Asked for their views on the personal characteristics of several Democratic presidential contenders and of President Donald Trump, voters consistently gave Sanders the highest marks for his values and empathy.
Trump and his allies have long said they believe the president could easily defeat Sanders if he faces off against the Vermont senator in November. Some of Sanders’ Democratic rivals have suggested a more centrist candidate might have a better chance at taking on Trump.
But if character is on the ballot in November, the USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, conducted Wednesday through Thursday, shows Sanders has a clear advantage over the incumbent president. In the survey, 40% of voters said they admired Sanders’ character, well above the 26% who said they admired Trump.
Thirty-one percent of voters said they admired former Vice President Joe Biden, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg each got 30%. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg was not far behind with 29% of voters who said they admired him.
Familiarity was a factor for some voters. Close to 40% of voters didn’t have an opinion on Buttigieg and Bloomberg’s character while closer to 30% didn’t have a view for Biden, Sanders, and Warren.
‘Nobody likes him’?
Sanders’ popularity is on the rise after he edged Buttigieg in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary Tuesday. Some members of the party fear his progressive agenda would be a deal-breaker for swing voters wary of big government.
The self-described democratic socialist has championed policies such as “Medicare for All,” free public college, taxing the wealthiest Americans and corporations, as well as tackling climate change and income inequality.
Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman said Sanders’ consistent messaging may help him on some measures related to trust.
“Whether you like him or not, voters know where Bernie Sanders stands,” Feldman said. “He talks about systemic problems in a way that is really simple to understand. He doesn’t move off that messaging.”
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Sanders’ rivals have long argued the Vermont senator has promoted an agenda that doesn’t reflect the larger population. In a recent documentary former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who defeated Sanders in a bitter 2016 primary to become the Democratic nominee, described him as a “career politician” who had no support.
“Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done,” she reportedly said in the film.
However, the USA TODAY/Ipsos poll found 39% of voters said Sanders “shares my values,” compared to 30% each for Buttigieg and Biden, 31% for Warren, 28% for Bloomberg and 31% for Trump.
However, 52% of voters said Trump did not share their values, while only 36% said Sanders did not.
Among voters who identified as Democrats, 64% said Sanders shared their values compared to 55% for Warren, 53% for Biden, 50% for Buttigieg and 46% for Bloomberg.
The online poll of roughly 1,005 adults, conducted Feb. 12-13, has a credibility interval, akin to a margin of error, of plus or minus 3.5 points. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who made an impressive showing in New Hampshire where she placed third behind Sanders and Buttigieg, was not included in the survey.
Will Americans vote on likability?
As Democrats grapple with the party’s direction and whether to choose a more progressive or moderate candidate to take on Trump, it’s far from clear how much voters would be willing to set aside differences on policy issues to back a candidate who connects with them in other ways.
Decades of research shows likability does play a factor in American elections but the extent of the impact is hard to gauge. According to a report by The Barbara Lee Family Foundation, 84% of men and 90% of women said liking a candidate is important in their decision to vote.
Eric Schickler, co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at U.C. Berkeley, said personal appeal is more likely to matter in a primary election than in the general election, given America’s deep partisan divide.
In the USA TODAY/Ipsos survey, 58% of voters who identified as Republicans said they admired Trump’s character while 14% said they admired Sanders. Among Democrats, Sanders was admired by 65% of voters, 10 points more than his closest competitors Biden and Warren, who notched 54% and 53%, respectively.
Likability relates to more than whether voters want to grab a beer with a candidate, political analysts said. The term evokes feelings of trust.
“For Bernie, he’s always had this outsider appeal,” Schickler said. “He’s been around so long with the same basic message and I think that’s probably helping him in the primary.”
That outsider appeal is what helped Trump emerge from a deep field of Republican candidates, Feldman said. Like Trump, Sanders connects with voters who feel he understands their struggles and shares their concerns. In the USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, Sanders outperformed his Democratic opponents among Trump’s key constituencies and groups who could determine his re-election in November.
Of men who said they think Trump will be better for the country than the Democratic nominee, 19% admired Sanders’ character and 21% said the Vermont senator “cares about people like me.” The next closest Democratic candidate, Biden, scored 13% for both questions.
“We’re at a time in this country where the establishment in both political parties are on the ropes,” Feldman said. “People are tired of the same people having the same power for so long. Sanders appeals to people for a lot of the same reasons Trump does.”
Suburban women, a key voting block that helped Democrats flip the House of Representatives in 2018, also favored Sanders, with 38% saying they admired his character and 47% agreeing that he “cares about people like me.” Bloomberg was not far behind on character, scoring 34% while Warren received 40% on empathy.
Though analysts contend likability will not be the driving force determining November’s outcome, modern presidential elections have been close enough that it could tip the balance.
“If a characteristic can move 2% of the public in a really close race,” Schickler added,”that can obviously make a big difference.”