The Political Utility of Feeling the Bern

The polls are all over the place, but Bernie Sanders has a trick up his sleeve: no other candidate in the Democratic primary boasts such a deeply devoted support base. Come the general election, that deep enthusiasm for Sanders will be crucial for beating Donald Trump.

Democratic presidential candidate and senator Bernie Sanders smiles at a Democratic presidential forum on Latino issues at Cal State LA on November 17, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Mario Tama / Getty Images

The Democratic Party presidential primary polls are all over the place, and the chorus asserting that you simply can’t trust them is louder than ever.

There’s some merit to the complaints. Twenty years ago, the response rate for pollster phone calls was 36 percent, but it’s now dropped to 6 percent. Many pollsters have attempted to transition to online polls, but the practice is nascent, and its accuracy is disputed. But that doesn’t mean the polls tell us nothing of use — in fact, without them we’d have very little to go on that isn’t strictly anecdotal.

Instead of writing off the polls entirely, maybe we should take a closer look. The information buried in the polls, beneath simple candidate preference, can tell us what candidates’ strengths and weaknesses will be in the coming months.

One piece of information in particular stands out: Bernie Sanders supporters are the most devoted of the bunch by far.

Look at this new CBS poll of Democrats in early battleground states. If we just observe who respondents list as their probable number-one choice, Joe Biden is in the lead with 29 percent, followed by Elizabeth Warren at 26 percent and Bernie Sanders at 18 percent. Pete Buttigieg trails with 9 percent, Kamala Harris pulls 7 percent, and the rest hardly deserve a mention.

But that’s not the only information available. The respondents were also asked to state how certain they were of their number-one choice. Bernie Sanders blew the competition out of the water. Forty-eight percent of those who listed Sanders as their preference responded that they’d “definitely made up their mind.” That number dropped to 35 percent for Biden supporters, 28 percent for Harris supporters, 22 percent for Warren supporters, and 21 percent for Buttigieg supporters.

These results pair well with a recent Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll, which found that, overall, Buttigieg was the front-runner there, while Sanders, Warren, and Biden were locked in a dead heat for second place. We could stop there, but we’d be overlooking a key detail. The poll also found that Sanders supporters were the least likely to report that their vote was up for grabs. Fifty-seven percent of Iowa poll respondents who support Sanders said their mind was made up. None of the other top candidates even broke 30 percent.

That difference is astounding. “There’s a stickiness in his support,” said the head of the company that conducted the poll, concluding that Sanders “has the most fired up supporters.”

With Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg all performing well in some polls and lagging in others, this is a data point worth paying attention to. In a close race, there is immense value in “sticky support.” Someone who’s made up their mind this early and who’s passionate about their candidate is significantly more likely to donate or volunteer. Committed supporters put signs in their lawns and bumper stickers on their cars. They talk to their coworkers and families. They canvass their neighborhoods and post on social media. On election day, every person’s vote counts the same (well, sort of), but in the months beforehand, a committed supporter brings far more value to a campaign than a passive one.

Not only does Sanders have far more committed supporters in his corner, he’s also built an unparalleled distributed organizing infrastructure to connect the most gung ho of them to volunteer opportunities. According to campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello, the campaign has made more than 7 million calls and sent over 63 million texts to voters, with the majority of these going into early primary and Super Tuesday states. Other campaigns are reluctant to share volunteer-assisted outreach numbers. Could it be because they pale in comparison?

The passion of Sanders supporters is why his campaign just became the fastest in history to reach the four million contributions mark — padding his campaign coffers, despite the fact that he’s the only candidate whose campaign doesn’t solicit money from rich donors. The top employers of his small donors are Starbucks, Amazon, and Walmart; their top occupation is teaching. All of this indicates that Sanders has a much larger army of ordinary, working-class people who are ride-or-die for his campaign than any other candidate.

We’ll see what effect that enthusiastic support base — and the calls they make, the doors they knock on, and the conversations they start in their communities and immediate social networks — will have on actual vote totals in the coming months. Whether it can overcome the mainstream media’s negativity toward and stubborn neglect of the Sanders campaign, as well as the influx of wealthy donor money aimed at propping up alternatives, remains to be seen.

The upshot for now is that, as candidates jockey for front-runner status, Bernie Sanders has a trick up his sleeve: his supporters don’t just favor him, they believe in his campaign. If enough of them take to heart his slogan, “Not Me, Us,” they may give his opponents a run for their money. And if Sanders wins the nomination, that devoted and enthusiastic support base, with months of volunteer experience under its belt, will be crucial in defeating Donald Trump.