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Bernie Sanders holds 2-1 lead in California, poll shows

Bernie Sanders in Richmond, Calif.
Bernie Sanders campaigns in Richmond, Calif., this month.
(Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders has taken a commanding lead in California’s Democratic presidential race, ahead of his nearest rival by 2 to 1 and on track to win a majority of the huge trove of delegates at stake in the state’s March 3 primary, according to the final UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll of the contest.

The findings of the poll, conducted for the Los Angeles Times from Thursday of last week through Tuesday, help explain why Sanders’ rivals have done most of their recent campaigning elsewhere among the 14 states that vote in the March 3 Super Tuesday contests. Their schedules tacitly admit that they don’t expect to catch Sanders here, in a state with one of the nation’s most liberal Democratic primary electorates.

The Vermont senator’s dominance in California could have a major impact on the overall race for the nomination. Based on his 34% support in the poll, this state alone likely will give him well over 10% of the 1,991 delegates he would need to win the nomination at the national convention this summer.

Election 2020 Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren campaigns with performer John Legend in Charleston, S.C.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)
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The poll finds Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who led in the state several months ago, in second, but far behind, with 17%. College-educated white liberals, especially women, provide her remaining area of strength. She also continues to be the most cited second choice for supporters of other candidates.

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Former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has poured tens of millions from his fortune into advertising on California’s airwaves, is in third, with 12%. His support has doubled since Berkeley’s previous poll, in January, but remains below a critical threshold to win delegates statewide. He is closely followed by former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg with 11%.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who led the race in the state in June, when the Berkeley poll first surveyed primary voters, has fallen to fifth, at 8%. He has lost significant support among older, moderate voters to Bloomberg.

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“A month ago, our poll showed Sanders with an outright lead in California. Our latest shows that he’s been effective in consolidating that in the homestretch, while support for his rivals has become even more dispersed,” said Mark DiCamillo, the director of the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll. “The net effect could provide Sanders with a huge payday from the state on Super Tuesday.”

The poll’s numbers are similar to the average of other recent surveys in the state, with the exception of its number for Biden, who has typically done a few points better. Some variation in polls always exists because of statistical fluctuations, as well as because every poll makes somewhat different assumptions about who is a likely voter.

Sanders’ big lead rests on three overlapping constituencies:

The party’s most liberal voters started to close ranks behind him in December, and their backing has strengthened since. He now takes half of those who call themselves “very liberal,” a major accomplishment in a multi-candidate field.

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Sanders has also received strong and growing backing among Latino voters. They make up about a quarter of the likely electorate for the primary, and he now gets half their vote.

Finally, Sanders’ long-standing support among younger voters has moved somewhat up the age ladder. The 78-year-old senator is the first choice of more than 6 in 10 voters younger than 30 and a majority of those in their 30s. His support drops to just over a third of those in their 40s, and only about 1 in 6 voters 65 or older.

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California has the largest delegation of any state, reflecting both its size and its status as a Democratic stronghold.

The primary will distribute 415 delegates, but only to candidates who win at least 15% of the vote either statewide or in a congressional district.

Sanders and Warren are the only candidates to hit that mark statewide, the poll finds; if that holds, they would split 144 delegates distributed statewide, with Sanders getting about two-thirds of them.

They would also be in position to compete for most of the 271 delegates distributed by congressional district.

The poll’s large sample size, more than 3,000 likely primary voters, allows analysis of how the candidates fare geographically. Sanders’ support is fairly even across the state, and he would most likely hit the 15% threshold in all 53 congressional districts.

Warren likely would hit the threshold in about half the districts. Her support lags notably in the Inland Empire.

Bloomberg and Buttigieg would likely hit the 15% threshold in about a quarter of the state’s congressional districts, the poll indicates. Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who has 6% support statewide, strongly risk winning no delegates in the state.

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That’s even more true for Tom Steyer, the California-based activist and philanthropist who has spent tens of millions campaigning here, but is at 2%. No other candidate has more than 1% support.

Although rival campaigns have sharply stepped up their criticism of Sanders since he won the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, two of the biggest arguments they make don’t seem to bother many of his voters.

Sanders’ rivals accuse him of promising policies that can’t get through Congress. To test the potency of that issue, the poll asked likely Democratic primary voters if they would prefer a candidate who advocates major changes even if they would be difficult to enact or one who offers more incremental proposals that have a greater chance of passing Congress.

Overall, Democratic primary voters split closely, with a slight majority favoring bigger, bolder, but harder to win, changes. Sanders’ backers, however, are unequivocal: Almost 9 in 10 favor the bolder but harder route.

The other big argument — that he won’t beat President Trump — also seems to fall flat.

First, voters don’t buy the premise — 34% of likely primary voters say Sanders has the best chance to beat Trump, compared with 17% who say Bloomberg does, 12% who pick Biden and fewer for the other candidates.

Sanders’ own voters were especially likely to consider him electable: 81% say he is the most likely to beat Trump. Only Bloomberg’s and Biden’s backers were similarly convinced that their candidate is the most electable. Of Warren’s supporters, for example, only 44% say she has the best chance of beating Trump, and of Buttigieg’s supporters, only 30% choose him.

Beyond that, Sanders’ backers don’t share the same fixation on electability as many other Democrats.

The poll asked voters which is more important — a candidate who can beat Trump or one who agrees with them on major issues. Voters who don’t back Sanders said, 62% to 38%, that beating Trump takes top priority. Sanders’ backers were almost exactly the reverse, by 64% to 36% they favor a candidate who agrees with them on big issues. Younger voters, in particular, insist on a candidate who agrees with them.

Here are 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders’ plans on healthcare, immigration, climate, gun control and housing and homelessness.

Almost half of Sanders’ supporters, 48%, say they are more optimistic now than at the start of the campaign about Democratic prospects for beating Trump. Only 23% say they are less optimistic, and 29% say their opinion has not changed.

Backers of the other candidates have a gloomier take; almost half say they are less optimistic now.

Democratic voters higher up the income and education ladders are particularly pessimistic about their party’s chances, as are white Democrats.

Latinos, by contrast, are notably optimistic, with half saying they have grown more optimistic since the campaign started compared with a quarter who have grown less so.

The strong chance their candidate has to get the nomination has not entirely wiped the chip off the shoulders of Sanders’ supporters, many of whom remain convinced that the party establishment unfairly blocked him four years ago in his campaign against Hillary Clinton.

By 68% to 21%, likely primary voters say the party has been fair to all the candidates this year. But Sanders’ backers split 54% to 44%, with 20% saying the party has been “very unfair” — a level of complaint far higher than among backers of any of the other major candidates.

His backers are also less likely to say they are certain to support the Democratic nominee. Overall, nearly 8 in 10 Democratic primary voters say they would back the party’s nominee whoever it is. Among Sanders voters, just under 7 in 10 make that pledge.

Whatever the national outcome in November, the poll leaves little doubt about the result in California: When the poll asked voters at large how they expected to cast their ballots in November, Trump loses the state to any of the major Democratic candidates by nearly 2 to 1.

The Berkeley IGS poll was conducted for The Times Feb. 20 to 25 online in English and Spanish among 6,688 registered voters statewide, of whom 3,002 were deemed likely voters in the Democratic primary. The results have an estimated error of roughly 2 percentage points in either direction. Full results, question wording and methodology are available on the Institute of Governmental Studies website.


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