A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll shows that Sen. Bernie Sanders would defeat each of the other Democratic presidential candidates in a one-on-one race — in many instances by double-digit margins.
Sanders won the most votes in Iowa and New Hampshire and now leads in national surveys. Yet mainstream Democrats seem to think the democratic socialist from Vermont is a weak frontrunner who would be easily dispatched if only the rest of the party stopped dividing its vote among several candidates and consolidated around a single, more moderate alternative.
The Yahoo News/YouGov poll suggests they may be wrong.
In a series of hypothetical head-to-head matchups, Sanders ran ahead of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg by 15 points (53 percent to 38 percent); ahead of former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg by 17 points (54 percent to 37 percent); and ahead of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar by 21 points (54 percent to 33 percent). Sanders’s closest competitors were former Vice President Joe Biden, who trailed him by 4 points (48 percent to 44 percent) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who trailed him by 2 (44 percent to 42 percent).
Of course, the Democratic primary isn’t a two-way race; eight candidates are still competing for the nomination and divvying up the vote in complex ways. But the upcoming primaries are likely to winnow the field, and the poll shows that if and when only two candidates are left standing, more Democrats would side with Sanders than with anyone else — no matter who his last remaining rival is.
This defies conventional wisdom about the Democratic contest, which has long held that Sanders is a factional candidate with a low ceiling of support and that most Democratic primary voters would prefer a more moderate nominee. In fact, the three moderates who have been rising lately in the polls — Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Klobuchar — performed the worst in the Yahoo News/YouGov survey.
Bloomberg, who has been sitting out the early primaries and caucuses while advertising heavily in the bigger states set to vote on Super Tuesday (March 3), was by far the weakest one-on-one performer, losing to each of his other top Democratic rivals by significant margins as well: Warren by 14 points, Biden by 13 points, Buttigieg by 7 points and Klobuchar by 5 points. If Bloomberg’s plan is to wait in the wings for whoever survives the early states — and then to spend his one remaining rival into oblivion with his $60 billion fortune — he may be in for a shock.
Despite early successes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg and Klobuchar wouldn’t fare much better in a one-on-one contest. Bloomberg is the only candidate Buttigieg would beat; otherwise, he would lose to Biden by 3 points, Klobuchar by 12 points and Warren by 14 points. Klobuchar would edge out Biden by 1 point, but Warren would clobber her by 19.
Besides Sanders, Warren would be the hardiest one-on-one performer; the only other candidate who comes within 10 percentage points of her is Biden, who trails her by 8. Given Warren’s ideological overlap with Sanders — they are the most progressive candidates in the race — this further implies that Democratic primary voters are not necessarily in the market for moderation.
The poll isn’t all good news for Sanders, however. Many progressives seem to believe the Vermont senator would be a shoo-in to defeat Donald Trump if only the Democratic establishment would get out of his way and award him the party’s presidential nomination.
Yet there may be trouble ahead. Sixty-two percent of Americans — and a near-identical 61 percent of independents — say that Sanders is a “socialist.” Only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) have a favorable view of socialism, while almost half (47 percent) have an unfavorable view.
Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist and frames his agenda — Medicare for All, free public college, a Green New Deal — as a continuation of FDR-style liberalism.
But voters don’t necessarily grasp the distinction between socialism and democratic socialism. When asked whether the two ideologies are the same or different, 38 percent of Americans said “the same” and 38 percent said “different.” Another 24 percent said they weren’t sure.
Regardless, only 35 percent of Americans said they would even consider voting in a general election for a candidate who called himself or herself a “democratic socialist.” Forty-six percent said no, while another 18 percent said they weren’t sure. Among independents, those numbers were even less favorable to Sanders: 31 percent yes, 47 percent no and 22 percent not sure. Meanwhile, most Americans (52 percent) said only “some” or “a few” of their peers would consider voting for a democratic socialist.
In the poll, no other candidate characteristic seemed to have such a strong negative effect on electability. Sixty percent of Americans said they would consider voting for a gay candidate (like Buttigieg). Sixty-seven percent said they would consider voting for a billionaire (like Bloomberg and Tom Steyer and, taking him at his own word, Trump). Fifty-four percent said they would consider voting for a candidate with no prior experience in national government (like Buttigieg, Bloomberg and Steyer). Forty-seven percent said they would consider voting for a candidate over 75 years old (like Sanders, Biden and Bloomberg). Sixty-four percent said they would consider voting for a candidate under 40 years old (like Buttigieg). Eighty-three percent said they would consider voting for a woman (like Warren and Klobuchar). Eighty-four percent said they would consider voting for a Jewish candidate (like Sanders and Bloomberg). And 44 percent said they would vote for a Muslim candidate (there isn’t one this year) — nearly 10 points more than the number who said they would vote for a democratic socialist.
Right now, Sanders tends to beat Trump in head-to-head matchups, performing nearly as well as more moderate Democrats such as Biden and Bloomberg. So if Sanders does win the Democratic nomination, it remains to be seen whether Trump and his Republican allies can defeat him by capitalizing on Americans’ ambivalence toward democratic socialism. They will certainly try.
In the meantime, the Yahoo News/YouGov poll highlights a dilemma at the heart of the Democratic primary. When it comes to the fight for the nomination, Sanders seems to be in the strongest position. But he could head into the general election in November with a bigger weakness than any of his rivals.
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