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Eric L. Davis: Sanders, Warren top Dems in polls

A national poll conducted on behalf of Fox News and released last week showed that Sen. Bernie Sanders is the most popular political figure in America, with a 61 percent approval rating. This compares, among others, with Donald Trump at 44 percent and Nancy Pelosi at 33 percent.
Sanders’ disapproval score among all voters was 32 percent, giving him a plus-29 net approval rating. Trump’s net rating was minus-9. Among Democrats (45 percent of those polled), Sanders’ net approval rating was plus-77, while he scored plus-41 among Independents (18 percent of the sample). Not surprisingly, Sanders’ rating was a minus-38 among Republicans (36 percent of those polled).
Democrats disapproved of Trump overwhelmingly, with the President having a minus-83 rating. However, Trump’s rating among independents was slightly positive, at plus-5. Republicans in the sample gave Trump a plus-77 rating, the same level that Sanders reached among Democrats.
Next to Sanders, the most popular Democrat in the poll, among both Democrats and Independents, was Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Both Sanders and Warren had higher approval ratings with Democrats and Independents than the Democratic congressional leaders, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Pelosi.
The greater support among voters for progressive Democrats such as Sanders and Warren, compared with establishment Democrats such as Schumer and Pelosi, illustrates what is likely to be one of the main lines of division within the Democratic Party over the next four years. Can Democrats develop policies and an image that will attract the support of older white voters who did not attend college, while at the same time not losing enthusiasm among middle-class urban and suburban professionals, students and young voters?
In much of Europe, lower-income voters who were formerly strong supporters of social democratic and labor parties are seen by nationalist and populist parties as voters who could lead them to power, as was the case with the election of Trump in the United States. The next test of this proposition will come in the French presidential election later this spring.
Unlike many of the European social democrats, Sanders has been able to maintain strong levels of support from both his most committed voters in last spring’s Democratic primaries — college-educated professionals in metropolitan areas, as well as voters under 30 — along with lower-income voters in rural America and traditional industrial areas. Recently, Sanders had a successful visit to West Virginia, a state hard-hit by the decline of coal, steel and other traditional industries.
Here in Vermont, Sanders hosted several well-attended town meetings last week, the first such meetings he has held in the state in almost two years, since he became a presidential candidate in spring 2015. If Sanders’ national approval score is over 60 percent, his Vermont approval score is probably between 70 and 80 percent. He will be an overwhelming favorite for re-election to a third Senate term in 2018, even if his opponent ends up being a largely self-financed wealthy candidate with the financial backing of out-of-state conservative PACs and SuperPACs.
Vermont Republicans appear to have identified first-term Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman as the incumbent they would most like to defeat in 2018. Rather than putting resources into the extremely difficult race against Sanders, the state GOP will try to find a politically moderate candidate to challenge the Progressive/Democrat Zuckerman.
Zuckerman arguably won both the Democratic Primary and the General Election last year by holding on to Sanders’ coattails. He highlighted his endorsement by Sanders in both races. If Sanders spends a lot of money on his re-election, mobilizes his organization around the state, and generates a high voter turnout, much of that effort could benefit Zuckerman. This would make it more difficult for the Republican candidate to defeat the incumbent lieutenant governor.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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