Bernie Sanders’s Surge Owes a Lot to Voters of Color

Welcome to Poll Watch, our weekly look at polling data and survey research on the candidates, voters and issues that will shape the 2020 election.

Throughout the 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, one of Senator Bernie Sanders’s greatest weaknesses was his inability to win broad support from voters of color.

This year, he has sought to avoid the same outcome, hiring a more diverse staff and seeking to complement his focus on economic inequality with frank conversations about racial justice.

And with Mr. Sanders surging days before voting begins with the Iowa caucuses, an intriguing theme has emerged: Much of his momentum, polling shows, owes to the support of nonwhite voters — particularly African-American and Hispanic Democrats.

Most surveys of California voters over all now have him in a virtual tie or with an outright lead — and his support among Hispanic voters is foundational to that. A survey conducted for The Los Angeles Times by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, found Mr. Sanders with 26 percent support among likely primary voters statewide, putting him ahead of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the runner-up, with 20 percent. He had the support of 38 percent of Hispanic voters, including 41 percent of those living in households where Spanish was the dominant language.

In Texas, exit polls in 2016 found that Mr. Sanders, Vermont’s junior senator, had lost the Latino vote to Hillary Clinton by a two-to-one margin. He now enjoys a commanding lead among Hispanic primary voters there, according to a Texas Lyceum survey released this week. (In Texas’ Democratic primary, white voters are expected to make up a minority of the electorate, as they did in 2016.) The Lyceum poll showed Mr. Sanders with 36 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with 24 percent for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and just 10 percent for Ms. Warren.

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That helped propel him to a statistical tie in the poll with Mr. Biden, who until recently had seemed to enjoy a comfortable lead in Texas.

Part of Mr. Sanders’s strength among Latinos can be chalked up to the fact that the Hispanic population in the United States skews younger than the rest of the country — and Mr. Sanders continues to draw by far his strongest support from voters under 50.

“Our population is so young that most of the people are in the 40-and-under category,” Matt Barreto, a founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions, said in an interview. “So in the aggregate he is doing really well” among Hispanic voters.

Indeed, Mr. Sanders remains far more popular among younger Latino voters than among older ones. But he now runs a strong second to Mr. Biden even among Latinos over 50, pulling 21 percent of their votes, according to a Pew survey released on Thursday. All of the other Democratic candidates poll in the single digits with this group.

“He came out of the 2016 election with a lot of following,” Mr. Barreto said. “When 2020 started, he was already a known quantity. But that by itself was not going to get him all the votes. He’s brought a number of high-level staff onto his campaign and he has people in senior leadership positions, and they are pushing the campaign to engage more in Latino outreach. That is paying off.”

It’s not just happening in Texas and California, and Latinos are not the only voters of color supporting Mr. Sanders to a significant degree. A national CNN poll released last week found Mr. Sanders pulling 30 percent of all nonwhite voters to Mr. Biden’s 27 percent.

A Monmouth University poll last week and the Pew survey were a little less kind to him than CNN’s poll, but those two still found him trailing Mr. Biden by just eight points among Democratic voters of color nationwide. (Monmouth polled those likely to vote in a primary or caucus, while Pew looked at all registered voters.)

The Democratic Party’s white electorate has grown markedly more liberal over the past two decades, but African-American and Hispanic Democrats — who now make up roughly two-fifths of the party’s membership — still tend to identify as moderate or conservative, according to years of Gallup data.

This would seem to present a challenge for Mr. Sanders, whose policy proposals favor an expansive agenda to fight poverty and climate change, and who draws some of his most solid support from voters who identify as very liberal.

Mr. Biden has struck a moderate tone in his appeals to black voters especially, while promising to restore the legacy of President Barack Obama. Mr. Sanders, meanwhile, has been more willing to criticize some of Mr. Obama’s policies for not having gone far enough.

But when asked which candidate best understood the problems facing people like them, nonwhite voters were nine points more likely to name Mr. Sanders than Mr. Biden, the CNN poll found.

Among black and Latino voters, Mr. Sanders’s ideologically driven approach may find a particular resonance. The Pew survey found that by two to one, white Democrats were more likely to say they preferred a candidate who would compromise with Republicans if needed than to want one who insisted on Democratic policy positions.

Black Democrats are considerably less likely to feel this way. And Hispanic Democrats are even more open to an ideological purist.

In the CNN survey, nonwhite voters were in fact more likely to say they would be enthusiastic or at least satisfied with Mr. Sanders as their nominee (82 percent) than to say the same of Mr. Biden (74 percent).

Steve Phillips, the founder of Democracy in Color, an advocacy group focused on race and politics, said Mr. Sanders had room to grow with voters of color, whose votes are habitually taken for granted by Democratic candidates. But, Mr. Phillips emphasized, he will need to earn it.

“He’s closer to the mark than others are in terms of expanding the electorate and bringing new voters in,” Mr. Phillips said, referring to Mr. Sanders’s efforts to engage first-time voters, a cornerstone of his campaign. “He still could do more.”

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