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Why Bernie Sanders, unlike other candidates, has higher favorable poll ratings

REUTERS/Mike Stone
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in Dallas on July 19.

Our political climate seems to be pretty seriously poisoned. The most recent evidence, from the latest NBC/Marist and Quinnipiac Polls, testing the favorable/unfavorable ratings of six leading candidates for president in Iowa and New Hampshire, finds that (in both states) five of the six have higher unfavorable ratings than favorable.

(The question that elicits this generally goes like this: As I read each name, please say if you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of these people — or if you have never heard of them.)

The one exception, in both states, was Bernie Sanders. In Iowa his favorable/unfavorable rating was “above water” (as the pollsters call it) by 30-27, which really wouldn’t be very impressive if all of the other candidates from both parties weren’t below water. In New Hampshire, which is next door to Sanders state of Vermont, he was also the only one above water, and by a much more impressive 41-29 margin.

I’ve never met Sen. Sanders but my impression, from seeing him on TV a good deal, is that he comes across as neither handsome, funny, warm nor charming. The one thing that comes across is that if you ask him a substantive question, he will give you a substantive answer.

I would like to believe (and I do believe) that Sanders’ relatively good showing on the fav/unfav question reflects the average voter’s deep hunger for straight talk, or the quality which the punditocracy has decided to name “authenticity.”

Given the carefully choreographed dance routine that most of the candidates use when talking about issues compared to the fairly radical (by U.S. standards) but very straight talk from Sanders, I conclude that respondents on the favorable-unfavorable question are reacting mostly to his refreshing candor.

(Yes, Donald Trump also seems blunt. But using strong rude language to insult anyone who criticizes you is not the same as taking clear positions on issues. Trump, in fact, is the furthest under water of any of the candidates. In Iowa, Trumps scores 32 percent favorable to 60 percent unfavorable. In New Hampshire, it’s even worse: 27/67. His enormous, historic, breathtaking unfavorable ratings are the reason that — notwithstanding his overall lead in the polls — most pundits continue to assert that he is very unlikely to becomes president or the nominee of a major party.)

Of course, Trump is leading the field in New Hampshire and running second (to Scott Walker) in Iowa. It’s also true that Hillary Clinton, who is running ahead of Sanders in both states, has the second worst favorable/unfavorable ratings. She is under water by 19 percentage points in Iowa (37-56) and by 20 in New Hampshire  (37/57).

So obviously, your favorable/unfavorable score does not translate directly into electoral success. Bernie Sanders has identified himself as a socialist during his entire political career (he prefers “democratic socialist”). In a few recent interviews, he has been asked whether he still wants to use that word (which, the questioner often implies, is a ticket to Palookaville in U.S. politics). Of course, Sanders replies, playing shape-shifter word games is not me.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/28/2015 - 09:18 am.


    The reason why politicians have high favorability numbers is because it hasn’t been in anyone’s interest to drive them down lately. Hillary had high favorability numbers when she was in the non partisan role of Secretary of State. The moment Bernie Sanders becomes a serious threat, you will start to see the negative commercials, the grainy ones with the unflattering black and white photography.

    I think it’s important to understand that poll numbers are not naturally occurring phenomenon. They are a commodity available for purchase by anyone who wants them. Maybe who the purchasers are and why they are in the market for poll result is the real story about polls, the one that too often goes uncovered.

  2. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 07/28/2015 - 04:30 pm.

    Oh my God! Bernie Sanders is a SOCIALIST?!

    Has anybody heard of a guy named Franklin D Roosevelt? He was also called a socialist.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/28/2015 - 05:16 pm.

      But not by himself

      Sanders describes himself as a ‘Democratic Socialist’.
      Of course, that’s one of the dominant political philosophies in Western European democracies; hardly something as radical as the original Socialism.
      So he might be a bit more to the left by today’s standards than FDR was in his day, but not all that much.
      The difference is that FDR drifted to the left as circumstances demanded radical action, while Sanders started out as a radical and has moved towards the center over the course of his career.

  3. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 07/28/2015 - 07:00 pm.


    will never have to deliver on any of the campaign promises he has made.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 07/28/2015 - 08:21 pm.

    See also

    “Why Donald Trump is polling well — for now”

    Also by Eric Black

  5. Submitted by colin kline on 07/28/2015 - 10:47 pm.

    I will vote for him

  6. Submitted by Tomas Mauser on 07/28/2015 - 11:21 pm.

    Bernie’s a bracing breath of fresh air

    Bernie’s campaign relies exclusively on small donations for funding so that he will never be indebted to wealthy donors. He also campaigns on issues and will not engage in negative, personal attacks. How many other candidates can say the same?

    No wonder people like him. He is a breath of fresh air in our polluted political landscape.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/29/2015 - 09:19 am.

      The question is

      how he could prevent the formation of Citizens United SuperPACs who wanted him elected, even if he did not actively solicit their support.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/31/2015 - 09:02 am.


        The answer to that is no. And, in fact, if that happens, Bernie won’t be the first candidate to have unwanted “help.” Many local political candidates have promised no negative campaigning only to have an outsider group do it for them. Many of them honestly don’t appreciate it. Well, at least to the point that they don’t like the tactics. Whether or not they like the benefits is hard to parse out.

  7. Submitted by Joseph Brunoli on 08/08/2015 - 02:07 am.

    Democratic Socialism is an actual thing, OK?

    Bernie is not a “Socialist” – he is a “Democratic Socialist” – and yes, that is a thing, and yes, it is different from standard “Socialism”. In other words, think more Sweden and Denmark than Cuba and Venezuela.

    There is even a national organization for Democratic Socialists in the US:

    FROM: ‪
    “Democratic socialists do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy. But we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either. Rather, we believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect. ”

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