Why Is Bernie Sanders Polling So Well? (Hint: It’s His Policies)

by Charles J. Reid Professor of Law, University of St. Thomas 02.04.2016

Bernie Sanders has better poll numbers than any candidate for president, from either party. Consider his latest numbers (March 31) from Huff Post Pollster. Bernie bests Donald Trump by 52 to 41. Against Ted Cruz, Bernie leads 51 to 41; and vs. John Kasich it is Bernie 46 to Kasich’s 44. In contrast, while Hillary Clinton defeats Trump by a margin similar to Sanders,’ her lead over Ted Cruz is only four points and she loses to Governor Kasich by two, 46 to 44.

Why? Perhaps, someone might suggest, it is because Bernie Sanders has received more favorable news coverage than Hillary Clinton. There is some limited truth in that observation. Secretary Clinton has been a special target of the right wing ever since the early 1990’s. The right wing agitprop machine has spent a quarter-century manufacturing Hillary Clinton conspiracy tales — from Vince Foster to Benghazi. These conspiracies, of course, have all proven bogus. Still, they are not intended as exercises in dispassionate news coverage or in truth-telling. They are meant as character assassination. They do their job by being corrosive.

For sure, Bernie Sanders has not been subjected to the same sustained level of vitriol from the right wing. But he has hardly received adulatory press coverage. FAIR — Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting — documented in early March that the Washington Post alone ran sixteen negative stories on Senator Sanders in a single twenty-four hour news cycle. While this was exceptional, Sanders has been routinely taken to task by the press: Can the nation afford to adopt his policies? Will America ever elect “a socialist?” Isn’t he just the Donald Trump of the left? Stories like these are routine.

So, Sanders’ candidacy is hardly buoyed up by the press. Still, he remains the single most electable of the presidential candidates. Why?

I will submit that his electability is related to the issues upon which he is campaigning. Let’s just consider a few of his most visible positions. He has argued that college must be made affordable for all, and has advocated that tuition-free public college education is a fundamental right. The basis for this position is that higher education is to the modern world what high-school education was to the world of 1930 or 1950. A college education is now the main entryway to the middle class.

Polls indicate support for the broad outlines of Sanders’ plan. An Atlantic Monthlypoll from early March indicated that most Americans understand that they might be better positioned for economic success with greater education. At the same time, they are frustrated by “a thicket of obstacles centered on money and time that prevents them from obtaining more credentials.” Bernie Sanders would trim that thicket. Indeed, his plan would help to level the playing field between the affluent few who have access to education and opportunity, and the many families that are struggling in today’s economy.

And in truth, Sanders’ plan would simply be a return to the policies that proved so successful in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Some of America’s greatest state university systems of that era — the University of California system and the University of Wisconsin — charged zero or nominal tuition and educated a generation of Americans. Indeed, it is not far-fetched to say that the affordable college programs of the 1950’s and 1960’s contributed substantially to the American prosperity of the latter twentieth century.

A second popular issue that Senator Sanders has made his own is reform of the minimum wage. The current federal minimum wage is set at $7.25. Americans instinctively know that it is no longer possible for individuals to live on such a wage.

No full-time worker, Senator Sanders has made clear, should have to live below the poverty line. Hence he has promised to support raising the minimum wage over a period of several years to $15.00. Again, this position enjoys widespread support. In January, 2015, a poll by Hart Research Associates showed that 63 percent of Americans supported an increase in the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. 75 percent of Americans, including over half of all Republicans, favor an increase to $12.50. A February, 2016, poll of New Yorkers showed overwhelming support for a minimum-wage increase in that state and, in truth, a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage polls well across the country.

Once again, Senator Sanders’ popularity is best explained by his stance on the issues. And, indeed, an increase in the minimum wage is not only a popular idea, but one that would be truly beneficial to the American economy. Much of the slow economic growth we are currently experiencing is the result of a lack of purchasing power among whole classes of Americans. Give people a greater disposable income, and they will dispose of it. Raising the minimum wage would thus act as a form of economic stimulus.

A third reform Bernie Sanders supports is the overturning of the line of Supreme Court cases culminating in Citizens United and the return of sanity to our system of campaign finance. Ask yourself: Why would a high-net-worth individual contribute five million or ten million dollars to a candidate’s super pac? You contribute because you want something. You are not giving a gift because you like the candidate. You are making an investment with the expectation of a tangible return. Perhaps, you want the government to deregulate your industry, or perhaps you want access to federal dollars. You give because you expect to get back.

Most Americans know that this is how the system works and they have grown disgusted by it. A Pew Foundation report from December 2015, indicated that equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats — 76 percent — agree with the statement “money has more influence on politics today than before.”

Bernie Sanders has pledged to do something about the septic tank of American campaign finance. One of his most important promises has been to name to the Supreme Court only justices pledged to reverse the Citizens United line of cases.

Why is Bernie Sanders the most electable presidential candidate in America? It might be that he is not only right on the issues, but in tune with the mood of the American public.

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Charles J. Reid, Jr., has degrees in canon law and civil law from the Catholic University of America; and a Ph.D. in medieval history from Cornell University. He was raised in a union household in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Milwaukee with degrees in classical languages and history.

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