Judging by media coverage and the comments of party luminaries, you might think Democrats are bitterly polarized over Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid. Last month, Hillary Clinton declared that “nobody likes” the Vermont senator. Last week, James Carville, who ran Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, said he was “scared to death” of the Sanders campaign, which he likened to “a cult.” Since the beginning of the year, news organization after news organization has speculated that Sanders’s success may set off a Democratic “civil war.”
But polls of Democratic voters show nothing of the sort. Among ordinary Democrats, Sanders is strikingly popular, even with voters who favor his rivals. He sparks less opposition—in some cases far less—than his major competitors. On paper, he appears well positioned to unify the party should he win its presidential nomination.
So why all the talk of civil war? Because Sanders is far more divisive among Democratic elites—who prize institutional loyalty and ideological moderation—than Democratic voters. The danger is that by projecting their own anxieties onto rank-and-file Democrats, party insiders are exaggerating the risk of a schism if Sanders wins the nomination, and overlooking the greater risk that the party could fracture if they engineer his defeat.
Strange as it sounds, Sanders may be the least polarizing candidate in the presidential field, at least according to surveys of ordinary Democrats. A Monmouth University poll last week found not only that Sanders’s favorability rating among Democrats nationally—71 percent—was higher than his five top rivals’, but also that his unfavorability rating—19 percent—was tied for second lowest. Sanders’s net favorability rating was six points higher than Elizabeth Warren’s, 16 points higher than Joe Biden’s, 18 points higher than Pete Buttigieg’s, 23 points higher than Amy Klobuchar’s, and a whopping 40 points higher than that of Michael Bloomberg, whom more than a third of Democratic voters viewed unfavorably. (By contrast, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn—whom Sanders’s critics often cite as a cautionary tale—enjoyed the support of only 56 percent of his own party members in the months leading up to December’s British election.)
A Quinnipiac poll earlier this month found similarly favorable results for Sanders. Among Democrats nationally, only Warren enjoyed higher net favorability ratings; on that measure, Sanders outpaced Biden, Buttigieg, and Bloomberg. (The pollsters didn’t ask about Klobuchar.) And according to a recent USA Today/IPSOS survey, Sanders is the candidate who Democrats say best shares their values.
Although political handicappers sometimes presume that centrist Democrats are hostile to Sanders, the Quinnipiac poll suggests that Sanders enjoys widespread affection even outside his ideological lane. Among self-described moderate or conservative Democrats, Sanders boasts a net favorability rating of 43 points—far higher than Biden or Bloomberg fares among the “very liberal” Democrats who compose Sanders’s ideological base. Ninety-eight percent of Warren supporters, 97 percent of Buttigieg supporters and 92 percent of Biden supporters say they would back Sanders against Donald Trump. Only among Bloomberg supporters does that number dip to 83 percent. Overall, Sanders voters are significantly more likely to say that they won’t back one of his rivals in the general election than the other way around. Sanders’s critics within the party may resent his supporters for threatening to stay home in November. But most Democratic voters, including most centrist ones, have little problem with Sanders himself.
None of this means Sanders would necessarily beat Trump. His ultra-progressive policies and socialist self-identification could energize Trump’s base and alienate the independents and Republican moderates who backed Democratic candidates in 2018. But the evidence does suggest that, if Democratic elites let him, he’s capable of unifying his party’s rank and file behind his campaign. He’s far better positioned than Trump was at this point in 2016, when his net favorability rating among Republicans was almost 20 points lower than Sanders’s is among Democrats today.
But many Democratic insiders remain deeply skeptical. Sanders’s support among party elites dramatically lags his support among Democratic voters. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Endorsement Tracker, which awards candidates points when party officials endorse them, Sanders ranks fourth in endorsement points, behind Bloomberg and Warren and far behind Biden. While ordinary voters don’t exhibit much hostility toward Sanders, party leaders do. When Seth Masket of the University of Denver interviewed Democratic activists in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and Washington, D.C., this month, he found that almost two-thirds said they feared a Sanders nomination. The only candidate who elicited a more negative response was Tulsi Gabbard, the representative from Hawaii who some Democrats fear will run a spoiler third-party campaign against the eventual nominee.
This animosity seeps into the mainstream media, where Democratic strategists often express their opinions, and inform the opinions of journalists who cover the presidential race. According to an In These Times study of MSNBC’s prime-time coverage, in August and September of last year, Sanders received less coverage than Biden and Warren, and the coverage he did receive was more negative. “The media keep falling in love,” the Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan noted last week, “with anybody but Bernie Sanders.”
Democratic insiders tend to be institutionalists. They are more likely than ordinary voters to care about the fact that Sanders hasn’t always been a registered Democrat, that he often criticizes party officials, and that he didn’t do more to help Clinton in 2016. Masket told me that many of the party bigwigs he interviewed resented Sanders for “being a spoiler for 2016” by supposedly undermining Clinton, and for “sticking his finger in the eye of the Democratic establishment.”
The other reason Democratic insiders disproportionately oppose Sanders is that party elites and the journalists with whom they interact tend to distrust radicals of any stripe. “A quarter-century covering national politics has convinced me that the more pervasive force shaping coverage of Washington and elections is what might be thought of as centrist bias, flowing from reporters and sources alike,” the former Politico editor John Harris recently observed. “This bias is marked by an instinctual suspicion of anything suggesting ideological zealotry, an admiration for difference-splitting.” Pundits may not always express this fear of extremism as openly as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews did earlier this month, when his discussion of Sanders’s candidacy morphed into a broader indictment of socialism and of unspecified people who, Matthews said, would have cheered on “executions in Central Park” had “the Reds had won the Cold War.” But the centrist bias that Harris describes skews elite perceptions of public opinion. It keeps party and media insiders from recognizing that Bloomberg, a former Republican now running as a centrist, is a far more divisive figure among ordinary Democrats than the putatively radical Sanders.
The greatest danger to Democratic unity is that, once primary voting is done, Sanders receives only a plurality of delegates—an outcome that the forecasters at FiveThirtyEight view as a strong possibility—yet party elites try to steer the nomination to Bloomberg or another moderate. They could do so through the roughly 770 superdelegates, politicians and party officials who, although now barred from voting on the first ballot at the convention, could vote on the second ballot if no candidate receives an initial majority. According to the Monmouth poll, Bloomberg enjoys a net favorability rating among Democrats of only 14 points. If he polarizes Democrats now, imagine how polarizing he’ll be if he wins the nomination because party insiders subvert the will of Democratic voters and pick him over Sanders.
Across the ideological spectrum, ordinary Democrats like Bernie Sanders. That doesn’t mean he’ll beat Donald Trump. But his nomination won’t tear the party apart. Denying him the nomination just might.