How one number reveals the vast gulf between Trump and Sanders voters

Trump and Sanders voters share populist sentiments. But one poll question on Trump's plan for a border wall highlights the difference between the two camps' worldviews.

Astrid Galvan/AP/File
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks in Nogales, Ariz., last month near the border fence that divides Arizona and Mexico.

Are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders supporters that different, really?

Some analysts argue that they are not, or that at least they share more similarities than they care to acknowledge.  

After all, Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders of Vermont shape their electoral messages on similar molds. Both men say corrupt elites are ripping America off. Both say the leadership of their party is part of the problem. Both say they are outsiders who will lead a revolution to set things right.

Both have unusual hair. OK, maybe that’s irrelevant

But in any case, there is something very similar about the two candidates, according to Samara Klar, a political scientist at the University of Arizona.

“Both argue that they are independent from typical establishment politics and their appeal relies on their supporters’ desire to be above the political fray,” says Klar in an interview posted Monday on The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

Think of the spectrum of political ideology as a circle – and not a straight line of left and right – and Trump and Sanders voters may be on the respective edges of their party sections, at the point where they come back around and meet. In other words, they can maybe see each other from where they’re standing.

But they’re not going to blend together. Oh sure, everybody’s got that one Facebook friend who says that if the corporate shills keep Bernie out, they’d sooner vote for Trump than Hillary Clinton; or if Lyin’ Ted steals the nomination from Trump, maybe they’ll write in Bernie instead. On the whole, though, there’s a wall that divides Trump and Sanders voters, and never the twain shall they meet.

That wall is The Wall, Trump’s proposed barrier for the Southern border, and the attitudes it symbolizes. Of all the candidates’ supporters, those of Trump and Sanders are the most polarized on this issue.

You can see this in the results of a just-released Pew Research poll. Eighty-four percent of Trump supporters favor building the wall, according to Pew. That’s the highest number for any of the GOP contenders, which is unsurprising, since the barrier is Trump’s idea to begin with.

In contrast, 91 percent of Sanders supporters oppose the wall. The corresponding figure for Clinton voters is a bit lower, at 83 percent opposition. Sanders’s folks hate the thing even more than Clinton’s do.

Wow – those aren’t just marginal differences between the Sanders and Trump camps. That’s an opposite opinion. Those are people who are looking at the world with completely different eyes.

And those eyes see “others” in completely different ways. That’s maybe what’s at the heart of this split.

Trump voters, for instance see minority groups as people who get too much free government stuff. As Trump surrogate Sarah Palin put it at a rally in Wisconsin over the weekend: “Come on over the border and here’s a gift basket of teddy bears and soccer balls.”

According to a new Quinnipiac poll, 80 percent of Trump voters agree with the statement: “The government has gone too far in assisting minority groups.”

Sanders voters are on the other pole. Seventy-nine percent disagreed with that statement.

What does all this mean? Well, some analysts believe that the rise of Trump and Sanders heralds a new kind of US populism. Even if neither becomes president, their voters will remain a force. They will cause fissures to open in the current big party coalitions. Congress might become more fluid, with the populists of both parties combining on such issues as Wall Street and corporate power, antitrust, and overly interventionist foreign policy.

“Trump Republicans and Sanders Democrats will find common cause against establishment centrists,” writes Lee Drutman, senior fellow in political reform at the think tank New America, in Vox.

That’s certainly possible. But given the difference in the worldviews of these groups, that common ground might be pretty small. The vast gulf between them on immigration, income distribution, and racial issues will remain.

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