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What Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren risk by attacking each other

Posted at 8:35 AM, Jul 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-30 11:09:25-04

It’s easy to think that fireworks will fly in Tuesday’s night debate between Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. After all, both of them appeal to the most progressive part of the party and will need to consolidate that support in order to win.

But in truth, the differences between Sanders’ and Warren’s bases mean neither has too much to gain by going after the other.

There are basic demographic differences. For instance, Sanders has consistently done better among white people without a college degree than among those who do. This pattern was repeated in a Fox News poll released last week, in which Sanders scored 18% among whites without a college degree and 10% among whites with a college degree. That same poll showed Warren doing better among whites with a college degree (16%) than those without one (12%). Warren backers are far more likely to have a college degree than the average Democrat.

However, it goes beyond demographics. There are major attitudinal differences between the two groups. Sanders backers can best be described as ideologues who are unlike most other Democrats. Warren supporters seem to be far more supportive of the party and yearn to beat President Donald Trump.

Sanders’ support continues to come disproportionately from self-identified independents. In the latest Quinnipiac University poll, for example, he earns 20% from independents who lean Democratic. That’s more than double the 9% he gets from self-identified Democrats. Warren, on the other hand, gets a slightly larger 15% from self-identified Democrats than the 13% from independents who lean Democratic.

This lines up with other data illustrating Sanders’ backers are far more likely than the average Democrat to disapprove of Democratic leaders in Washington. Warren supporters are slightly more likely than the average Democrat to approve of Democratic leaders.

Indeed, our April CNN poll revealed that Sanders’ base doesn’t want business as usual. His support doubled among potential Democratic primary voters who thought it was at least very important for the Democrats to nominate an outsider. Warren actually did slightly worse among those who prized an outsider than she did among those who didn’t, even though she’s been in Washington for a considerably shorter time than Sanders.

The desire of Sanders supporters to want something different may be why they don’t care about electability nearly as much as other Democrats. In the most recent CNN poll, he gets support from only 10% with those who say it is more important to beat Trump than for Democrats to have a candidate who agrees with them on the issues. That’s less than half of the 21% he gets among those who say beating Trump is more important.

Warren’s support flows in the opposite direction. She earns 18% with those who say electability is more important. This drops in half to 9% with those who say issue agreement is more important.

The fact that Sanders’ voters aren’t as focused on electability explains his stability in the polls. Given that most Democrats do care a lot about electability, Sanders’ inability to connect on that score has kept him from expanding upon his base. At the same time, it makes it difficult for him to stray too far downward because voters are with him on the issues and don’t care as much about any perceived electability problems.

Perhaps the best proof that the two don’t share too much of a base is the recent polling trends. Sanders has stayed consistent at about 15% on average since early May. Even as Sanders’ poll numbers haven’t budged much, Warren’s nearly double her support during that same period to about 15%.

The question following Tuesday’s debate is whether either will put in a performance that will get them above 15% in the polls. If either does, it won’t likely be from attacking each other.