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Bernie Sanders surges to the lead among Wisconsin Democratic voters in new statewide poll
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Bernie Sanders surges to the lead among Wisconsin Democratic voters in new statewide poll

From the Follow the Wisconsin State Journal's 2020 presidential election coverage series
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Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has opened a commanding lead over his rivals in Wisconsin’s Democratic primary race after strong performances in early-voting states, according to a new statewide poll.

The Wisconsin poll, coordinated by the UW-Madison Elections Research Center in collaboration with the Wisconsin State Journal, also shows a precipitous decline in support for former Vice President Joe Biden and an upswing for the newcomer to the race, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Sanders, who won the state’s 2016 presidential primary, was the top choice for 30% of registered voters intending to vote in the Democratic primary on April 7. The five other top Democratic contenders besides Sanders find themselves scrabbling for second place with between 9% and 13% support.

“Bernie Sanders is clearly the leader among Democrats,” said UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden, who has developed a new battleground state polling project in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania through his Elections Research Center. “He has a pretty commanding position.”

Despite Sanders’ position in the primary, he doesn’t fare much better in the general election than the other Democratic contenders, who each have slight leads over President Donald Trump in a hypothetical match-up, but all within the poll’s margin of error.

“In the general, who the nominee is didn’t do much to change what voters’ likely intentions were,” Burden said.

Sanders also leads among Democratic primary voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania, but by smaller margins, the poll found.

The poll was conducted Feb. 11-20 by YouGov, which has also done polls for CBS News, The Economist and other news outlets.

The opt-in online poll includes 1,000 registered voters in Wisconsin, 1,300 in Michigan and 1,300 in Pennsylvania. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.1, 3.4 and 3.2 percentage points, respectively. For the Democratic primary voter sample in Wisconsin the margin of error is plus or minus 6 percentage points. The sample was selected and weighted to reflect the adult population in each state based on gender, age, race and education.

Sanders rising

The poll represents a significant increase in support among Wisconsinites for Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, who over the past several months had consistently polled behind Biden in the state. The reversal largely mirrors national trends.

Poll results

In the last Marquette Law School Poll in January, Sanders drew 19% support, second behind Biden with 23% support. But Biden’s distant finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire may be catching up to him and eroding his support among voters in other states. Biden received 12.9% support in Wisconsin, slightly less than Bloomberg, who had 13.2% support.

For Inger Alfred, a 32-year-old sales representative who lives in Ridgeway, Sanders checks a lot of the boxes.

“He’s older, but he looks like a blue-collar guy,” said Alfred, who grew up on a dairy farm. “He’s not worried about his ego, he’s not worried about Twitter, he’s not worried about his opinion, he’s not worried about making money in his pocket, he’s worried about the people. I feel like … he could make a run of Trump.”

Jackie McBain, a 40-year-old sales manager for Lands End who lives in Mineral Point, said she considered Biden early on because he represented a middle-of-the-road approach that might do well in a general election, but has lost interest.

“I’m not particularly excited about him,” McBain said. “I feel like he’s lost some traction and he’s … sort of … punching down others versus talking about his own policies, which just turns me off.”

McBain said she voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary, and intends to do the same in April, although she’s also considering former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar because of their appeal to moderate voters.

The appeal of moderate candidates isn’t lost on other left-leaning Democrats who agree with the liberal policies of Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren but fear they wouldn’t fare well in a general election.

“I love Bernie and Warren but I don’t know if I can see them actually winning,” said 30-year-old Milwaukee resident Brittany Jones-Dumas, who works as a recruiting coordinator. “I feel like America wants someone that’s more center even though I don’t want someone that’s center since I’m already leftist.”

Jones-Dumas said she’s leaning toward voting for Sanders or Warren, but that Biden, or possibly Bloomberg, who she dislikes, may do well among more moderate voters.

“I could see people voting for (Bloomberg) who are scared of more left things,” Jones-Dumas said.

While beating Trump in November is certainly an important priority for Democratic voters this year, more voters care about how each candidate’s policies align with their preferences. According to the poll, 34% of respondents said the main reason they supported their candidate was because they agree with them on most issues. That was followed by 20% saying their main reason was their preferred candidate had the best chance of beating Trump, and 19% said it was because their candidate was the most qualified.

And while Sanders leads Democratic primary voters on the whole, he lags among certain groups. Age has starkly divided the Democratic electorate, especially with Sanders. While 55% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 picked Sanders as their top choice, only 9% of voters over the age of 65 did. Bloomberg leads the senior age group with 26% support, but he only got 3% support from the youngest age group.

Support among different racial groups was less divided, although Biden is the top choice for black voters, while Sanders is the top pick for white and Hispanic voters. Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who have collected delegates in predominantly white early-voting states, but have struggled to catch on with minority voters, received 1% support among black voters in the three states combined.

The poll also asked whether the country is ready to elect a woman president, with 80% of Democrats and 74% of independents, though only 47% of Republicans, saying it is.

Bloomberg surges

As Biden’s fortunes have fallen, those of Bloomberg — who is not competing in the four early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada (which voted Saturday) and South Carolina (which votes next Saturday) — have only risen in the U.S. and in Wisconsin. Bloomberg received 6% support in January’s Marquette poll, but that has more than doubled to 13.2% in the UW poll, second only to Sanders though statistically tied with the others.

Bloomberg’s rise has come as his self-funded campaign has spent about $452 million on advertising since entering the race in November, far more than his Democratic rivals and more than former President Barack Obama’s campaign spent on TV and radio ads during the entire 2012 presidential campaign. Bloomberg has already hired 60 campaign staffers in Wisconsin.

Some Democratic voters see Bloomberg’s fortune as a big advantage that sets him up well against Trump.

“I think Bloomberg would be good,” said Waunakee resident Dee Byrnes, 61, who wants to vote for a Democrat in November. “I just think he’s got the experience, he’s got the backing. I know he’s got the money.”

With nearly all the candidates below Sanders jockeying to remain viable, Burden said Bloomberg “is the one with the most positive upward trajectory.”

But Bloomberg might have trouble getting the support of some Democratic voters. Philip Klinker, 20, a UW-Madison sophomore from Brookfield, said he would vote for any Democratic candidate in November except for Bloomberg, for whom he would sit the election out. He said he’ll support Sanders in the primary because he agrees with him on most issues and likes his consistency and the sincerity of his ideas.

Jones-Dumas from Milwaukee said Bloomberg “just bought his way into the election.”

Bloomberg was not one of the five Democratic candidates included in the UW poll’s head-to-head match-ups with Trump because he was an emerging candidate when the YouGov poll went into the field, Burden said. Though he has been surging in polls, Bloomberg struggled in his first debate performance last week, which came at the tail end of the UW polling period.

General election match-ups

The poll found tight general election match-ups in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, underscoring each state’s status as a contested battleground. Wisconsin has been consistently rated as a toss-up by national political prognosticators.

In Wisconsin, the five Democratic candidates all edged the president by 1 or 2 points, a statistical tie and well within the margin of error.

The results were notably different from those in a recent Quinnipiac University Poll, which found Trump leading all major Democratic candidates by 7 to 11 percentage points in Wisconsin. That poll had a more heavily Republican sample than the UW poll, which included 35% Democrats, 30% Republicans and 27% independents.

The UW poll found dissatisfaction with Trump’s job performance with 52% saying they disapproved, including 44% who strongly disapproved. Another 44% approved, including 29% who strongly approved.

Still, for many Wisconsinites, Trump, who won the state by a razor-thin margin in 2016, still has an appeal.

“I’m voting for Trump,” said Dave Kruchten, 63, who lives in the Town of Middleton. “I think he’s been good for the country. The economy’s rolling.”

Linda Reamon, 60, an assistant bank manager who lives in the township of Dodgeville, also plans to vote for Trump, as she did in 2016. She considers herself a conservative and prioritizes Christian values and the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. She said she considers some Democrats, especially Sanders and Warren, to be socialists, which is a significant concern for her.

“I like Trump, what he’s done to the government,” Reamon said. “I don’t necessarily like the guy himself, his tweets and that kind of situation.”

State Journal reporters Mitchell Schmidt, Kelly Meyerhofer, Logan Wroge, Emily Hamer and Elizabeth Beyer contributed to this report.

Here are the winners of every Wisconsin  presidential primary since 1968



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