Democratic race pits ‘experience’ against ‘honesty’

William JordanUS Elections Editor
January 17, 2016, 3:16 PM UTC

Hillary Clinton has widened her lead in a new national poll of likely Democratic primary voters

Tonight the remaining three Democratic candidates for president meet for a debate in Charleston, South Carolina, at a moment when Hillary Clinton maintains a wide national lead – but faces an increasingly serious challenge from Bernie Sanders of Vermont, according to a new YouGov poll of 620 likely Democratic primary voters.

The new poll paints a contrasting picture of the Democratic primary’s two leading candidates. 68-year-old Clinton, a former Secretary of State, senator and First Lady is described as “experienced” by three-quarters of likely Democratic primary voters when asked to select words from a list. The number is much higher than for Sanders, (45%) a 74-year-old who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1990.

Clinton is also seen as “strong”, “effective” and “intelligent” by far greater numbers than her rival. Sanders, on the other hand, excels where Clinton falters – over half (54%) likely Democratic voters describe Sanders as “honest”, compared to just 22% for Clinton. Most Democrats (52%) also say Sanders is “likeable”, compared to 40% for Clinton.

It is with this backdrop that races in Iowa and New Hampshire have been tightening, mostly in favor of Sanders. Nationally, the picture is more favorable to Clinton, who leads by 25 points with 58% to Sanders’s 33%, an improvement on the 14-point gap that separated the two Democrats in the second half of December.

In some ways, the poll reflects a dynamic similar to what is shaping the Republican race for president, with Donald Trump riding a reputation for strong leadership to a wide lead over the campaign’s “true conservative”, rival Sen. Ted Cruz. Clinton, too, leads on strength, while Sanders is more likely to be described as a “true progressive” and as “consistent”.

The poll also tests some of the arguments for and against the candidates that have been prominent in the campaign this winter.

Democrats tend to disagree rather than agree, by 42% to 35%, that Clinton “can’t be trusted to take on Wall Street and the big banks”, though most Sanders supporters (62%) mostly agree with this criticism. At the same time, criticisms of Clinton’s foreign policy stances – Sanders often highlights his opposition to the Iraq war, which Clinton supported – are even less well-received. 52% of Democrats disagree that Clinton is “too aggressive” on foreign policy issues.  

Similarly, Democrats tend to disagree by 40% to 23% that Sander’s “can’t be trusted” on gun control. Sanders greater weakness – or Clinton’s strength – may be perceptions about electability. Democrats are somewhat divided on whether Sanders is “too far to the left” to win a general election; 36% agree, 31% disagree. But 67% of likely primary voters, including 40% of Sander’s own supporters, agree with the statement that Clinton represents her party’s “best chance of winning the White House.”

There is more muted agreement (45% to 21%) that Sanders can “generate the enthusiasm needed to keep the White House for Democrats and make gains in Congress", something his campaign has argued will pave the way for the candidate's ambitious progressive agenda.     

Full poll results can be found here and topline results and margin of error here.