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Can Clinton Move Left To Get Sanders On Board And Still Win?

As the Democratic primary season came to an end on Tuesday evening, Bernie Sanders met with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton. According to the Sanders campaign, the two candidates discussed a variety of issues for which Sanders has fought hard during the election, including raising the minimum wage, campaign finance reform, universal health care and college affordability. Sanders wants to make sure that Clinton represents his platform. But just how much can Clinton concede to Sanders and his left-wing base without hurting her chances among more moderate voters in the general election? On most of these issues, polls show, Clinton has some room to shimmy to the left, but her current position is safer electorally.

Let’s take a look issue by issue.

The Minimum Wage

Raising the minimum wage is broadly popular. State minimum wage increases are frequently approved by voters even in red states. Indeed, 71 percent of Americans would favor raising the federal minimum wage from its current level, $7.25 an hour, according to a January Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. An April YouGov survey found that 66 percent want it upped to $10.10 an hour.

But both candidates want it higher than that. Clinton’s wants the federal wage to be $12, and supports individual state and city efforts to raise it to $15. Sanders wants the minimum to be $15 everywhere. Clinton’s proposal polls better.

An Associated Press-NORC survey from January pegged support for a $12 minimum wage at 52 percent, while YouGov put it at 59 percent in April. In other words, Clinton probably doesn’t lose votes talking about it. But Sanders’s proposal is not the choice of a majority of Americans. A $15 minimum wage was supported by 48 percent in the YouGov survey and just 34 percent in the Associated Press-NORC poll.

Campaign Finance Reform

This has been one of Sanders’s biggest issues, and Americans agree with him that there is too much money in politics. More than three-quarters said there should be limits on campaign spending, according to an August Pew Research Center survey. Just 18 percent of Americans agreed with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling — which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on political causes — according to a Bloomberg poll from September. Moreover, 75 percent think that outside groups should have to reveal their donors, according to a May 2015 CBS News/New York Times survey.

For the most part, Clinton and Sanders agree on those points. Sanders, though, wants to go a step further than Clinton and move toward the public funding of congressional elections, alongside the existing public finance system for presidential campaigns. Additionally, he would lower the threshold for public funding, making the system more attractive to candidates, and would require broadcasters to lower advertising rates for publicly funded campaigns. But the idea of using public funds does not have a lot of popular support (probably because it involves spending taxpayer money).

A November Associated Press-NORC poll found that only 27 percent of Americans support public financing of campaigns, like the current presidential system1. (John McCain was the last major-party nominee to use it.) A July 2015 Monmouth University poll discovered that 17 percent of Americans want public funding compared to 33 percent who want private funding and 44 percent who want a combination of the two. It’s this last position, the most popular, that Clinton has already backed.

Universal Healthcare

Sanders wants a Medicare-for-all system, a single-payer plan under which the government pays everyone’s health bills, as it does now for older Americans. Clinton basically wants to strengthen Obamacare. On this issue, the polling is a little more ambiguous. Sanders’s plan is popular. In a May 2016 Gallup survey, 58 percent said they wanted to get rid of Obamacare and replace it with a “federally funded healthcare program providing insurance for all Americans.” So Sanders is on solid ground with regards to public opinion.

But there are reasons to think a candidate would have trouble selling the Medicare-for-all position. First, Americans are less likely to support it when reminded of the potential cost. According to a February Associated Press-GfK poll, 39 percent of supporters of single-payer healthcare would oppose it if their taxes went up or if they needed to give up their employer coverage. Additionally, 47 percent of supporters would switch positions if there were longer wait times in non-emergency situations; 51 percent would flip if it took longer for “new drugs and treatments to become available.” Opponents of a single-payer plan would certainly make these arguments, just as opponents of Obamacare did in successfully bringing down support for the law.

Indeed, Obamacare isn’t widely popular. Only 42 percent favor it in the Huffington Post/ aggregate of polls. Yet, the arguments against it are already baked in. Moreover, Americans support many of the components of the Affordable Care Act, even as they oppose the law overall.

College Affordability

Sanders wants public colleges (both four-year and community colleges) to be free for every student regardless of income. Clinton wants “debt free” four-year college (which would mean that wealthier students, who borrow less, would have to pay tuition) and free community college. The latter plan is very similar to President Obama’s proposal for free community college.

The positions on which Clinton and Sanders share common ground seem to be popular. In an August YouGov survey, 62 percent of Americans agreed with the idea of a debt-free college experience. Polling on free community college is more split and the results seem to depend on question wording, but — no matter how you ask — more people favor the proposal than oppose it. A YouGov poll from January 2015 found that 68 percent of Americans favored free community college for students who maintained a C+ average and are “making progress towards a degree.”

Sanders’s free four-year college plan, by contrast, splits the country down the middle. According to an August YouGov poll, support for free public college stood at 46 percent. In April, a Gallup survey found 47 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed. This doesn’t mean that Clinton would necessary cost herself votes by embracing Sanders’s plan, but her current position is safer politically.

Clinton and Sanders are both progressive Democrats. They don’t differ all that much on the issues. If Clinton were to take up Sanders’s more left-leaning positions, it probably wouldn’t hurt her campaign all that much. It would, however, be riskier than where she currently stands.


  1. The same poll found that only 19 percent favored government matching of small donations, which both Clinton and Sanders have supported.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.