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A Conversation with Bernie’s Pollster, Ben Tulchin

Lawrence Bush
May 6, 2017

From the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

BEN TULCHIN, 43, became pollster for the Bernie Sanders for President campaign in October 2015, as the Vermont senator’s surprisingly effective run against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination was pulling in millions of dollars in small contributions and drawing tens of thousands of supporters at campaign rallies. Tulchin played a key role in shaping the messaging of a campaign that ultimately raised more than $250 million from some 2.5 million donors, and won twenty-three of fifty-seven primary elections and caucuses, landing 46 percent of the pledged delegates (that is, the non-super-delegates). It was an astounding accomplishment for a campaign that had no party backing -- a campaign that was, in fact, actively undermined by the Democratic National Committee ­-- and that promoted a consistent message of social democracy and economic justice.

Ben Tulchin is the founder and president of Tulchin Research in San Francisco. His firm’s clients have included former DNC chair and presidential candidate Howard Dean, former California Governor Gray Davis, U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Harry Reid, and several members of the House of Representatives. Jewish Currents interviewed him by phone two weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Jewish Currents: If Bernie Sanders had won the nomination, could he have beaten Donald Trump? What did your polling show?

Ben Tulchin: Bernie doesn’t like to go down that path, but without a doubt he could have and would have won. Bernie did better against Trump than Hillary in all the public polling — and not just against Trump, against every Republican, but particularly against Trump.

Among millennials, Bernie was consistently doing twenty to thirty points higher than Hillary against Trump, and that accounted for two to three points in the overall electorate. He was also doing better against Trump among independents, particularly younger independent men, ages 30 to 50, who were part of his base. Older, working-class white men — the voters who helped tilt the election to Trump in the Midwestern states, Wisconsin, Michigan, and rural Pennsylvania — were also voters Bernie did relatively better with than Hillary. These three groups of voters made a big difference in the election.

I think gender played a role: Hillary’s gender, especially with white working-class men over 50, hurt her, and with Bernie being an older white guy, we didn’t have that liability.

We don’t know how the general election would have unfolded, but I think Bernie showed that he had the ability to deliver a consistent, clear message that resonated with the vast majority of voters. Hillary lost by 80,000 votes in the three states, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and lost among voters with whom Bernie could have turned the tide. Those three states are heavily Caucasian, and those are the voters among whom we saw a big difference between Hillary and Bernie when polled against Trump.

JC: Why do you think Bernie was so appealing to the millennials? Wasn’t that counter-intuitive, given his persona and his age?

BT: What we learned through all our research is that millennials are a fundamentally progressive generation. They have a strong sense of economic justice, in terms of making the wealthy pay their fair share. The fact that Wall Street wrecked our economy and got away with it while these students are saddled with a mountain of debt gives them a real sense of unfairness about our current economy.

Millennials also have a strong sense of environmental justice and a strong desire to tackle climate change -- that it’s a real problem that’s going to affect their generation. They have a strong sense of social justice and LGBT rights, including gay marriage -- it’s not debatable with almost all millennials, it is just an accepted right, especially among left-leaning millennials voting in a Democratic primary. And they also support racial justice -- Black Lives Matter, the end of racial profiling by police. This is also the most diverse generation in our history -- who they are and who their friends are -- with a strong sense of cultural diversity and anti-racism, which is why one of the campaign’s best messages -- we tested it in every poll in every state with millennials -- was a criminal justice reform message.

Put these issues together and Bernie’s their candidate. When we started in any state, Bernie had a base among millennials and young, unaligned men 30 to 50. And we built on that. They just felt that Bernie was authentic -- you know, his hair’s a little messed-up, he’s got these glasses that aren’t hipster glasses -- and that level of authenticity really resonated with millennials. And he delivered this strongly progressive message.

Hillary did not have strongly progressive positions on those key issues. Look, she’s been around for a long time, and every millennial has grown up with her. She’s a moderate Democrat, and she struggled to find her progressive voice. She’d take progressive positions, but she did it after “evolving,” and millennials really picked up on that. They had been an important constituency for Obama, and they just weren’t enthusiastic about Clinton — and that really cost her.

JC: Was it a surprise that a generation that’s receptive to libertarianism, a who-needs-government, we’ll-do-it-ourselves attitude, responded to this democratic socialist guy?

BT: There’s only a small slice that’s truly libertarian, the Rand Pauls of the world.

The reason millennials supported Bernie was that he was critiquing the political establishment and the political system, where they’ve seen their political leadership fail them. Whether it’s Wall Street crashing the economy and Wall Street executives not being held accountable ­­— the banks were bailed out, but people lost their homes, and young people are not getting help on their student loan debt — it was clear that this political system is corrupt, that special interests buy our politicians. Bernie spoke to that. Bernie showed that you can connect with these voters, that they do support a government that helps them in the areas where help is needed.

Having done a lot of quantitative and qualitative research with millennials over the last year and a half, I would describe this is as a generation that has lived through two recessions, including the Great Recession, and has had the worst economic prospects since the Great Depression. They have increasing amounts of student loan debt, if they can afford to go to college in the first place. Economically, they have seen capitalism not serve them well. So Bernie’s talking about universal health care, free public college tuition and a tax on Wall Street to pay for it —those are things that resonate with millennials, based on their economic experience.

JC: How stable over time do you think that the millennials’ progressivism will prove to be? Haven’t we seen previous generations’ progressivism tail off as they reach their mortgage and child-raising years?

BT: Baby boomers were divided ­­-- half of them were for the Vietnam war and half of them were against it. What the boomer generation generated politically was our polarized two Americas. The millennial generation, by contrast, is overwhelmingly progressive on so many fundamental issues -- pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-Black Lives Matter, pro-efforts to prevent climate change, pro-science, pro-economic justice, pro-immigration, pro-diversity -- which is 180 degrees opposite of where the modern Republican party is.

And this generation is the second biggest, second only to the baby boomers, and they’re younger and not dying off yet. In California, there are now more millennials registered to vote than baby boomers. That is transformational. So even if they don’t all stay as progressive as they are -- they may become more moderate fiscally as they own a home -- are they all of a sudden going to become radically pro-homogenous society and anti-diversity? That seems unlikely.

The media helps with that, by showing more and more diverse faces. The millennial generation sees their diversity increasingly reflected in their media, and that has a powerful effect.

JC: With such optimism about the millennials’ progressivism, do you think that Trump is just a lapse, that conservatism cannot possibly hold up to the demographic tide?

BT: Individual factors come into play, and that’s a broader, more complicated conversation. But it’s already having an impact on the Democratic Party. Having a guy as progressive as Bernie get as many votes nationally as he did tells you that there’s a solid progressive base within the party now. Look at the fight over the DNC chair: You have one progressive against another progressive against another progressive. There’s no room for the Wall Street, corporate wing of the party that Debbie Wasserman Schultz represented.

JC: It was said that Bernie Sanders didn’t believe in polling, so what brought him to see it as a necessity?

BT: I first met with Bernie in May of 2015. I’d worked for Howard Dean, so I kind of have a specialty in these insurgent presidential candidates from Vermont! I’d also done a lot of work on progressive taxation in California, and I knew that Bernie’s message had potential -- that voters were very frustrated and angry. So I reached out to him. No one else was knocking on his door!
Bernie was, like, “Why should I spend money on a polling firm?” I said, “Senator, Hillary Clinton needs a pollster to help figure out her message; you obviously don’t need a pollster to help figure out what you’re going to say. But if you’re successful, you’re going to have to do TV ads -- so how do we figure out what to distill from your hour-and-fifteen-minute stump speech into a thirty-second ad? That’s where polling comes in. And if you’re campaigning in multiple states, how do you know which states to campaign in? How do you know which groups to target? How do you spend your money more efficiently?”

He originally thought it was going to be a local Iowa/New Hampshire, grassroots, see-what-happens kind of campaign. But by the end of September 2015, he had raised a lot of money, and he recognized it was going to be a very different kind of campaign than he had been running, so he gave a green light to his team to hire a pollster.

I had already been giving the campaign free advice and staying in touch with them. In my last poll in Iowa, I had predicted that if turnout was 180,000, we’d win by two points; 160,000, we’d lose by two points. Turnout was 170,000, and it was a tie! So my polling was spot-on, and that impressed the campaign. Then New Hampshire: Public polls showed a closing race. And Bernie calls me -- the first time I’ve talked to him directly -- and he says, “Ben, what’s going on with the public polling? I’m getting nervous.” “Senator,” I said, “our polling has you up twenty-one points,” and he won by twenty-two. So he realized, This guy knows what he’s doing, which helped him have more confidence in my work.

After a while, Bernie started calling me more often, especially as the campaign headed to California -- I know the state really well -- more to talk about polling than messaging. But during debate prep, our polling helped shape the guidance for Bernie: how to go after Hillary, how to do a better response on some of the things he was being attacked about. That’s where my work became more influential, on the messaging side.

He was resistant to going after Hillary at all initially, but when she started attacking him, he realized what kind of fight he was in and he responded in kind, he had to push back. He definitely got better as the debates went on, and he had some good zingers about Hillary speaking at Goldman Sachs.

JC: Was it fun, working on such an unlikely and energizing campaign?

BT: It was exhilarating and intense. This guy was starting at 1 percent in the polls, and to go from a 1 percent trajectory to a 46 percent trajectory was astounding. There were moments when, all of a sudden, we saw there was an opening actually to win. And it was tough to see that and ultimately not quite get the brass ring. But we were in a campaign that went beyond anyone’s expectations, we came from behind in many, many states, and that was remarkable.

JC: Is there any role for a pollster in Our Revolution [the post-election organization that is carrying forward Sanders’ vision]?

BT: I’m working with them now and giving them advice. We’re not polling as much as we did during the campaign, but all of us who are part of Bernie’s world are committed to the movement that he started.

JC: Many progressive organizations are raising a lot of money and mobilizing in various ways. What do you see as the heartbeat of the resistance to Trump?

BT: I just lived through that: In California, we had elections for delegates to the Democratic state party convention. These are normally sleepy affairs. In my district, heavily Caucasian, with lots of upper-middle-class people, the Hillary slate had won for the last five years; it was never even close. Normally two, three dozen people show up to vote at these things. This time the line was out the door, and people waited an hour in the pouring rain. At least six hundred voted, and Bernie’s slate swept. And this is not a Bernie district! Apparently, this happened up and down the state. Our Revolution was mobilizing their supporters to run and to vote. We don’t have official tallies, but there’s a buzz about it.

Outside California, I don’t have evidence, but I know from social media that Our Revolution is getting donors and feedback around the country.

So Bernie’s still having impact. No press covered what I just described to you taking place in California, but it’s a news story! Bernie is one of the leading faces, if not the leading face, of the Democratic Party right now and of the resistance against Trump. The Bernie people are very energized because there’s still a little fire in their belly, a chip on their shoulder for not winning.

JC: Did Bernie’s Jewishness ever play as an issue or an asset? Did it ever become a factor in the campaign?

BT: No. Well, it’s complicated. In his bio, we talked about his upbringing, his father coming from Poland. Why didn’t we say “Jewish immigrant”? That would’ve probably polled better! People knew he was Jewish, but he didn’t talk about it much. It would’ve been interesting if he had embraced it in the campaign more along the lines he did in his book, where he used the “J-word” several times. It would’ve been interesting to see the reaction during the campaign.
Rabbis I spoke to were saying, “Hey, we’ve got a Jewish candidate, a leading contender for president!” But at the end of the day, this election was largely generational and partly based on class. Bernie did better with working-class voters than he did with upscale voters, and that pattern held in the New York primary. If you look at the results by county, Bernie did poorly in Manhattan. He did poorly in Westchester County. Interestingly, he did better with Conservative and Orthodox Jews than with Reform Jews, who are more upper-middle-class and tilt older. Orthodox and Conservative Jews tend to be younger than Reform Jews, and they tend to have less money.

And this was despite his position on Israel being to the left of Clinton’s. That told me that the issues driving this election were domestic issues. They knew Bernie was a lefty and probably not as “good” on Israel as Hillary, but that didn’t prevent Conservative and Orthodox Jews from voting for him at higher numbers than Reform Jews -- even though Hillary still was ahead in all those groups and won by a decent margin among Jews in the primaries, as well as 71 percent of the Jewish vote in the race against Trump.

JC: The entire polling world was predicting that Trump would be smashed in the election. What happened to the polling profession?

BT: Look, the public national polling had Hillary up about three points, and she won by the popular vote by two points. So the national polling, in aggregate, wasn’t that far off. The problem was the state polling. Clinton’s pollsters deserve a good portion of the blame for what happened: They missed it badly, and it cost us the election. I don’t mince words because it was a serious setback for the progressive movement and will have consequences for years to come.
The big critique I have is that no one in the operation said, “What if?” Everyone assumed turnout would be like 2012. It was 90 to 95 percent of what 2012 was, but guess what: That 5 percent came all out of Hillary’s base. It wasn’t as much Obama voters who voted for Trump, it was Obama voters, who were white working-class voters, who did not show up for Hillary.

Polling is harder and harder to do. You have to call more cellphones to reach young people, and that’s expensive. But if you cut corners, you get what you pay for. I’ve shown that you can still be accurate in this business. You have to be flexible and willing to think outside the box and ask yourself tough questions and change your model as you go through it. You’ve got to have someone in the operation saying, “I don’t think we are now where we were three weeks ago, and we may need to change some assumptions.”

JC: What do you think activists should be doing now? What should the focus be over the next two years?

BT: Bernie’s basic frame is still very powerful: You have a rigged economy propped up by a corrupt political finance system, billionaires buying off politicians. Guess what? We now have a billionaire president and a cabinet full of billionaires who are rigging the economy to enrich themselves. There’s a face to it.

They’re planning to take healthcare away from a lot of working class people, but prescription drug prices are going through the roof. So we go after drug companies.

College students are getting stuck with debt they can’t afford, while for- profit loan companies are collecting their interest. So we focus on student debt and the loan industry.

All of this fits within a good economic message. Bernie’s message did that. Now we have to stick it to Trump and the radical Republican Congress by saying they are out there cutting taxes for the wealthy -- for themselves, basically -- while screwing over the working class. We have to shine a light on Trump’s cronyism and corruption. I would develop a whole system to put pressure on Trump financially -- target his businesses and show how corrupt they are.

From a policy standpoint, when you frame a message, it’s more powerful than just talking about issue after issue. Of course, there’s a range of issues that you can tie into this broader umbrella: the economy, taxes, healthcare, prescription drug prices and drug companies, higher education, student debt, retirement. You can pick an issue, but frame it around the broader rigged economy. If you’re too dispersed in your messaging, you don’t get any message across. Women’s issues have lost impact over time, but when we get a Supreme Court justice who doesn’t believe in Roe v. Wade, when you get Planned Parenthood funding taken away, those issues may revive themselves.

I don’t have a definitive answer because it depends on the policies that the Republican Congress and Trump promote. But the economic message is only effective if you can make it consistent and tie it back to Trump and how he’s hurting the average person. With Our Revolution winning these delegate battles, state parties are going to have a more coherent Bernie-type message -- and that’s going to be helpful.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.