Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters

Greg Nash

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is surging in the Democratic primary contest but faces questions over whether his battles with 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) could pull on his standing with women.

Clinton this week tore into her former rival, reminding voters of the longstanding feud between their supporters and raising questions about whether women disappointed Clinton didn’t break the last glass ceiling in U.S. politics will hold it against Sanders.

“Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done,” Clinton said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “He was a career politician. It’s all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.”

Earlier this month, Sanders tangled with Warren after she said that in a 2018 meeting between the two progressives, Sanders said he did not think a woman could be elected president. Sanders has vehemently denied the account, but Warren has stuck with it and accused Sanders of calling her a liar on national television when the issue was discussed at a debate in Iowa.

“Securing votes from women will be an uphill struggle for Sanders,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “When there’s an argument between a male and female candidate, most voters will see the male candidate as a bully. So, his confrontation with Warren just before Iowa and New Hampshire comes at a bad time for Sanders.”

The Sanders campaign and its supporters point to a variety of polls and other indicators that show the Vermont independent has significant support among women.

A WBUR poll out this week showed that he has the support of “slightly more women than men.” It found that that Sanders received a favorable rating of 77 percent among women in New Hampshire and 69 percent among men. The reason women backed Sanders so strongly is because many labeled healthcare as their top issue.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, in contrast, had a 59 percent approval rating among women in the poll.

Sanders has also raised more money from women — more than $24 million — than any other 2020 Democratic candidate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.  

His national leadership team includes 70 percent of women, according to his campaign. 

The Sanders campaign also has one of the most powerful surrogates in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) who has gone on the attack against Biden in recent days. 

Sanders allies say their candidate can appeal to women and indeed is appealing to women, though some also say the timing of the battles with Warren and Clinton leaves room for concern.

“He’s a tremendous advocate for women and his record shows that but it wasn’t exactly ideal for us to be on the receiving end of these fights with Warren and Clinton, two of the most powerful women in the Democratic party,” said one Sanders ally. “The timing was awful. This is when voters are paying attention.” 

On the heels of the public disagreement with Warren, the Sanders campaign released an ad in Iowa and New Hampshire highlighting his support of women’s rights, including equal pay, paid family leave and abortion rights. 

The ad was meant to bolster Sanders’s support with women, but was also a sign of worry about the damage from the Warren battle.

“There needs to be some damage control,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University and a scholar of women’s studies. “If it hasn’t hurt him, there still is the potential to. It isn’t something he should be ignoring.”

The ally of Sanders pointed out that Sanders ate into Clinton’s lead with women during the 2016 Democratic primary. At the time, Sanders appealed to younger women who weren’t as concerned with seeing the first woman president in their lifetimes. Sanders won over those voters with policy proposals that included government support to make college tuition-free.

Sanders is looking to replicate the effort this cycle.

To do so, “he needs to double down on his policy vision, highlight how his ideas will benefit Americans broadly and women specifically,” said Democratic strategist Lynda Tran. 

The ads appealing to women seek to do just that, combating any residue from the fights with Warren and Clinton.  

“Bernie Sanders is on our side and always has been,” a female narrator says. 

The television spot also features Sanders saying “women do not need 80 cents on the dollar. They need the whole damn dollar.” 


Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Joe Biden
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