The Data Shows Bernie Sanders Is the Most Electable Candidate Against Trump

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The Data Shows Bernie Sanders Is the Most Electable Candidate Against Trump

Forget the nuances of where Democratic presidential nominees fall on massive issues like health care, global climate change or foreign affairs. The number one thing on voters’ minds this eternal primary season is trying to guess who is most likely to evict our current president from the White House in the fall. In New Hampshire exit polls, 63% of voters prioritized “Can beat Donald Trump” over “Agrees with you on the major issues.” Ironically, supporters of all of the six major candidates on the ballot chose electability over issues except those supporting the man who the data shows is most electable in the general: Bernie Sanders.

But, you’ve been told by New York Magazine, “Running Bernie Sanders against Trump would be an act of insanity. His agenda makes him the definition of unelectable, a Washington Post headline said. James Carville just said people who believe Sanders can win in November are as stupid as climate change deniers, and MSNBC’s Donny Deutsch is so panicked about Sanders being the potential nominee that Joe Scarborough had to try to calm him down. “Donny, get a paper bag, and breathe into it deeply,” he said. It’s advice the entire Democratic pundit class should take to heart.

Most people seem to be basing “electability” on gut feeling and fear, and that’s understandable. We hear narratives over and over in the media, and we internalize them. We don’t trust polls, especially after polls seemed to fail us so badly in 2016 (when in reality we trusted our guts that margins of error couldn’t conceivably fall towards a candidate who bragged about his sexual assaults). So for a moment, let’s strip away gut feeling and look at the data.

National Polling

Five major national polls were released in the past week showing match-ups between the six remaining major candidates remaining and Trump (except for Warren, who was inconceivably left off the Emerson and NBC/WSJ polls). Sanders was the only candidate beating Trump in all five, but Joe Biden can still boast the highest overall margin of victory:

Perfomance against Trump in ABC/WaPo, Emerson, NPR/PBS/Marist, NBC/WSJ, CBS/YouGov polls:
Bernie Sanders: +6, +2, +3, +4, +3 (+3.6)
Joe Biden: +7, -4, +6, +8, +2 (+3.8)
Michael Bloomberg: +5, -2, +2, +4, -3 (+2.2)
Elizabeth Warren: +1, +1, +1 (+1)
Pete Buttigieg: +3, -2, +2, +4, 0 (+1.4)
Amy Klobuchar: +2, -2, +2, +3, -1 (+0.8)

The good news for Democrats is that the top six candidates in nationwide primary polling all poll ahead of Trump in the popular vote, but not equally. Buttigieg has been trying to hammer home the point that he’s more electable in the general than the two wings of his party, but that seems to based more on wishful thinking than any actual polling. Biden, Sanders and Bloomberg are the only ones who can believably make that argument, but as we saw in 2016, presidential elections are not won on the national level, so let’s take this state-by-state.

The Electoral Map:

270towin.com provides a handy tool to look at what it’ll take to win in November. The five most contested states right now are Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona and Wisconsin. Others in play include Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and New Hampshire (leaning blue) and Ohio, Georgia and Iowa (leaning red)—and maybe states like Texas and New Mexico if you’re particularly optimistic or pessimistic.

The good news for Democrats is that if they hang onto all of their blue-leaning states, they only need to win any two of the five toss-ups (or just Florida) to take back the White House. Here are the results from the latest major polls from each state.

Blue-Leaning States:

Michigan (16 electoral votes)
Quinnipiac – Feb. 20
Bernie Sanders: +7
Joe Biden: +4
Elizabeth Warren: +3
Pete Buttigieg: +6
Amy Klobuchar: +3

Virginia (13)
Roanoke College – Feb. 24
Bernie Sanders: +9
Joe Biden: +8
Michael Bloomberg: +6
Elizabeth Warren: +7
Pete Buttigieg: +7
Amy Klobuchar: +7

Minnesota (10)
Star Tribune/Mason-Dixon – Oct. 17
Bernie Sanders: +9
Joe Biden: +12
Elizabeth Warren: +11
Amy Klobuchar: +17

Nevada (6)
Fox News – Jan. 9
Bernie Sanders: +5
Joe Biden: +8
Elizabeth Warren: +1
Pete Buttigieg: +1

New Mexico (5)
Emerson – Jan. 7
Bernie Sanders: +18
Joe Biden: +8
Elizabeth Warren: +8
Pete Buttigieg: +10

New Hampshire (4)
NBC/Marist – Jan. 26
Bernie Sanders: +8
Joe Biden: +8
Elizabeth Warren: +4
Pete Buttigieg: +10

Red-Leaning States:

Texas (38 electoral votes)
UT/Texas Tribune – Feb. 14
Bernie Sanders: -2
Joe Biden: -5
Michael Bloomberg: -4
Elizabeth Warren: -3
Pete Buttigieg: -5
Amy Klobuchar: -5

Ohio (18)
Emerson – Oct. 2
Bernie Sanders: +6
Joe Biden: +6
Elizabeth Warren: +4

Georgia (16)
Mason-Dixon – Jan. 9
Bernie Sanders: -10
Joe Biden: -7
Elizabeth Warren: -14
Pete Buttigieg: -9

Iowa (6)
NYT/Sienna – Jan. 25
Bernie Sanders: -6
Joe Biden: -2
Michael Bloomberg: -8
Elizabeth Warren: -5
Pete Buttigieg: -1

The Toss-Ups:

Florida (29)
UNF – Feb. 20
Bernie Sanders: tie
Joe Biden: +1
Michael Bloomberg: +6
Elizabeth Warren: tie
Pete Buttigieg: -4
Amy Klobuchar: -4

Pennsylvania (20)
U. of Wisconsin/State Journal – Feb. 23
Bernie Sanders: +2
Joe Biden: +1
Elizabeth Warren: tie
Pete Buttigieg: tie
Amy Klobuchar: tie

North Carolina (15)
Fox News – Nov. 14
Bernie Sanders: +1
Joe Biden: +2
Elizabeth Warren: -2
Pete Buttigieg: -4

Arizona (11)
PPD – Jan. 8
Bernie Sanders: -1
Joe Biden: Tie
Elizabeth Warren: -2
Pete Buttigieg: -3

Wisconsin (10)
U. of Wisconsin/State Journal – Feb. 23
Bernie Sanders: +2
Joe Biden: +2
Elizabeth Warren: +2
Pete Buttigieg: -2
Amy Klobuchar: +1

The margins of error on state polling are fairly high, as is evident in the major swings between the last four Wisconsin polls. But you can see a picture taking shape, and it’s not the one that Buttigieg and Klobuchar are pushing. There’s no way to look at polling and conclude that Buttigieg, Warren or Klobuchar have an electability argument to make. In fact, the nightmares that Buttigieg is presenting—that the Democrats either nominate someone especially centrist or far to the left—seem to be the two most successful paths to the nomination.

Wasted Votes

Some of the most telling data comes from states whose outcomes are all but predetermined. If you look at this week’s AL Daily News/Mason-Dixon poll of deep red state Alabama, Bloomberg (-14), Biden (-20) and Buttigieg (-17) do much better than Sanders (-23), but those votes don’t actually accomplish anything. The same is true in Tennessee: Biden (-16), Bloomberg (-15), Buttigieg (-17) and Sanders (-20). There’s no doubt that Biden and Bloomberg will garner more disaffected Republicans than Sanders. But there just aren’t that many disaffected Republicans. So when you look at the national polling numbers, red state voters will juice their numbers. But what about deep blue states?

The latest poll from California (CNN, Dec. 10), actually shows Biden with the advantage here as well (+20), compared to Sanders (+16) and Buttigieg (+16). Again, those margins are wasted.

Voter Enthusiasm

Let’s look at Democratic primary polling and results in toss-up states to see what kind of base the candidates are starting out with in key states:

Michigan (UW, Feb. 23): Sanders 25, Biden 16, Bloomberg 13, Warren 13, Buttigieg 11, Klobuchar 8

Florida (St. Pete, Feb. 20): Bloomberg 32, Biden 27, Sanders 11, Buttigieg 8, Klobuchar 7, Warren 5

Pennsylvania (UW, Feb. 23): Sanders 25, Biden 20, Bloomberg 19, Buttigieg 12, Warren 9, Klobuchar 5

North Carolina (UMass Lowell, Feb. 20): Sanders 23, Bloomberg 19, Biden 16, Warren 13, Buttigieg 10, Klobuchar 7

Wisconsin (UW, Feb. 23): Sanders 30, Biden 13, Bloomberg 13, Warren 12, Buttigieg 12, Klobuchar 9, Steyer, Gabbard

Texas (UMass Lowell, Feb. 20): Sanders 23, Biden 20, Warren 14, Bloomberg 18, Buttigieg 7, Klobuchar 9, Gabbard 4

Arizona (OH Predictive, Nov. 9): Biden 27, Warren 18, Sanders 18, Buttigieg 9, Klobuchar 2

The only state in which Sanders has a clear disadvantage is Florida, with its second-highest median age in the nation and highest percentage of senior citizens. Arizona doesn’t have any recent polling data, and I’d be surprised if Biden still holds an advantage there.

The Democratic Paths to Victory:

Bloomberg
Not much head-to-head polling has been done since Bloomberg spent $300 million inserting himself into the race. But that war chest is the biggest argument for his electability, along with his apparent advantage in Florida. Losing Florida and its 29 electoral votes would be all but game over for Trump. But that’s probably a big reason why the President officially changed his residency to the Sunshine State. Any hope I had for Florida’s felons altering the electoral makeup enough to turn it blue disappeared upon learning that more Republicans have registered in the last year than Democrats. The Florida poll was also prior to Bloomberg’s disastrous debate. And while he’s bound to improve his performances on the debate stage, he can’t change the record that left him vulnerable to attacks on all sides. As Elizabeth Warren so brilliantly put it, “This is also a question about electability. We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who-knows-how-many nondisclosure agreements, and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against.”

Biden
Biden has made electability the entire focus of his campaign, and the data actually backs him up to a degree. He still has the biggest lead over Trump nationally by a very narrow margin, and while some of that gets wasted in deep red states, his strength in the Midwest can’t be overlooked. But his inability to inspire actual voters so far is a pretty big argument against his electability. And many of these polls are registered voters, but he’s shown no ability to generate any kind of excitement at rallies, on the debate stage or among individual donors. If he can turn his campaign around, there’s an argument that he’s the safest choice. But he’s got a long way to go to get to that point.

Sanders
Sanders’ head-to-head numbers against Trump closely mirror Biden’s in most states and beat Buttigieg’s nearly everywhere. But most pundits can’t believe those numbers because of that scary word, socialist. Nearly six in 10 Americans have an unfavorable opinion of socialism, according to an NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll. But that same poll has Sanders beating Trump by three points. And that’s not because Sanders has been hiding his democratic socialist label, but because voters understand President Sanders isn’t going to turn us into Soviet Russia. He’s one of the most well-known and well-vetted candidates in the field, and his message has been consistent since he arrived on the national stage. His positions on fracking and Medicare For All might hurt more than they help in the general election, but they’re also part of a consistency that makes him the most likable candidate in the field with 40% of Americans saying they admire him (compared to 30% for Biden, 30% for Warren, 30% for Buttigieg and 29% for Bloomberg). He’s even the most liked by suburban women, a demographic who helped win back the House in 2018.

But to really look at electability, you need to consider whose votes are up for grabs: disaffected Republicans, independents and inconsistent voters (mostly the youth vote). Disaffected Republicans are certainly more likely to peel away from Trump if Bloomberg or Biden is the candidate, but there just aren’t that many of those mythical creatures in this country. I know it’s hard for Democrats to fathom, but Trump is hugely popular among his party (93% approval rating among Republicans). That leaves independents, who make up a plurality of Americans and voter turnout.

Sanders holds an 18-point advantage over Trump among independents, best in the field by four percentage points.

But the biggest factor in November is going to be voter turnout. Relying on youth voters is a little bit like relying on Florida, but there’s no question that Bernie Sanders has energized Millennial and Gen Z voters in a way that none of the other candidates have. In New Hampshire, Sanders won 47% of voters aged 18-29, and that number skyrocketed in Nevada where he won over 60% of voters under 45. Turnout is bound to be huge in the general election no matter who is on the ballot, but the younger the average voter age is on Nov. 3, the more likely Trump will be a one-term president. A Sanders victory over Donald Trump is not a sure thing. But it’s the best chance that Democrats have to end their communal nightmare.

It’s a mistake to simply look at the American electorate as people who vote on a sliding scale from conservative to liberal. The key Midwestern states that broke for Trump in 2016 did so for a number of reasons—pushing back against the status quo, mistrust of the establishment, even the oft-overlooked factor of novelty. The data points to Bernie Sanders winning those states back, along with places like Arizona, North Carolina and potentially even Texas. If beating Donald Trump is the priority, it might be time to put that Bernie sign in your yard.

This story has been updated with Feb. 24 Virginia polling data.

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