But Bernie polls so well against Trump

Your must-read from yesterday.  Political Scientists, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, with some important and compelling research in Vox suggesting that Bernie’s strength in polling head-to-head match-ups is largely a mirage:

So which candidate is most likely to beat Trump? Decades of evidence from academic studies suggests that more moderate nominees tend to perform better in general elections than more ideologically extreme nominees. For example, Democratic US House candidates who supported Medicare-for-all fared approximately 2.2 percentage points worse in the 2018 midterms than candidates in similar districts who did not.

But early polling testing how Democratic nominees would fare against Trump suggests a different conclusion: Bernie Sanders, the most left-wing candidate in the Democratic primary, polls as well against Trump as his more moderate competitors in surveys. Democratic voters have appeared to take these polls to heart, as a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that Democrats believe Sanders has the best chance of beating Trump.

Why does Sanders look similarly electable to leading moderates in polls against Trump?We fielded a 40,000-person survey in early 2020 that helps us look into this question with more precision…

Our data (laid out in an academic working paper here) also found what polls show: that Sanders is similarly electable to more moderate candidates. But, on closer inspection, it shows that this finding relies on some remarkable assumptions about youth turnout that past elections suggest are questionable. 

We found that nominating Sanders would drive many Americans who would otherwise vote for a moderate Democrat to vote for Trump, especially otherwise Trump-skeptical Republicans.  [emphases mine]

Republicans are more likely to say they would vote for Trump if Sanders is nominated: Approximately 2 percent of Republicans choose Trump over Sanders but desert Trump when we pit him against a more moderate Democrat like Buttigieg, Biden, or Bloomberg.

Democrats and independents are also slightly more likely to say they would vote for Trump if Sanders is nominated. Swing voters may be rare — but their choices between candidates often determine elections, and many appear to favor Trump over Sanders but not over other Democrats…

Despite losing these voters to Trump, Sanders appears in our survey data to be similarly electable to the moderates, at least at first blush. Why? Mainly because 11 percent of left-leaning young people say they are undecided, would support a third-party candidate, or, most often, just would not vote if a moderate were nominated — but say they would turn out and vote for Sanders if he were nominated…

But for Sanders to do as well as a moderate Democrat against Trump in November by stimulating youth turnout, his nomination would need to boost turnout of young left-leaning voters enormously — according to our data, one in six left-leaning young people who otherwise wouldn’t vote would need to turn out because Sanders was nominated. There are good reasons to doubt that Sanders’s nomination would produce a youth turnout surge this large…

However, the “Bernie or bust” phenomenon appears almost entirely limited to left-leaning young people, who are usually a small share of the overall electorate. This stands in contrast to many theories of Sanders’s electoral appeal: For example, whites without a college degree — a demographic some speculate Sanders could win over — are actually more likely to say they will vote for Trump against Sanders than against the other Democrats. The same is true of the rest of the electorate, except left-leaning young people…

The case that Bernie Sanders is just as electable as the more moderate candidates thus appears to rest on a leap of faith: that youth voter turnout would surge in the general election by double digits if and only if Bernie Sanders is nominated, compensating for the voters his nomination pushes to Trump among the rest of the electorate.

There are reasons to doubt a Sanders-driven youth turnout surge of this size would materialize. First, people who promise in surveys they will vote often don’t, meaning the turnout estimates that Sanders’s electability case rests upon are probably extremely inaccurate. Second, such a turnout surge is large in comparison to other effects on turnout.

And, in conclusion:

Early polls are never a surefire guide to what will happen in an election months later. But Democrats should not be very reassured by early polls that find Sanders faring as well against Trump as the more moderate candidates: These numbers may only look decent for Sanders because they assume he will inspire a youth turnout miracle. Our survey data reveals voters of all parties moving to Trump if Sanders is nominated, a liability papered over by young voters who claim they would be inspired to vote by Sanders alone.

The gamble Democrats supporting Sanders based on his early polls against Trump must be ready to make is that, despite the evidenceto the contrary, the lowest-participating segment of the electorate will turn out at remarkably high rates because Sanders is nominated.

Does this mean Sanders will likely lose to Trump?  No.  Does this mean that Sanders is very likely the riskiest candidate to put up against Trump, when literally, the rule of law is at stake?  Hell, yeah.  And it’s sure not worth it for a series of policy proposals that have no chance of even getting through a Democratically-controlled Senate.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to But Bernie polls so well against Trump

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    When people panic as they may well do if and when the corona virus takes off in the U.S., they turn to the tried and true to fix things. That clearly points to Uncle Joe Biden as the most likely candidate to win the Democratic nomination and then the general election.

    The best laid plans of mice and men…….
    Those plans may well depend on the rate of increase in corona affected Americans before the March 3 primaries.

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