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Bernie Sanders Can Win, But He Isn’t Polling Like A Favorite

If there’s one thing the Democratic establishment is good at, it’s panicking. And the latest reason for panic among Democratic insiders is Bernie Sanders. According to a New York Times article from earlier this month, the prospect of a Sanders nomination is “spooking establishment-aligned Democrats, some of whom are worried that his nomination could lure a third-party centrist into the field.” It is “also creating tensions about what, if anything, should be done to halt Mr. Sanders,” the article says.

Should Democratic insiders really be worried that Sanders will be nominated and cost them an election against President Trump that they’d otherwise win? I’m here to make the case that they shouldn’t be, or at least not yet. Instead, Sanders-related panic is premature for at least three reasons:

  1. While Sanders is one of perhaps a dozen candidates with a plausible shot at the nomination, the field is fairly wide open, and it’s too early to say how formidable he is.
  2. It’s also too early to conclude very much about Sanders’s “electability” against Trump, especially in comparison to other Democrats.
  3. Finally, even if they wanted to stop Sanders, it’s too early for the party establishment to know how to go about doing that — without more input from rank-and-file voters, any move meant to hinder Sanders could backfire.

Each one of these claims could be the subject of a long post — so I just want to focus on the first one for today and leave the others for later.

To be clear, I think Sanders can win the Democratic nomination. He’s probably the 3rd- or 4th- most likely nominee, in my estimation — slightly behind Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and roughly tied with Pete Buttigieg, but ahead of everyone else. All of these candidates (and others such as Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke) have their own assets and liabilities, so I wouldn’t go to the mat if you put them in a different order.

But sometimes, I get the sense from Sanders backers — or from other election analysts who look at the polls a little differently than I do, or from traditional reporters — that they think Sanders’s strength in the polls is being ignored. Empirically, however, Sanders’s position in the polls is not all that strong; it’s consistent with sometimes winning the nomination but usually not.

Candidates in Sanders’s position in the polls have a mediocre track record

According to our polling tracker, nine polling organizations have released national polls of the Democratic primary since O’Rourke declared for the race last month.1 On average, Sanders has 21 percent of the vote in the latest polls from each of these firms.2 His polls in Iowa are a bit worse than that — he’s averaging 18 percent in the last five polls there.3 New Hampshire is a mixed bag, with Sanders at 30 percent in one recent poll but just 16 percent in another one.

How Sanders fares in recent national and early-state polls

Most recent poll from each polling firm in each state since Beto O’Rourke’s entry into the race on March 14*

National
Pollster Dates Sanders
Morning Consult 4/15 – 4/21 24%
Change Research 4/12 – 4/15 20
USC Dornsife/LA Times 3/15 – 4/15 16
Emerson College 4/11 – 4/14 29
HarrisX 4/5 – 4/6 19
Quinnipiac University 3/21 – 3/25 19
McLaughlin & Associates 3/20 – 3/24 17
Fox News 3/17 – 3/20 23
CNN/SSRS 3/14 – 3/17 20
Average 21
Iowa
Pollster Dates Sanders
Gravis Marketing 4/17 – 4/18 19%
Monmouth University 4/4 – 4/9 16
David Binder Research 3/21 – 3/24 17
Emerson College 3/21 – 3/24 24
Public Policy Polling 3/14 – 3/15 15
Average 18
New Hampshire
Pollster Dates Sanders
University of New Hampshire 4/10 – 4/18 30%
Saint Anselm College 4/3 – 4/8 16
South Carolina
Pollster Dates Sanders
Change Research 3/31 – 4/4 14%
Nevada
Pollster Dates Sanders
Emerson College 3/28 – 3/30 23%

* Where the pollster conducted versions of the poll with and without Joe Biden, the version with Biden is used.

Source: Polls

Across the board, those numbers are well down from 2016 — when Sanders got 43 percent of the vote nationally, along with 50 percent in Iowa and 60 percent in New Hampshire.

You could take a glass-half-full view of this for Sanders, however. Sure, he isn’t getting as many votes as last time around, but you wouldn’t expect him to in a field that already includes 17 major candidates, rather than just Sanders and Hillary Clinton. And 20 percent or 30 percent of the vote could still be good enough for first place in the early states.

Historically, though, candidates who are polling at only about 20 percent nationally despite the near-universal name recognition that Sanders enjoys don’t have a great track record. From our research on the history of past primary polls, I found 15 candidates from past nomination processes who, like Sanders, (i) polled at an average of between 15 percent and 25 percent4 in national polls in the first six months of the year before the Iowa caucuses5 and (ii) who had high or very high name recognition.6

Candidates in Sanders’s polling position mostly lost

Candidates with high name recognition and 15 percent to 25 percent of the vote in early national polls

Year Party Candidate Poll Avg. Off. ran for Pres.? Had Run For Pres./ V.P. Before? Won Nomination?
2016 R Jeb Bush 16%
2012 R Mitt Romney 20
2008 D Barack Obama 23
2008 R John McCain 21
2004 D Joe Lieberman 19
2000 R Elizabeth Dole 18
1988 D Jesse Jackson 15
1988 R Bob Dole 22
1984 D John Glenn 24
1980 R Gerald Ford 19
1976 D George Wallace 19
1976 D Hubert Humphrey 15
1976 R Ronald Reagan 22
1972 D Ted Kennedy 24
1972 D Hubert Humphrey 24

Three of these candidates won their nominations; the other 12 lost. That would imply that Sanders has around a 20 percent chance of winning the nomination, about where he is in betting markets.

Of course, you could look at that list and debate which candidates are and aren’t truly similar to Sanders. To be that well-known so early in the primary process, you generally need to either have (i) run for president or vice president before (e.g., Mitt Romney or Joe Lieberman), or (ii) be related to someone else who did (e.g., Jeb Bush), or (iii) be famous for reasons not directly related to politics (e.g., John Glenn), or (iv) be a political celebrity (e.g., Barack Obama). If you look only at the candidates who — like Sanders — had run for president or VP before, 2 out of 10 won their nominations (John McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012), so that’s still 20 percent.

There are other ways to slice and dice the list. Candidates polling like Sanders have done better in recent elections. And the list includes some candidates who never officially declared for president (e.g., Gerald Ford in 1980), so arguably, they should be excluded. If you look only at candidates who at some point officially ran for president, 25 percent (3 of 12 ) won. On the other hand, there’s also an argument for including the candidates who didn’t officially run since some of them were de facto candidates who lost in the “invisible primary” and bowed out before anyone voted to avoid embarrassment.

Achieving a delegate majority could be hard for Sanders

You could also argue that the three winning candidates from the list — Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 — aren’t good comparisons for Sanders, especially from a “The Party Decides” standpoint where preferences among party insiders and activists are leading indicators of voter preferences. Romney, for instance, had the backing of the GOP party establishment as a potential consensus choice, whereas Sanders largely lacks it from Democrats. Obama was a rising star, rather than someone left over from a previous cycle, and gained a lot of momentum among party elites as the 2008 cycle wore on, even if they also liked Clinton. McCain, who ran against the party establishment in 2000 but was someone the party could live with in 2008, is in some ways the most favorable comparison for Sanders.

In many respects, however, Sanders is more similar to Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, George Wallace in 1972 and 1976 or Ron Paul in 2012, candidates who represented important constituencies within their respective parties but who didn’t have an obvious way to unite the rest of the party behind them or to win a delegate majority.

At times, Sanders’s strategists actually seem to be leaning into the strategy of being a factional candidate. The Sanders campaign may have all kinds of reasons to feel aggrieved by how the party establishment has treated it, especially when it reads articles like the one in The New York Times that suggest the establishment is out to get it again! Nonetheless, the campaign hasn’t sought to mend fences when conflicts have arisen this year. Instead, Sanders aides told The Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere that they think they can win the nomination with as little as a 30 percent plurality of delegates. That’s a risky strategy since it would necessarily entail a contested convention, where party insiders would play an outsized role. Nor would Sanders, a 77-year-old white man, reflect the various constituencies of the Democratic Party (and the demographics of the delegates themselves) as well as someone like Harris might.

But isn’t Sanders well-liked by a broad spectrum of Democrats — even if he isn’t necessarily their first choice? That isn’t entirely clear, either. Rather, his favorability ratings with Democratic voters have varied a lot from poll to poll. Here’s a table, for instance, comparing favorability ratings in the three most recent national or early-state polls where I could find them: Morning Consult’s national poll, Monmouth University’s poll of Iowa, and Saint Anselm College’s poll of New Hampshire. (Note to pollsters: Please ask favorability questions of your respondents! It would be helpful to have more than three recent polls to go by.)

Sanders’s favorability ratings are good but not great

Average of favorability ratings among Democratic voters in recent national, Iowa and New Hampshire polls

Morning Consult: U.S. Monmouth: Iowa Saint Anselm: N.H. Average
Candidate Fav. Unfav. Fav. Unfav. Fav. Unfav. Fav. Unfav. Ratio
Buttigieg 38% 9% 45% 9% 42% 6% 42% 8% 5.2
Biden 75 14 78 14 70 18 74 15 4.8
Harris 49 12 61 13 54 10 55 12 4.7
Booker 44 12 54 16 56 11 51 13 3.9
O’Rourke 47 11 60 13 46 17 51 14 3.7
Sanders 75 16 67 26 67 25 70 22 3.1
Klobuchar 28 13 51 10 31 13 37 12 3.1
Castro 28 12 36 9 24 8 29 10 3.0
Inslee 17 7 26 5 10 6 18 6 2.9
Warren 55 19 67 20 58 30 60 23 2.6
Hickenlooper 16 9 32 8 15 10 21 9 2.3
Delaney 14 9 31 12 17 7 21 9 2.2
Gillibrand 32 14 37 17 33 18 34 16 2.1
Gabbard 16 11 29 13 16 13 20 12 1.6

Only candidates whose favorability was asked about in all three polls are included in the table.

Morning Consult poll was conducted April 15-21, Monmouth University poll conducted April 4-9 and Saint Anselm College conducted April 3-8.

Sources: Polls

From what data we do have, however, Sanders’s favorability ranks somewhere in the middle of the Democratic pack. While Sanders does well in the Morning Consult poll, he has relatively high negatives in the polls of Iowa and New Hampshire. On average between the polls, Sanders has a favorable rating of 70 percent and an unfavorable rating of 22 percent, or a ratio of 3.1 to 1. That’s good, but not great. Julian Castro and Amy Klobuchar are much less well-known than Sanders but have about the same favorable-to-unfavorable ratio among voters who know them. And Buttigieg, Biden, Harris, Cory Booker and O’Rourke have better ratios than Sanders.7

So while Sanders currently trails only Biden in first-choice preferences, it’s not clear who would win a one-on-one race between, say, Sanders and Booker, or Sanders and Buttigieg, especially once Booker and Buttigieg became as well-known as Sanders is. Buttigieg in particular is already running close to Sanders in some recent polls (though not others) despite considerably lower name recognition.

Learning the lessons of 2016 — or overlearning them?

But doesn’t all of this sound awfully familiar? The chances of a candidate who polls fairly well are dismissed by the media on the theory that he lacks support from party elites and/or because supposedly he’s a factional candidate who won’t improve his support beyond his 20 percent or 25 percent base?

We made all of those arguments in 2016 about Donald Trump, about which — of course — we were pretty darned wrong.

The parallels between Sanders in 2020 and Trump in 2016 aren’t perfect, by any means. Sanders isn’t exactly a traditional politician, but he’s much closer to being one than a reality-TV star like Trump is. Trump initially polled poorly but surged in the summer of 2015, whereas Sanders started out polling well from the get-go.8 Trump (after his surge) was polling in first place, whereas Sanders is second behind Biden. Perhaps most importantly, Republicans use a winner-take-all system in some of their primaries, especially later on the race, so winning 30 or 35 or 40 percent of the vote could allow Trump to win a preponderance of delegates. The Democratic system is more proportional, so the same vote totals for Sanders might result in a contested convention.

Still, the cases are similar enough that Democrats see the parallels — “a political scenario all too reminiscent of how Mr. Trump himself seized the Republican nomination in 2016” is how the Times article put it. Reporters and people analyzing the campaigns see the parallels too, and that undoubtedly makes them reluctant to downplay Sanders’s chances — all the more so since Sanders himself did better in 2016 than most people (myself included) expected.

But our goal here at FiveThirtyEight is not to make predictions that minimize the amount of crap we get from readers. Instead, it’s to use data and history to zoom out and provide as much perspective as possible. Over the long run, that philosophy has worked pretty well. And over the long run, and across a larger sample — not just the recency bias brought about by 2016 — candidates in Sanders’s position have been fairly big underdogs against their respective fields,9 whether on the basis of polling alone or polling plus other factors. That doesn’t mean Sanders can’t win or won’t win, or that his support is only about name recognition. But in a field this wide open, and so early on in the race, he’s equivalent to a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed in the 68-team NCAA basketball tournament: about as likely (arguably) as anyone else to win it all, but still a clear underdog against the field.



From ABC News:


Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.

Footnotes

  1. All polling data in this article is as of Monday evening.

  2. I’m using the version of the polls that includes Joe Biden, since Biden is likely to run.

  3. Since O’Rourke’s announcement.

  4. Rounded to the nearest whole number.

  5. E.g., from January through June 2011 for the 2012 election cycle.

  6. Scored at least 4 out of 5 on our name recognition scale, which roughly corresponds to being known by 80 percent of the electorate or more.

  7. Unlike on Twitter, a higher ratio is good.

  8. Sanders’s numbers improved slightly after he officially announced his bid, but they’ve since fallen a bit from their peak.

  9. Candidates in Biden’s position — polling at about 30 percent nationally — have also historically been underdogs against their fields, although less so.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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