The State of the Democratic Primary in Wisconsin
Breaking down Bernie Sanders' big lead, Democrats' strength with older voters, Bloomberg upending the moderates, Warren's vanishing youth support, and more.
The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Wisconsin frontrunner Bernie Sanders campaigns in North Carolina in September 2019. Photo by Jackson Lanier - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Wisconsin might be the most important state in the 2020 presidential election, and the Marquette University Law School Poll is the state’s gold standard of measuring where voters stand, so here at The Recombobulation Area, each new poll is going to be monitored closely. Last time, we took a look at where President Trump’s support was coming from around the state. Before that, we took a closer look at Pete Buttigieg’s support in Wisconsin. See other breakdowns from November and October and August.
In many ways, this new poll flipped the table on what was happening in the Democratic primary in Wisconsin. There’s a new leader (Bernie Sanders), a new second-place finisher (Mike Bloomberg), and a whole new paradigm after votes have finally been cast in the first states on the primary schedule.
There is a mountain of fascinating information in this poll, and there’s a lot for us to look at, so let’s get right to it.
Senator Bernie Sanders is in the driver’s seat
For the first time since primary polling began in earnest in August, the senior Senator from Vermont is leading the field in Wisconsin. And he’s not just winning, he now has a 12-point lead over any other candidate, after vaulting 10 percentage points since January.
Here are the results for first choice among Democratic primary voters (with change since the Jan. 8-12 poll):
Bernie Sanders: 29% (+10)
Mike Bloomberg: 17% (+11)
Joe Biden: 15% (-8)
Pete Buttigieg: 13% (-2)
Amy Klobuchar: 11% (+7)
Elizabeth Warren: 9% (-5)
Don’t know: 4% (-5)
He’s also the only candidate polling ahead of Trump in head-to-head matchups, at 48 percent to 46 percent.
Back in November in this space, I predicted a surge for Sanders. His underlying support among groups key to success in Wisconsin was strong, and he was well-positioned to make his move. And move, he has, particularly since the last poll, a stretch of time that’s included the first three state contests, several debates, and heightened intensity as the primary reaches its most crucial stage.
Bernie Sanders has emerged as the clear frontrunner in Wisconsin. He has a double-digit lead over any other Democratic candidate. He’s the only one polling with a lead against Trump in head-to-head matchups. He could absolutely win in Wisconsin -- and that goes for the primary and the general election. He’s certainly on track to headline the convention in Milwaukee in July.
Who are the voters driving Sanders’ surge?
When you break down each poll, there are some areas where Sanders has led the Democratic field the entire campaign. He’s led with Democratic voters age 18-29* by huge margins each time, and has been on top with the age 30-44 group in all but one poll.
Here’s how those two age groups break down in the newest poll:
18-29 (*Note: This group is a smaller sample size than and has a larger margin of error):
Warren: 0% (more on this later)
With voters in the 18-29 age group, Sanders was already leading, but his support jumped considerably after Andrew Yang (who was polling in second with young voters in January at 22 percent) dropped out of the race on Feb. 11.
Here’s how Sanders has polled by month among voters age 18-29:
Bernie Sanders has also led with Hispanic voters in every poll, often by enormous margins. He’s polled with more than 60 percent support in three of the last four polls. No other candidate has shown any consistent support among Hispanic voters in Wisconsin at any point of the campaign.
It’s important to look at those two voting groups -- young people and Hispanic voters -- as what might constitute his base, but his support is now extending well beyond a base of support.
Many pundits have discussed how Sanders might have difficulty winning independents or moderates, or Democrats who do not share his further-left views, or even with women, who make up the majority of Democratic Party voters. But in head-to-head matchups with Trump, he’s not meaningfully different than many of the other candidates, and in fact, polls stronger in several areas.
Here’s one area that will be incredibly important to watch in the months to come:
(All numbers below are head-to-head with Trump, among all voters polled)
Among women voters:
And here’s how the candidates stack up with with moderates:
And with independents (using Party ID, no leaners):
Sanders might not be performing the strongest of all the candidates in any area, but he’s in range with just about anyone. He’s certainly not the cataclysmic, ultra-divisive, moderate-poison figure that some in punditworld paint him to be.
And for the first time of the campaign, Sanders leads the primary in all four age groups. He’d been struggling mightily with older voters throughout the race, polling at just 5 percent with the 60+ group as recently as November, but now he’s up to 22 percent there.
And why is that important? Well…
60+ is the most reliable age group for...Democrats (yes, really)
Here’s one of the most surprising results of the poll. Among the head-to-head matchups, every single Democratic candidate beats Trump in the oldest age group.
That’s not the case with other age groups. In the 18-29 group — and, reminder, the head-to-head matchups are among all voters — Sanders wins by a huge margin, Warren has a narrow lead, but every other candidate is losing against Trump.
The president’s most reliable support in head-to-head matchups comes from voters ages 30 to 59. In the 30-44 age group, not a single Democrat clears 40 percent vs. Trump. In the 45-59 age group, only Buttigieg is within five percentage points of the president.
No moderate is emerging as a real contender
Mike Bloomberg’s late entry into the race really shook things up for this poll. He jumped 11 points into second place overall in the state, but he’s hardly earned his place as a real challenger. In no place in the polling does he significantly distinguish himself from any of the other more moderate candidates remaining in the race.
And among Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, no one is consolidating a competitive center-left coalition of support.
Biden was leading this poll every month since he entered the race, but has dropped from 30 percent in November to 15 percent in February. Buttigieg was gaining some momentum, but never enough to make him a serious contender in Wisconsin, despite his repeated emphasis on being from the Midwest, and now he’s leveling off. Klobuchar’s support is up seven percent in this poll, but she was only polling at four percent before this, and she still has a long way to go, even if she’s shown some solid progress in the northern parts of the state. And Bloomberg, with all the money he’s spending, isn’t polling in a meaningfully different way than many of his moderate counterparts, is polling below his overall number with women voters, has next-to-no support with voters 18-29 (2%), and is the only candidate with a more unfavorable than favorable rating among Democratic voters.
Bloomberg’s entry into the race is clearly hurting Biden. The former vice president was still holding on to a lead in January, but now he’s dropped to third, and it’s hard not to see the trajectories of these campaigns as directly connected.
In aggregate, Biden still probably has the best chance of any of the moderates -- his support is far more diverse than Buttigieg or Klobuchar, and there’s consistency and statewide competitiveness that Bloomberg will never have. Biden is trending in the wrong direction, that’s indisputable, but things haven’t fallen off the cliff and he still has a lot of support in a lot of places.
But will these non-Sanders moderate Democrats ever make up their mind and back one candidate? Right now, it doesn’t seem likely.
Elizabeth Warren’s support with young voters has disappeared
Warren polled at zero with voters age 18-29 in Wisconsin. Not a single person in that age group responded to the poll saying she was their first choice. A once-promising level of support with young people completely evaporated as the primary season heated up.
Here’s her support among 18-29-year-old voters by month (again, a smaller sample size with a larger margin of error than other age groups):
That was the worst news in what was a really rough poll for the Massachusetts senator. Perhaps some success on Super Tuesday could change the calculus for Warren, but things aren’t looking good for her right now in Wisconsin.
Her support among black and Hispanic voters just never came together.
By month with black voters (very small sample size, large margin of error):
With Hispanic voters (very small sample size, large margin of error):
She’s also polling the worst among the top-six candidates in head-to-head matchups against Trump, at 44 percent to 47 percent. Until this poll, she was doing relatively well with independents. Now, she’s at just five percent, the worst of the top six.
She’s even polling behind the five other contenders with women voters:
She remains the top second choice in the field, at 23 percent, and notably, 56 percent of voters said they might still change their mind. But you have to wonder how much of that 23 percent is coming from the frontrunner polling at 29 percent as a first choice.
No one is beating Trump in the Milwaukee suburbs
I’ve already detailed why Trump’s strongest support is coming from the Milwaukee suburbs, so it’s no surprise to see that his approval rating is the strongest in the “Rest of Milwaukee” region, at 56 percent, up from 53 percent in January. His overall approval rating is at 48 percent in favor, 48 percent opposed, the highest net approval of his presidency in Wisconsin.
And matching up against Trump, no candidate is particularly close in the #crucial region, with only Sanders above 40 percent:
Where do the candidates stand in the other four regions? Well, since you asked:
Rest of State:
No matter who the nominee is (and there’s no reason to think it won’t be Sanders at this point), the race against Trump will be an extremely competitive one. Other polls have put Trump up by a higher margin against his potential challengers than this poll does, and even though the Marquette Poll is likely much closer to correctly assessing where things currently stand, each head-to-head matchup is still within the margin of error. Considering the campaign of disinformation and voter suppression that’s sure to come from Trump and his party, there’s reason to believe he should be the heavy favorite here.
And if it’s going to be Sanders vs. Trump, there’s no telling where this campaign could go. It’s a good time to indulge some curiosity and keep learning about where people are hoping our leaders could take us into the 2020s.
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Follow Dan on Twitter at @DanRShafer.