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Can Bernie Sanders build a new coalition of low-income voters? 6 experts weigh in.

Bernie Sanders outperformed Hillary Clinton among low-income voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to exit polling data. What does that tell us about Sanders's potential electoral coalition? His coalition?
Bernie Sanders outperformed Hillary Clinton among low-income voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to exit polling data. What does that tell us about Sanders's potential electoral coalition? His coalition?
Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

Coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders seemed like he proved the point of his campaign with the demographics of his voters. Exit polls indicated that the Vermont senator is soundly beating Hillary Clinton among low-income voters.

In Iowa, Sanders beat Clinton by 57 to 41 among those earning less than $30,000. In New Hampshire, Sanders won the bottom income bracket by a 71-to-25 margin.

The notion that Sanders is winning over poor voters while struggling with the rich fits nicely with his campaign message, which is centered on hammering the outsize power of financial elites.

But does it reflect reality? We took the question to five political scientists and one historian. Here's what they had to say:

The income gap might be explained by the age gap

Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University

Sanders's support among those making under $30,000 in New Hampshire and Iowa may be explained at least partially by his popularity with young voters — who are often unemployed or underemployed — rather than with working-class supporters, Abramowitz said.

Sanders won voters ages 18 to 29 by a massive 67-point margin. It'd be misleading to say Sanders has the support of low-income voters if most of them were really students with no incomes who might be making much more just a few years down the road.

"You'd really want to control for age, because there's such a big generational divide among Democrats," Abramowitz said.

More generally, Abramowitz noted that Sanders won most income groups in New Hampshire by a significant margin. As a result, there's nothing particularly revealing about him also winning among those at the bottom of the income distribution.

"The difference is not that great until you compare the very lowest and the very highest [income brackets]," Abramowitz said. "Sanders essentially swept every group."

Abramowitz also said he wanted to see what happens in states like South Carolina and Michigan — where minorities comprise a much bigger portion of poor voters — before suggesting Sanders is winning over low-income support.

"I'm not saying that's not part of what's going on," Abramowitz said. "I would just want to wait and see the results in other states."

Sanders won New Hampshire in a landslide, so all numbers look good

Andrew Gelman, professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University

On Tuesday, Sanders won big in New Hampshire among those who call themselves very liberal and those who call themselves somewhat liberal. But, as Gelman pointed out, Sanders also won widely among those who identify as moderates.

"Does that mean Sanders is popular among moderates? It's hard to imagine," Gelman said.

One possibility, he said, is that a mix of factors made Sanders broadly popular in the state — and that this translated into his strong showing among self-described moderates, low-income voters, and Democrats in general.

It wouldn't be too surprising if Sanders really were drawing poorer voters to his campaign, Gelman said. But he also cautioned strongly against using New Hampshire's vote as evidence that Sanders's populist pitch was leading to support among low-income voters.

"[Sanders] was favored in New Hampshire; it's a neighboring state; he's popular there. To what extent were people voting there to be part of that story?" Gelman said. "There are a lot of reasons to vote for somebody."

Sanders speaks during a rally with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in September 2015.

Sanders speaks during a rally of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in September 2015. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

How the working class vote looks different than it did in 2008

Julia Azari, professor of political science at Marquette University

In 2008, Hillary Clinton badly lost the youth vote, including in the early primary states. But at the same time, she easily won the white working-class vote.

That outcome at least suggests that it is not only the youth vote that accounts for Sanders's support among low-income voters, Azari said. If the youth vote is the same as the low-income vote, how could they have gone in different directions in 2008?

Azari made a similar point in a recent post at FiveThirtyEight (she's also a contributor to Vox), not long after Clinton won the two highest income brackets in Iowa.

"The income differences between Clinton and Sanders voters in 2016 are consistent with the campaigns’ messages about capitalism and income inequality," she wrote. "But if we consider the current race to be a contest about the direction of the Democratic Party, the emergence of a new income fault line is significant."

Like the others we talked to, Azari warned against reading too much into early results. But she said there may be reason to believe there's a new constituency in the Democratic Party rallying to Sanders's banner — and that this new group includes low-income voters.

"Maybe this income gap is part of an ideological swing," she said in an interview.

Attacks on Sanders as an unserious candidate may be resonating with elites more

Jed Purdy, professor of law at Duke University

As the Sanders campaign has gained steam over the past several weeks, elite liberals have rallied to Clinton's defense. They've argued that Sanders is unelectable and that he faces long odds in a general election.

It seems revealing that after this round of attacks in the media, the only income group backing Clinton in New Hampshire were high-income voters, according to Purdy.

"The line that the Sanders candidacy is irresponsible and amounts to throwing away a vote may be getting to the elite constituency," Purdy said.

Breaking down the vote by income also punctures the narrative that "Sanders is a boutique candidate for a certain kind of elite liberal," according to Purdy.

"I think that's looking harder and harder to sustain," Purdy said. "It's looking like he's a mix of the 'establishment protest' constituency, youth voters, and — by all reports — blue-collar voters."

Purdy also gave a more damning assessment of what the apparent weakness with low- and moderate-income voters means for Clinton.

"I think it's really interesting and awkward for the Clintons that the relatively small share of people who are doing really well seem to be the only ones who are breaking for her," he said.

The fact that Sanders doesn't call himself a liberal could help him with the working-class vote

Matthew Karp, professor of history at Princeton College

Even before the primaries were held, Karp noticed that something interesting was happening in the Iowa polling data: Wagon and truck drivers were breaking for Sanders, while SUV and sedan drivers supported Clinton.

In January, Karp published an article in Jacobin, "The Bernie Coalition," that argued Sanders was reaching low-income voters. The early results appear to have validated that prediction.

The problem has been to think of Sanders as belonging to a line that includes Bill Bradley, Howard Dean, and Barack Obama — insurgent Democratic candidates who won elite and upper-class voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, Karp said.

"If you come at it from a Beltway perspective, it’s presumed that the liberal candidate is the 'wine track' candidate," Karp said. "But Sanders is not a liberal, and he’s never called himself that."

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Sanders at a rally in Boston in October 2015. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

There's evidence for Sanders's growing working-class support beyond the New Hampshire and Iowa primary results.

Karp pointed to a recent story by the New York Times's Nate Cohn, which found income to be a key dividing line in the campaign.

He also cited a story published Wednesday, "The Sanders Coalition: Not What We Thought It Was," by NBC News's Steve Kornacki. It showed that Sanders didn't do particularly well in Hanover, the home of Dartmouth College and a big locus of Obama support in 2008, but did excel in some low-income mill towns.

"It's very, very suggestive that there is a class dynamic as well as an age dynamic," Karp said of the New Hampshire results. "It just seems to me that there’s a basic logic that voters who would benefit the most from the universal, redistributive programs Sanders supports are drawn to him."

Why we shouldn't read too much into the exit poll data

Jan Leighley, professor in the government department at American University

There are so many potential problems with exit polling data, it's hard to count them all. That was the reaction of Leighley, who specializes in American political behavior and voter turnout.

"The polls can be screwed up in a number of ways — in who is willing to answer them, in the design of the survey, in which polling precincts the surveys are distributed at," she said. "There are all kinds of methodological issues that are kind of ugly."

Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white states, and — for now, at least — it seems likely Clinton will do better among low-income voters when more of them are minorities, according to Leighley.

"As we move to states that are more racially diverse, the extent to which you're going to see that pattern hold is going to be dependent on some combination of the extent to which race versus income come into play," she said.

Sanders's support among low-income voters in the Iowa and New Hampshire exit polls, according to Leighley, shouldn't be confidently interpreted to mean more than that.

"This says: Among people who voted, who showed up to vote, and reported an income less than $30,000 — yes, Sanders won their vote," Leighley said. "To extrapolate from that ... to a very different population base in the coming states, I think that's where we need to be very careful."

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