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Poll: Calif. turnout crucial as Clinton-Sanders race tightens

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, prior to a presidential candidate debate. (Photo: Joseph Sohm, via Shuitterstock)

With just two months remaining before California voters will be casting their ballots in the state’s Democratic primary for President, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s once commanding lead over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has declined to just six points. Clinton is currently the choice of 47% of likely voters in this state’s Democratic presidential primary, while 41% now favor Sanders. Clinton’s current six-point lead in California is only about half the margins found in each of the last two Field Polls conducted in January and October.

The poll finds huge differences in preferences across demographic subgroups of the likely Democratic primary electorate. The widest differences are generational. Sanders is supported by a greater than four-to-one margin among voters age 18-29, while Clinton is favored nearly three to one among Democratic primary voters age 65 or older. The complete poll with graphics and a description of its methodology is available here.

There is also a significant “gender gap” in preferences, with Clinton holding a commanding seventeen-point lead among women, but Sanders preferred by eight points among men.

Big differences are also observed between registered Democrats and the state’s non-partisan voters, who are also eligible to participate in California’s Democratic presidential primary. Among likely voters who are registered Democrats, Clinton is preferred by eleven points, whereas among nonpartisans Sanders holds a ten-point advantage.

These differences mean that relatively modest changes in the relative sizes of these voting blocs would have a big impact on each candidate’s overall standing statewide. Thus, turnout will play a critical role in the primary.

Clinton’s once commanding lead in California has declined to just six points
About a year ago Clinton held a huge 66% to 9% advantage over Sanders in California. Her lead diminished significantly during the late summer and fall as the field of potential candidates winnowed and Sanders’ campaign began picking up steam nationally. By October 47% of the state’s likely Democratic primary voters favored Clinton, while 35% backed Sanders. Since then, the proportion of likely Democratic primary voters backing Clinton has remained static at 47%, while support for Sanders has increased six points to 41%.

Very large differences in preferences across subgroups of the Democratic primary electorate
There are huge differences in voting preferences across different demographic subgroups of the California’s likely Democratic presidential primary electorate.

Sanders’ support is spearheaded by the overwhelming backing of voters under age 30, who prefer the Vermont Senator over Clinton greater than four to one. By contrast, Democratic primary voters age 65 or older prefer Clinton over Sanders nearly three to one.

The race also exhibits a significant gender gap in voting preferences, with Clinton currently preferred among female Democrats by seventeen points and Sanders leading among males by eight points. There are big also generational differences among men and women, with Sanders the clear leader among voters of both sexes among those under age 40, while Clinton is preferred by majorities of men and women age 40 or older.

One of the state’s fasting growing voting constituencies, Latinos, are now closely divided in their presidential preferences. The current poll finds 49% of Latinos backing Clinton and 42% supporting Sanders. This represents a narrowing of Clinton’s advantage among Latinos from January, when Clinton held an eighteen-point advantage (53% to 35%) over Sanders among Latinos. The current poll also finds a huge generational divide among Latino voters, with 69% of Latinos under age 40 backing Sanders, and 66% of Latinos age 40 or older supporting Clinton.

Big differences are also observed between registered Democrats and the state’s non-partisan voters, who are also eligible to vote in California’s Democratic presidential primary. Among likely voters who are registered Democrats, Clinton is preferred by eleven points, whereas among non-partisans Sanders holds a large twenty-one point advantage.

There are also class differences in preferences. Clinton holds big leads over Sanders among homeowners and voters who live in households with incomes of $100,000 or more. By contrast, Sanders is leading among renters and runs about even with Clinton among low and moderate income voters.

These large subgroup differences mean that even modest changes in the relative sizes of these voting constituencies in the primary would have a big impact on each candidate’s overall support.

Both Clinton and Sanders are viewed favorably by large majorities of Democratic primary voters
Greater than seven in ten likely voters in California’s Democratic presidential primary hold positive views of both Democratic contenders. For Clinton, 70% say they have a favorable impression of her, while 27% offer a negative assessment. Sanders’ profile among Democratic primary voters is even more positive, with 75% viewing him favorably and 16% unfavorably.

However, in the current poll Sanders is viewed much more favorably by voters currently backing Clinton, than Clinton is among supporters of Sanders. Clinton backers offer a more than two-to-one positive assessment of Sanders (61% to 26%). By contrast, Sanders’ supporters hold mixed views of Clinton, with 50% rating her positively and 47% negatively.

Sanders is viewed more positively than Clinton among the overall California electorate
When a cross-section of all California voters are asked their impressions of the two Democratic presidential contenders, Sanders possesses a more positive image profile than Clinton. Statewide, 55% of voters say they have a favorable opinion of Sanders, while 35% offer a negative assessment. The electorate is more evenly divided when asked about Clinton, with 47% having a favorable opinion and 48% unfavorable.

Opinions of the two Democrats are highly partisan and ideological, with very large majorities of registered Democrats and liberals viewing each positively, while Republicans and conservatives hold much more negative opinions.

Ed’s Note: The survey was conducted March 24–April 4, 2016, among 1,400 registered voters in California, including 584 who are considered likely to vote in the state’s June Democratic presidential primary election.


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