Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


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

Of six leading presidential in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders is the only one with higher favorable ratings than unfavorable.

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

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.

Article continues after advertisement

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.