Which Issues Draw Democratic Voters to their Candidate?

by Mark Cebert

The self portraits of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are quite clear. Sanders depicts himself as a political outsider and champion of the middle class. Clinton presents herself as an experienced politician, who grasps the complex issues facing most Americans. But what do the statistics say about why Democrats are supporting either candidate? This article will analyze the issues that are drawing Democratic voters to their respective camps.

Bernie Sanders

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has emerged as an intriguing and to some extent surprising political force in the 2016 election cycle. In a campaign season largely expected to be a Hillary Clinton presidential dress rehearsal, Sanders has crashed the party, finding allure from many on the political left. Part of this appeal is the progressive and anti-establishment stances he takes on issues important to many Democratic voters. A theme that seems to be central to the Sanders campaign is the issue of the disparity of wealth in America. In fact, Sanders’ official campaign website proclaims that “The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time.”[1] According to Sanders, the amount of disparity between the wealthy elite and the rest of America is detrimental to society both socially and economically. Sanders proposes 13 steps to remedy this economic disparity, including “increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour by 2020”, enacting “a progressive estate tax on the top 0.3 percent of Americans who inherit more than $3.5 million”, “making tuition free at public colleges and universities throughout America”, and “guaranteeing healthcare as a right of citizenship by enacting a Medicare for all single-payer healthcare system.”[2]

Sanders’ views, which align with his self-described socialism, have found grassroots support among many voters.[3] Sanders’ appeal may be partially explained by the emphasis many voters have placed on the economy. According to a recent CBS poll, 19% of Americans in general, and 23% of Democrats, in particular, view the economy as the most important problem facing the country, while 3% of Americans and 6% of Democrats view income inequality as the most pressing issue of today. These statistics seem to contribute to 56% of Democrats trusting Sanders to deal with income inequality, and ultimately 44% of Democrats wanting to see Senator Sanders accept the Democratic Party’s nomination.[4] Although his stances on the issues are comprehensive, Sanders seems to strike a particular chord with voters concerned with economic opportunity and income disparity. Sanders will certainly hope that this support will propel him past Clinton to nomination at the Democratic Convention in July.

Hillary Clinton

Former New York Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has consistently appeared as the Democratic frontrunner from the beginning of her campaign for president. Her Republican counterparts have often referred to her as the presumptive nominee,[5] and Clinton has maintained a lead over Bernie Sanders both in most polls and in delegates. A good deal of Clinton’s appeal delineates her from Sanders, who is typically supported by more liberal Democrats. Generally supporters of Clinton seem to express interest in a range of issues, compared to Sanders’ supporters, who look particularly toward social and economic issues. However, Clinton seems to appeal more to voters concerned about foreign policy and diplomacy. 64% of Democrats say they trust Clinton most with foreign policy, and 65% of Democrats responded as trusting Clinton more when it comes to fighting terrorism and dealing with national security.[6] In fact, experience in foreign policy has become a consistent line of attack by Clinton on Sanders. In the heated Brooklyn Democratic debate on April 14, Clinton suggested that Sanders was out of his element when dealing with foreign policy.[7] The question of preparedness for office seems to be one that draws many to Clinton, and 60% of Democrats believe that she will be more likely to get things done in Washington.[8] Clinton’s experience as Secretary of State seems to solidify her credibility as a foreign policy expert in voters’ eyes, a fact that she has repeatedly emphasized on the campaign trail. Drawing from this expertise, Clinton promises to “keep America safe and secure by defending our core values and leading with principle”, “defeat ISIS and global terrorism and the ideologies that drive it”, and “strengthen our alliances and nurture new relationships to tackle shared challenges such as climate change, cyber threats, and highly contagious diseases.”[9] Clinton’s supporters seem to be most confident in her ability and experience in foreign policy, and Clinton will hope this confidence will help maintain her lead for the nomination.

[1] Bernie Sanders, “On the Issues: Income and Wealth Inequality,” Bernie Sanders: Accessed April 15, 2016. https://berniesanders.com/issues/income-and-wealth-inequality/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Russell Banks, “Bernie Sanders, the Socialist Mayor A Profile of the Presidential Candidate Written in the 1980s, as He Got His Start in Politics,” The Atlantic (October 5, 2015): Accessed April 14, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/bernie-sanders-mayor/407413/.

[4] Anthony Salvanto, Fred Backus, Sarah Dutton, and Jennifer De Pinto, “CBS Poll: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders – Who Can Unite Democrats?” CBSNews (April 14, 2016): Accessed April 15, 2016. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-poll-hillary-clinton-seen-as-more-effective-uniter-than-bernie-sanders/.

[5] Brent Johnson, “Live Coverage: Clinton-Sanders Democratic Presidential Debate (4/14/16),” NJ.com (April 14, 2016): Accessed April 15, 2016. http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/04/live_coverage_clinton-sanders_democratic_president.html.

[6] Anthony Salvanto, “CBS Poll: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders – Who Can Unite Democrats?”

[7] Alex Seitz-Wald, “Sparks Fly Between Clinton, Sanders at Heated Brooklyn Debate,” NBC News (April 15, 2016): Accessed April 15, 2016. http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/sparks-fly-between-clinton-sanders-heated-brooklyn-debate-n556366.

[8] Anthony Salvanto, “CBS Poll: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders – Who Can Unite Democrats?”

[9] Hillary Clinton, “Hillary Clinton on National Security,” Hillary Clinton: Accessed April 15, 2016. https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/national-security/.

Featured image is a caricature of Hillary Clinton, adapted from a photo in the public domain from The Secretary of States’s Flickr photostream. The caricature of Bernie Sanders was adapted from a Creative Commons licensed photo from Nick Solari’s Flickr photo stream. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Source 2016 Democratic Candidates. Author DonkeyHotey.

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