What we’ve learnt from the Bernie Sanders’ supporters survey so far


Results are starting to trickle in from the Bernie Sanders’ supporters survey. The purpose of our survey is to gain knowledge and information about what Bernie Sanders supporters find works in campaigning and advocating for Sanders, so that information can be shared and supporters can learn from the experience of other supporters. The philosophy here is research for action- we want to gain actionable qualitative and quantitative data that can be used to help elect Bernie Sanders. The survey is unofficial, not run by the Sanders campaign.

We’re finding it very difficult to get respondents for a reason which, in hindsight, we probably should have anticipated, people are reluctant to fill out surveys made by strangers. In order to deal with this problem we’ve decided to improvise by releasing our analysis in steps. We’ll share what we’ve learnt from the first batch of responses, and hopefully that will inspire others to take the survey. Although it wasn’t our initial plan, this approach has some advantages- later respondents can respond not just to the survey questions, but also to the information contained in our analysis, correcting or expanding on points, effectively creating “research by conversation”.

You can find a link to the survey at the bottom of this article. Have a read of our analysis so far, and consider filling out the survey and passing it on if you find it useful.

Key points so far

What Sanders’ supporters in our sample like about him

Overwhelmingly respondents in our sample like Bernie because of his policies. Even when they talk about other positive aspects of Bernie- for example his character traits, these qualities are always tied back to his policy agenda.

Some quotes that illustrate this:

“I trust him to pursue the policies he has espoused. If elected, he’s not going to do something different than what he has advocated.”

“His genuine compassion for other human beings. Every politician will tell you they care, but very few will fight for policies that actually reflect that. Bernie is the real deal.”

“His strength and courage to fight for the average person for the last 30+ years.”

So it’s not that our respondents don’t care about personal virtues, it’s just that these virtues are seen as reflections of policy position.  Bernie is virtuous because of his political views and activity, and Bernie’s political activity reflects his virtues. He is trustworthy because he will keep pursuing his policies. He is compassionate because he fights for compassionate policies. He is courageous because he hasn’t changed the policies he’s arguing for in thirty years.

This is good news for the Sanders’ campaign, at least in relation to holding on to core supporters like those who answered our survey. Many people back candidates because they have favourable qualities like compassion or experience, but these assessments can change. Bernie’s core support is built on a more solid basis of shared beliefs. People believe in Bernie because of what Bernie believes in, and there is little chance of Bernie’s beliefs changing.

Memory as strategy

Coming now to what Sanders’ supporters find works in persuading others to back Sanders’, many respondents suggested focusing on the larger historical picture, building a narrative of Sanders’ long advocacy for equality.

“Tell the truth and point out the corruption directly. Point out the history of the country. Where we’ve been, how neoliberal policy systematically destroyed the middle class. Get people to remember. Hindsight.”

“His consistency. He’s been railing about the same problems for 40 years”

“I’ve found the most effective approach is to point out his long consistent record of being on the correct side of history and fighting for ordinary Americans rather than the few on top.”

“Explaining how his views have never changed”

There’s a power in focusing on Bernie’s long record, it encourages a longer political view. Part of the way politicians control people is by focusing on the now, keeping people obsessed with the latest crisis, obscuring the long rise of income inequality. Trump is a disastrous president, but he didn’t come out of nowhere. He reflects a long broken system. Talking about Sanders’ long record of fighting to fix that system reminds us that this election needs to be about just getting Trump out. Unless the system is fixed, it will just produce more Trumps. Just “going back to normal” won’t defeat Trumpism-  “normal” is what produced Trump.

A quick editorial comment here. Many people in the mainstream media have expressed mystification about the fact that so many young people love Bernie Sanders given that he is in his late seventies. Actually I think that many young people admire him precisely because of his age. He has had many opportunities to join the neoliberal order that has screwed over anyone less than rich, and he never has. He’s carrying the torch of an older generation of leftists that was almost extinguished by neoliberalism but never quite died out. His bravery in carrying these ideas across lonely decades to a new generation receptive to them is greatly appreciated.

On negativity

A couple of people have written in so far warning that they’ve found being negative about other candidates doesn’t work.

“Being negative about Trump or any other candidate.”

“Being super negative about his opponents- talking about Bernie’s positives always works better than just straight up attacking others. If a person likes someone else or agrees with them on an issue, they can close up and get defensive about that candidate or position. It makes them less open to new ideas.”

“Being hard-nosed and/or confrontational when it comes to discussing Trump. Just stick to the facts and try to show that Bernie’s is a better way.”

Talk, don’t argue

One respondent said something that really stood out to me and meshed with my experiences. If anyone disagrees or agrees and would like to expand I’d love to hear from you via the survey :

“Don’t try & prove people wrong- try to find out what is important to them, & allow them to prove themselves wrong. I.e.- ‘I don’t like socialist policies!’ I will try to understand their definition, and probe to see if they really disagree- ex: ‘oh so it’s when you have to pay extra $$ for poor people not working? Or when you pay less $$ to not send your kid to private school?’ When they start questioning their understanding of policies/impacts, only then can you actually begin a real conversation.”

In other words, remember that talking to people about Bernie is not about trying “win” an argument with them, it’s about trying to have a conversation, to learn more about them and their political concerns, and to illustrate how voting for Bernie might be the best choice for them given their values. Aim for a fireside chat, rather than a bully pulpit sermon.

Knowing when to walk away

Our respondents clearly made the point that you shouldn’t spend unlimited energy debating those who aren’t going to move. The purpose of campaigning is not to win debates, it’s to win support. It’s easy to get caught up arguing with someone who is never going to budge, but everyone has limited time and emotional energy, so you should conserve yours for when it can be put to good use. As some of our wise respondents remarked:

“Trying to engage with MAGA supporters is futile. They are so brainwashed and ignorant of the facts.”

“Other than talking to Trump supporters who have closed minds or Hillary supporters who simply want to bully and also are close minded to facts.”

“Can’t fix stupid. Know when to walk away.”

I think these respondents are right on the money, but I would say that we need to temper these points with a few other considerations. Firstly, not everyone who voted Trump is a massive MAGAhead, people can change. Secondly, sometimes it’s worth carrying on an argument even with someone you can’t persuade if there are potential undecided onlookers. You might not reach your racist uncle at thanksgiving, but if you are paitent, knowledgeable and rational you might get through to your cousin who is listening to the argument.

Older voters

A couple of respondents made the point that the potential appeal of Sanders to older voters is often underestimated. No other candidate shares his strength of commitment to social security and medicare. One respondent remarked:

“He is focusing too much of his appeal on millenials and too little on those over 60. “

Reaching out to older voters can be easier than it sounds, and is something a grass roots movement could attempt. Many of them are very happy to talk about politics, and their economic interests are strongly aligned Sanders’ program.

My favourite comment so far: the power of solidarity

I thought this comment deserved special mention.

“The greatest thing about this movement is finding so many others feel the same way you do, are having the same experiences as you and share the vision to fix the what’s wrong in our country. There is nothing quite like realizing you aren’t alone, and that there are people out there that see you and your burdens and want to fight by your side to make things better for everyone.”

Being part of a collective movement for change is an amazing experience.

Quantitative data

For the most part, our quantitative data can only tell us about the respondents who answered our survey- generalising to Bernie Sanders supporters as a whole would be a mistake. However some quite interesting patterns emerge.

19/20 respondents so far have said that they support Sanders campaign totally (5/5). Only one respondent gave a 4/5. Clearly our respondents are very strong supporters. This is probably unsurprising, it’s a very extensive survey, and only the committed will complete it all.

13/20 have donated so far. However only 7/20 have formally volunteered for the Sanders campaign so far.

17/19 respondents gave either a 4 or a 5 in response to the question “Do you try to talk to people, whether online or not online, about Bernie Sanders, in order to persuade them to support him?”.

Respondents gave extremely diverse answers to the question of whether they primarily campaign online or in person, suggesting a variety of strategies.

Interestingly, 50% of respondents made less than 30,000 a year.

Key takeaway from the quantitative section- sign up to volunteer!

There’s not much hardcore analysis we can do with our quantitative data, given so few respondents. I will say one thing though- go volunteer!

Only 35% of our respondents are currently volunteers- we can get that number higher.

We can’t rely on the formal infrastructure of the campaign to do everything for us, it’s important to talk to family, friends, co-workers and even strangers on the internet about Sanders, by your own initiative. However it’s also important to give the campaign boots on the ground. The Sanders campaign knows what it’s doing and can use volunteers very effectively- let them know you want to volunteer here:


Want to take the survey?

You can find it here: https://forms.gle/DCSufWWuheSN647B9

Please consider sharing it broadly. At the moment we only have a small number of responses. Because of the nature of qualitative research this isn’t too bad, but we would consider +200 plus responses to be ideal.

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