PHILADELPHIA — Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are two of the most ideologically aligned candidates in the Democratic primary — both left-wing populists who rail against a “rigged” economic system.
But the fellow enemies of the 1 percent have surprisingly different bases of support.
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In poll after poll, Sanders appeals to lower-income and less-educated people; Warren beats Sanders among those with postgraduate degrees. Sanders performs better with men, Warren with women. Younger people who vote less frequently are more often in Sanders’ camp; seniors who follow politics closely generally prefer Warren.
Sanders also has won over more African Americans than Warren: He earns a greater share of support from black voters than any candidate in the race except for Joe Biden, according to the latest Morning Consult surveys.
For progressive activists, who are gathering this week in Philadelphia at the annual Netroots Nation conference, it’s both promising and a source of concern that the two leading left-wingers in the primary attract such distinct fans. It demonstrates that a progressive economic message can excite different parts of the electorate, but it also means that Sanders and Warren likely need to expand their bases in order to win the Democratic nomination.
Put another way, if their voters could magically be aligned behind one or the other, it would vastly increase the odds of a Democratic nominee on the left wing of the ideological spectrum.
The fact that Warren and Sanders’ bases don’t perfectly overlap hasn’t garnered much public attention, but it’s something very much on the minds of their aides and allies.
“It shows that the media does not base their perceptions on data that is publicly available,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, chief of staff to the Sanders campaign. “I think people develop overly simplistic views of politics that presume that people who live in the real world think the same way as elite media in D.C. and New York.”
It’s not a given that Sanders voters would flock to Warren, or vice versa, if one of them left the race and endorsed the other. In Morning Consult, Reuters-Ipsos and Washington Post-ABC News polls, more Sanders supporters name Biden as their second choice than Warren — and a higher percentage of Warren voters pick Kamala Harris as their No. 2 than Sanders, according to recent surveys.
Wes Bode, a retired contractor in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, illustrates the point: He said he likes that Sanders has “new ideas,” such as free college tuition, and recently attended one of his town halls in the state. But he’s fond of Biden, too, because he’s “for the working man.”
It might seem unusual that a voter’s top picks for 2020 are the two candidates who best represent the opposite poles of the Democratic Party. But a person like Bode is actually more common than someone like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose favorites are Sanders and Warren.
For Sanders, the need to grow his base is a problem that dates back to his 2016 run. He failed to win the nomination that year in large part because he was unable to win over older voters, especially older voters of color.
“Two places where Bernie has always struggled with is older voters and women to some degree,” said Mark Longabaugh, a top strategist to Sanders in 2016. “Warren is identifiably a Democrat and runs as a Democrat, so I think many more establishment Democrats in the party are more drawn to her — whereas Bernie very intentionally ran for reelection as an independent and identifies as an independent, and appeals to those who look inside the Democratic Party and think it’s not their thing.”
During the 2020 campaign, Sanders’ advisers have acknowledged that he needs to appeal more to older voters, and he’s recently been holding more intimate events in the early states that tend to attract more senior crowds than his rallies do. His team is also trying hard to expand the primary electorate by turning out infrequent voters.
Warren, meanwhile, is aggressively working to win African American support. Her allies argue that her performance at events such as Al Sharpton’s National Action Network convention and the She the People conference show that she has room to grow among black voters.
“If you were looking to buy a rising stock, you would look at future market share and indicators of strong fundamentals,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backs Warren. “Elizabeth Warren has consistently connected on a gut level with black audiences … getting standing ovations after connecting her inspiring plans to her personal story of struggle growing up poor in Oklahoma and being a single mom in Texas.”
Several Democratic operatives said they believe Warren has the ability to expand her base to include black women in particular.
“She impressed 2,000 top women of color activists at [our conference],” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People. “Elizabeth Warren has deepened, sharpened and made racial justice a grounding component of her policies.”
A look at their poll numbers shows how distinct the pools of support for Sanders vs. Warren are.
Twenty-two percent of Democratic primary voters who earn less than $50,000 annually support Sanders, while 12 percent are for Warren, according to an average of the past four weeks of Morning Consult polling. Of those without college degrees, 22 percent are behind Sanders; 10 percent back Warren.
Roughly the same percentage of voters with bachelor’s degrees — 16 percent and 15 percent, respectively — support Sanders and Warren. But among those with postgraduate degrees, 12 percent are for Sanders and 19 percent are for Warren.
There’s a similar split based on age, gender and interest in politics. Sanders wins more than one-third of the 18- to 29-year-olds, while Warren gets 11 percent of them. Warren has the support of 13 percent of those aged 30 to 44, 12 percent of those aged 45 to 54, and 13 percent of those aged both 55 to 64 and 65 and up. Sanders’ support goes down as the age of voters goes up: He is backed by 25 percent of 30- to 44-year-olds, 17 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds, 12 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds, and 8 percent of those 65 and older.
Twenty percent of men support Sanders and 11 percent support Warren; 18 percent of women are behind Sanders and 14 percent are behind Warren.
Warren also performs best among voters who are “extremely interested” in politics (winning 17 percent of them), while Sanders is strongest among those who are “not at all interested” (26 percent).
As for black voters, 19 percent are behind Sanders, while 9 percent support Warren.
With Biden still atop most polls, even after a widely panned performance at the first Democratic debate, some progressives still fear that Warren and Sanders could divide the left and hand the nomination to the former vice president.
“There’s a lot of time left in this campaign,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of the liberal think tank Data for Progress. “But one thing that’s clear is that it’s very important for the left that we ensure that we don’t split the field and allow someone like Joe Biden to be the nominee.”
Steven Shepard contributed to this report.