all had difficulty gaining traction there.

But Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, has bought over $350 million in television ads since the fall and is aggressively seeking out black and Hispanic voters. Among black voters, he is now polling about evenly with Mr. Sanders, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll, which found that they were each supported by about one-fifth of black Democratic voters.

Much remains in flux, and the results of the coming contests — in Nevada, South Carolina and the 14 states that will vote on Super Tuesday — will have a big impact on the rest of the race. But there are already some hopeful signs for Mr. Sanders.

Monmouth’s most recent poll of Democratic voters found that he enjoys 30 percent support among respondents living in states that will vote after Super Tuesday, versus just 21 percent among earlier voters. If he continues to do well enough to maintain front-runner status through Super Tuesday, on March 3, he may have a slightly easier map for the rest of the primary season.

Sean McElwee, the co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress, said that Mr. Sanders’s high favorability ratings put him in a stronger position to win over moderate Democrats than many pundits acknowledged. He said that while Mr. Sanders’s campaign had yet to aggressively target more moderate voters, that didn’t mean it could not be done.

“It’s a question of when the campaign decides to do it, but he is undeniably at this point the front-runner, and it makes a lot of sense right now for him to begin moving beyond his base and start to aim toward the center,” Mr. McElwee said in an interview.

“Bernie Sanders has incredibly high favorabilty numbers among Democrats; voters overwhelmingly view him positively,” Mr. McElwee added. “I think the idea that he was unelectable was always a myth.”


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