By Ben Christopher, Jackie Botts and Jacqueline García

For all the talk of electability, Sen. Bernie Sanders would have the Democratic presidential nomination in the bag if every voter were like Ryan Frye, his two adult brothers, his sister-in-law and his parents. 

The family, which shares a home in the small, rural town of Newman in California’s Central Valley, have all pledged their allegiance to Sanders in the race.

“He knows more about the kind of issues that have been affecting me and seems to actually genuinely care… The financial issues, income inequality, access to health care,” said Ryan Frye, 30, who lives off the roughly $200 he earns from repairing computers and the $194 he gets in food stamps each month. 

To Frye, Bernie’s appeal is obvious: “Because his policies are actually targeted to help people with low incomes,” he said. 

The Vermont senator holds a commanding lead in virtually every California primary poll. But he can count on one voting bloc in particular: People who don’t make much money. 

What the polls say

In California, 46% of likely Democratic voters in households earning less than $40,000 a year said they would vote for Sanders, according to a Feb. 20 through Feb. 25 survey from the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. That’s substantially higher than his support among all likely voters, which sits at 34%

In most California counties, that income threshold would be close to living in poverty. In some of the priciest counties, such as Santa Clara and San Mateo, it would bring a family of four below the California Poverty Measure, which takes into account the local cost of living. 

No other candidate even comes close to Sanders’ support from low-income voters. Michael Bloomberg came in second, picking up 14%, slightly higher than his overall support of 12%. Sen. Elizabeth Warren had only 11% of the low-income voters and Biden trailed with just 6%. Those shares are below their overall California polling numbers of 17% and 8%, meaning low-income voters are less likely to support them, according to the poll.

National polls have similar findings, though the differences are a little less pronounced. Two surveys — one from Washington Post-ABC and another from Quinnipiac University — found that Sanders picked up a disproportionate share of those earning less than $50,000 among Democratic-leaning registered voters.

Experts warn against overemphasizing these figures. Polls offer fuzzy estimates of how the public feels. And estimates based on smaller and smaller subsets of respondents (for instance, from voters, to low-income voters, to low-income voters who support Sanders) are especially uncertain. The sampling error is approximately plus or minus 2 percent for the 3,022 Democratic primary likely voters in the Berkeley poll. Only 489 voters living in households making less than $40,000 annually were surveyed, which means the sampling error is higher for them.

However, three other recent polls had strikingly similar results: In all of them, more than one-third of Californians with limited resources backed Sanders. 

A February survey from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 42% of likely Democratic voters in households earning less than $40,000 a year said they would vote for Sanders (compared to 32% overall). Also in February, a Monmouth survey of likely California voters showed he had the support of 35% of those making less than $50,000 (compared to 24% overall).

And a mid-January poll from the Berkeley Institute found that 40% of likely voters earning less than $40,000 supported Sanders (compared to 26% overall). 

That could give him a big boost in the Golden State, where many are feeling the squeeze. More than a third of California households earn less than $50,000 a year, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

What’s it about Bernie? 

There are a number of reasons why Sanders appeals to people who don’t earn much money. The easiest explanation is, as Frye puts it, that Sanders’ positions, which include dramatically expanding public benefits and then sticking the rich with the bill, plays to the financial self-interest of working class and poor Californians.

A conservative critic of the senator might put it much less charitably: These are voters looking for a government handout.

“His message is explicitly economic,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California. “So he’s speaking about wealth inequality, economic inequality. He’s talking about the 1% and the 99%. He’s very anti-establishment — at least that’s how he frames himself.”

Sanders may play especially well in a state where residents are increasingly concerned about a widening economic divide. About eight in ten likely California voters said they thought poverty was a big issue or somewhat of an issue and seven in ten said the gap between the rich and poor is growing where they live, in a January poll conducted by PPIC.

Sanders, of course, is not the only candidate with a populist streak. Warren’s economic policies mirror many of Sanders’ plans. And though the other candidates are more moderate, most also have made jobs and inequality a hallmark of their platforms and stump speeches. 

Sanders’ broader appeal may also be due to his name recognition in California. Since the 2016 primary, where Sanders made a surprisingly strong show against Hillary Clinton, he has been a known entity. And compared to the sometimes-wonky messaging of Warren and the means-tested social programs advocated by other candidates, Sanders’ proposals are easy to parse: Medicare for All, free college education.

Low-income voters also are more likely to not belong to a political party, so Sanders’ status as a Democratic Socialist standing outside the big tent of the Democratic Party may also help him with this group of voters.

For Isabel Gurrola, 21, of South Central Los Angeles, Sanders seems to speak directly to her financial concerns: the costs of healthcare and college, a minimum wage that doesn’t stretch far enough and inadequate workplace protections.  

Gurrola, a CSU Fullerton student, receives financial aid to pay her tuition. She works part time in retail to help cover expenses for her mother, four younger siblings and grandparents. Her mother can’t vote due to her legal status but her grandparents can. They trust Gurrola’s judgment, she said, so they plan to vote for Sanders as well.

“Bernie wants everyone to have universal healthcare…so for my family, it would be great… to be able to have health care”, she said, adding that “free higher education for my younger brothers” also is welcomed.

Latinos like Gurrola and her family are likely to be one of Sanders’ most important voting blocs in California.

“He’s also done a lot of outreach in the Latino community,” Romero said. “And, yes, Latinos skew more lower income.”

A quarter of California Latinos don’t have enough resources to cover the basic cost of living in their area, and more than another quarter live right on the brink, with household incomes between 100-150% of the California Poverty Measure. Among Californians under the age of 30, 43% live in or near poverty.

Here’s the unsolvable puzzle, given the limitation of the polls: Low-income Californians seem to like Sanders, but low-income Californians also are much more likely to be Latino, young, or both, said Dean Bonner, associate survey director at the Public Policy Institute of California. And those groups also happen to like Sanders.

“There’s some entanglement there,” Bonner said. “With Sanders, all of this is balled up because his support is higher among Latinos, it’s higher among young people, it’s higher among younger latinos.”

So does Sanders’ get high marks from low-income voters across the board? Or do those numbers just reflect that he’s popular in communities that make up a big chunk of low-income voters? Are working class, older, white, low-income Democrats as likely to support him?

Pollsters like Bonner can’t say. The number of survey respondents who fall into these multiple overlapping categories is just too small to be representative of anything.

Mixed appeal

The question matters because it speaks to the source of Sanders’ appeal in California — and potentially nationwide. As an ecumenical working class hero who appeals to low-income Americans regardless of race and age, Sanders might be able to ride to the Democratic nomination, and perhaps the White House. 

But Sanders’ appeal may be a bit narrower.  Young voters may be drawn to the senator’s ideological purity, his message of dramatic social change and his anti-establishment cred. California Latinos may disproportionately back Sanders for a wide variety of reasons, including the candidate’s long, concerted outreach effort across the state. And that may not translate as well to other states, with fewer young and Latino voters.

Notably, Warren’s economic plans don’t differ much from Sanders’ plans, but she polls way below him among Latinos. 

If that’s the case, would Sanders the nominee still be able to count on the support of lower-income, older white Americans, whose vote proved decisive for President Trump in electorally significant states during the 2016 election?

Romero said Sanders is waging a risky electoral bet, but one with an enormous potential payoff. Low-income, Latino and young: What all these subsets of Sanders’ base have in common is that, historically, they aren’t as likely to vote.

Sanders’ promises to inspire a wave of traditional nonvoters to go to the polls have yet to bear out. In the Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada primary contests, his supporters were largely traditional Democrat voters.

“We hear election after election about the potential youth vote or the potential Latino vote and then afterwards we hear that it wasn’t as high as we wanted it to be,” said Romero. 

But polls are one thing, turnout is another.

Ramiro Olvera, a 64-year-old retired state employee in Coachella Valley who lives on less than $40,000 a year of Social Security and retirement earnings, plans to vote for Sanders, mainly because he wants immigration reform and universal health care. Olvera said he is a frequent voter because he is the voice of his family and friends who aren’t citizens and can’t vote. But he’s been surprised to see how the senator is motivating a younger generation to get involved.

“’I’m also astonished to see the large crowd of youth that supports him. I have spoken with my nephews at family gatherings and we agreed on a lot of his plans,” Olvera said.
Ben Christopher and Jackie Botts are reporters at CalMatters. Jacqueline García is a reporter with La Opinión. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

Ben Christopher and Jackie Botts are reporters at CalMatters. Jacqueline García is a reporter with La Opinión. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...

Jackie covered income inequity and economic survival for the The California Divide collaboration from 2019 through 2021. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting in 2021 for a Reuters...

Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. She is based at La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles, where she has covered issues ranging...