Chapter 2: Favorability ratings
“Favorability” is something that helps to explain why Sanders was polling better for the general election than Hillary Clinton. Already in August 2015 — only a few months after Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders entered the primary race — Nate Silver quoted in an article “Hillary Clinton’s Inevitable Problems” that Clinton is no longer “inevitable” as Democratic nominee. But, an “inevitable” problem for Clinton does lie ahead. Clinton’s popularity among the electorate has reached its ceiling — and is slowly going down — and most likely, will continue to go down.
As you can see in the following aggregate poll, this was an accurate prediction: Through the primary election, Clinton’s “favorability” would continue to decline while her “unfavorability” would continue to rise.
The trend is that the longer the primary campaign went on, the less people liked Hillary Clinton. The flip side of this coin also makes sense: the longer the primary campaign went on, the more people liked Bernie Sanders.
We can see this is true below.
And it remains true to this day, in December 2017, more than a year after the general election. (This will be explored more in depth, later in the report.)
“Favorability” is a bit different from what is typically meant by polling data — the percentage numbers we see leading up to elections. While the polling from the previous chapter would be a response to the question, “Who would you vote for in this certain matchup?”, a favorability rating is more of a response to the question, “Do you like this candidate?”
Favorability is essentially a look at how much (or how little) the broad electorate prefers a certain candidate, despite who they plan to vote for (for whatever reasons).
Favorability is an important point of data in determining who will win or lose elections. Candidate “likability” among the electorate is not a perfect predictor of who will become president, but it is a good predictor, especially when combined with the previous polling data. See the chart below:
Notice how with very few exceptions, the candidate with higher favorability wins the general election.
Now let’s see where the two 2016 Democratic primary candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, would fall on that chart:
This chart is illustrative, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, which is even better for Sanders. It appears this chart was created from data around January 2016 — when Sanders had not yet peaked. Per the aggregate pollster, Sanders had a higher net favorability during the DNC convention — around +15% in late July — and even higher around the general election — about +18% around Nov 2016.
This would place Sanders even higher on the previous chart, topping Obama in popularity, and only below one president on the list: Ronald Reagan in 1984, who had a net favorability of +24%.
Here is an electoral map of Ronald Reagan winning the general election in 1984:
So based on net favorability, we could estimate that Sanders’ victory over Trump might lie somewhere between Obama’s victory in 2008 (winning 365 to 173) and Reagan’s 1984 blowout (winning virtually every state with 525 to 13).
All Sanders needed was 270, but it probably would have been much more than that. During the time of the DNC convention, even among Democratic voters only, Sanders had a higher net favorability than Clinton, and as we saw in the last chapter, and as we’ll continue to examine in this report, Sanders was much stronger than Clinton among Independents — both in net favorability and voting/polling numbers against Trump.
Of course, some have argued (and continue to argue) that Sanders would have been “vetted” and “attacked” relentlessly throughout the general election, and his popularity would have dropped lower and lower, ultimately causing him to lose to Trump. This is essentially the only, and final, counter-argument to “Bernie would have won the general election” — and it rests on desperation, a refusal to consider other alternatives, and even a refusal to admit that, according to the available evidence, Sanders was more popular and had a better shot in the first place.
I will examine this assertion throughout the report, but for now, it will simply be repeated that for this argument to be true — in order for Sanders to not win the general election — his support would’ve had to drop much more than Clinton’s did. That is what people are arguing when they say “Bernie wouldn’t have beaten Trump.” This is a non-negotiable starting point in the argument of whether Bernie Sanders “would have won.” It must be conceded, because it’s unarguably true. It would then be up to the person arguing against Sanders to supply good enough evidence and arguments that somehow, Sanders’ support would have dropped as much as would have been required to lose to Trump.
The media and Clinton campaign did in fact “vet” and attack Sanders repeatedly during the primary (see one chapter from a previous report for some examples), and if you look at the trend of Sanders’ favorability during the Democratic primaries, his favorability actually went up the entire time. This was in spite of all the “attacks” on him. Bernie Sanders’ was most popular around May 2017, near the end of the primary elections — at +24% net favorability, which is the same number from Reagan’s 1984 blowout election.
Once the DNC convention approached, Sanders’ favorability did drop from this massive number of +24, as shown previously. And yet, also as previously shown, his favorability remained much higher than Clinton’s. When the general election hit, Sanders’ favorability was near +20 again. For perspective, during November 2016, Clinton’s net favorability was -12.6%. Note also that is a negative compared to Sanders’ positive. That is 36.6% more of the electorate liking Sanders than Clinton, around the general election in November 2016.
The attacks “from Republicans” would have failed for similar reasons that Clinton and the media’s attacks failed on Sanders, and they would have failed to be effective for similar reasons that Obama was elected president in 2008 and 2012. First, there is not much honest “dirt” on Sanders, and unlike Clinton, Sanders had a firm hold of the moral high ground — for many reasons — among them, his small donors rather than “big money” campaign — and his clear and consistent history, especially in the face of tough political decisions. This as opposed to Clinton’s reputation for being flip-floppy, and Trump’s political unknown.
But they would have called him socialist! Please. Everyone did that during the primary, and not only did Sanders own it, he only increased in popularity as he did. They called Obama “socialist” for a decade, and they called the Democratic Party “socialist” for decades before Obama came along. The “socialist” boogeyman was played out.
The electorate cared much more about hope and change. And even more in 2016 than in 2008, the electorate wanted something to vote “for” rather than against.
Republicans and the media did not have enough credibility to undermine Sanders, whether it was smears of “socialism,” or whatever other “corruption” they would try to find. They had no room to talk. As we’ll see more in chapter five, in a matchup of Sanders vs Trump, it is undoubtedly Trump who would come out looking more “corrupt” if that were going to be the debate. Polls also showed (which we’ll examine later) that the electorate believed Sanders was more “honest and trustworthy” than the rest of them: Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, both parties, and the mainstream media.
The truth is simply that people like Bernie Sanders, and what he stands for. People like his history and integrity, which are so strong that, over time, the political smears and falsehoods only draw attention to Sanders — backfiring on the opponents,by increasing awareness of Bernie Sanders, and bringing awareness to the issues on which Sanders has proven to be credible and solution-oriented.
In the general election, the “electability” excuse for Democrats would have been thrown out the window — it would have been a pick between Sanders vs Trump. That means Democrats who voted Clinton in the primary would have, with small exception, voted for Sanders over Trump in the general election. And then, Sanders would have mobilized more independents and young voters in the general election than Hillary Clinton did. He would have won the swing states — where he was polling much better, and liked much more.
High favorability ratings (along with a poll we’ll examine later) also suggest that Sanders would have gotten a decent portion of conservative voters — from both the “Republican” and “Independent” affiliations — to “cross the line” and vote for him. Many voters who are traditionally “conservative,” and/or Republican, did not like Donald Trump and still do not like him. A large amount of the electorate, who voted for Trump, voted for him out of a dislike for Clinton. And much of the electorate voted for Trump because he promised change, as opposed to Hillary Clinton’s more of the same. (Just compare Clinton’s “America is already great” versus Trump’s “Make America great again.” One suggests change is needed, the other doesn’t.)
A significant amount of Clinton voters, near half, were voting for Clinton as “lesser of two evils.” And more than half of Trump voters would have preferred another candidate. They were voting for Trump, not necessarily because they wanted him to be president, but because they didn’t want Hillary Clinton to be president.
Sanders would have grabbed a sizable amount of these disillusioned voters. As the favorability ratings show, Bernie Sanders was far more popular among the electorate than both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and in the general election, at least half the US electorate voted out of fear of the “other” candidate — rather than for a candidate they liked. Even lots of Republicans, and conservative Independents, voiced a preference for Sanders over Trump.
Though we do not want to abandon any voters in the real world, in terms of the electoral numbers, Sanders did not even need these crossover voters in order to win. He could have won simply by turning out Democrats and progressive/left Independents. It’s just more insurance, more evidence, and more reason to believe that Bernie would have won.
In a 2016 general election, Sanders would have won the solid blue states, just like Hillary Clinton did. Then, Sanders would have won more swing states than Hillary Clinton. That’s how he would have won.
To deny this requires some wishful thinking. It requires a dismissal of the polling numbers and the favorability ratings, which existed as evidence for the entirety of 2016, and which continue to favor Bernie Sanders throughout 2017.
Denying that Sanders could have won the general election — or still being in shock that Trump actually won the U.S. presidential election — might also be an indicator of a certain ignorance of the prevailing conditions leading up to 2016. The broad electorate was experiencing major hardship, and needed a fundamental shift — not incrementalism. The broad electorate’s opinion of “establishment” politics, and conventional politicians, was very poor.
Trump beating Clinton, or Sanders beating Trump, should not be such a difficult idea to entertain. Like in 2008, the American people wanted to have hope, and they were hungry for change. Trump’s campaign played up this message, however fake it was. Clinton’s campaign did not.
And due to Clinton’s history and reputation, it may just be that her campaign could not. Even if Clinton and her campaign were wise enough and humble enough to try — taking the anti-establishment angle versus Trump, and bringing the more “fundamental change” wing of Sanders and his supporters into the process — the public knew that Clinton represented the political establishment and the status quo. Clinton’s close ties to Washington and Wall Street, and her penchant for political shape-shifting, made sure that she would not escape her reputation as the “establishment” pick.