Is Bernie Sanders “electable”? It’s a question that’s been troubling many Democrats, who fear that despite his strong showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont would lose to President Trump in November.
A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll suggests that Sanders could be a riskier nominee than his supporters are willing to admit. In a national trial heat with Trump, Sanders led 48 percent to 42 percent among registered voters. Yet when the playing field was narrowed to the ten states that were closest in the 2016 presidential election and will likely decide 2020 — Michigan, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Minnesota, Nevada, Maine, North Carolina and Arizona — Sanders’s lead over Trump was slashed in half (48 percent to 45 percent). That three-point gap was within the margin of error.
In contrast, former Vice President Joe Biden led Trump by nine points nationally (50 percent to 41 percent) and by seven points (50 percent to 43 percent) in the battleground states.
Both Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (47 percent to 45 percent) and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg (46 percent to 44 percent) performed about as well as Sanders in the battleground states. The weakest performer was former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg (43 percent to 43 percent).
Likewise, Sanders ran far behind Biden among swing voters, defined here as voters who switched to Democratic House or Senate candidates in the 2018 midterms after casting their ballots for Trump in 2016. Biden beat Trump by 12 points (51 percent to 39 percent) among these voters, who helped Democrats flip 41 seats and regain control of the House in 2018. Sanders beat Trump by four points (48 percent to 44 percent).
Sanders is still running strong among Democratic primary voters, with a 78 percent favorable rating, the same as Warren and Biden. The poll found that 27 percent of Democrats say he is their first choice for the nomination, followed by Biden at 21 percent, Warren at 18 percent, Bloomberg at 14 percent, Buttigieg at 10 percent, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar at four percent, California businessman Tom Steyer at two percent and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard at one percent. Within the Democratic primary electorate, Sanders led among 18-to-29-year-olds (by 22 points), 30-to-44-year-olds (by 23 points) and Latinos (by seven points) — groups that have helped him win more votes than his rivals in the early nominating contests. Sanders also ran even with Biden among black likely primary voters (31 percent to 30 percent), suggesting that he is chipping away at one of the former vice president’s core constituencies.
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But in a year in which Democrats overwhelmingly say they want a nominee who can win in November, the poll suggests that Sanders’s views might be a unique liability. At this point, 93 percent of registered voters say they are either "very familiar" or "somewhat familiar" with the Vermont senator. (These numbers are about the same as Biden and much higher than the other candidates.) Voters are also familiar with Sanders’s agenda: 84 percent know he supports Medicare for All; 80 percent think he supports free public-college tuition; 73 percent think he supports much higher taxes on the top 0.1 percent; 61 percent think he supports a ban on fracking; and 57 percent think he supports decriminalizing illegal border crossings, all essentially true. And 74 percent of registered voters think Sanders is "very liberal,” compared to 57 percent for Warren, 31 percent for Buttigieg, 26 percent for Biden and 23 percent for Bloomberg.
The poll suggests that Sanders’s liberalism could hinder him in the states that will matter most in November. For instance, self-identified Democrats favor Medicare for All, 53 percent to 23 percent — but voters in battleground states oppose the policy, 31 percent to 53 percent. Similarly, battleground-state voters oppose free public-college tuition (37 percent to 50 percent) and decriminalizing illegal border crossings (28 percent to 57 percent). These are all policies that Sanders favors and Biden opposes.
Sanders supporters argue that he would win in November by turning out historic numbers of young voters, new voters and voters of color. But as a New York Times analysis recently noted, Sanders has prevailed so far in the Democratic primary by “expanding his appeal among traditional Democratic voters, not by driving record turnout.” Meanwhile, a new study by political scientists from Yale and the University of California, Berkeley, showed that nominating Sanders would drive many Americans who would otherwise vote for a moderate Democrat to vote for Trump — losses that Sanders could only offset by inspiring an unprecedented 11-percentage-point turnout boost among young left-leaning voters, who haven’t showed up at anything approaching that level this year.
None of which is to say that Sanders can’t beat Trump. But at this point, data suggests he might not be the Democrats’ safest bet.
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