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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a campaign event at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on Feb. 18, 2020. (AP) Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a campaign event at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on Feb. 18, 2020. (AP)

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a campaign event at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on Feb. 18, 2020. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson February 25, 2020

Polls show most Democrats, many Americans back key Bernie Sanders' policies

If Your Time is short

  • Polling consistently shows that most Democrats approve of key parts of Sanders’ economic agenda, including single-payer health care, the Green New Deal, tuition-free college, student debt forgiveness, a $15 minimum wage, breaking up big banks, and paid family leave.
  • For each of those issues except single-payer health care, a more modest percentage of all Americans — but still a majority — signal their support.
  • That said, support levels among all Americans drop significantly once voters are informed about the policies’ costs.

In his speech after the Nevada caucuses, Pete Buttigieg took a shot at his rival Bernie Sanders, who had just won a clear victory.

"Sen. Sanders sees capitalism as the root of all evil," Buttigieg said. "He’d go beyond reform and reorder the economy in ways most Democrats — let alone most Americans — don’t support."

Buttigieg is wrong to say most Democrats don’t support Sanders’ agenda. Polling shows that key elements of Sanders’ economic platform are strongly popular among Democrats. And several of them score majority support among all voters.

However, support among all voters for some of Sanders’ proposals declines when poll respondents are told about the costs. And in some cases, less-aggressive policy options — some of them backed by Sanders’ competitors — receive wider support from voters than his proposals do.

Would Sanders’ platform "reorder the economy"?

We looked at several elements of Sanders’ platform that could potentially have an impact on the economy. They include instituting single-payer health care; the Green New Deal to combat climate change; tuition-free college; student debt forgiveness; a $15 minimum wage; breaking up big banks, and paid family leave.

We found broad acceptance among economists that at least some of these policies would qualify as "reordering" the economy. 

By shifting payments from private insurers to the federal government, single-payer health care would dramatically change the health care sector, which accounts for 17.7% of the nation’s gross domestic product

This policy, and breaking up big banks, "would change things in a major way," said Stanford University economist Roger Noll. "These are huge sectors."  

The Green New Deal would affect a smaller, but still substantial, share of the economy that relates to energy, by setting aggressive targets for phasing out fossil fuels. The proposal also includes a federal job guarantee.

Economists’ views vary on the scale of the other proposals, but some said that changes to the higher-education sector — making college tuition free and forgiving student loan debt — could have a significant impact on the economy. And while the impact of other aspects of Sanders’ plan, such as a $15 minimum wage or paid family leave, might be less dramatic, they could have significant effects on certain regions and employment sectors.

"It's quite fair to say he is reordering the economy, given the massive transfer of money from the private sector to the government," said Daniel Mitchell, a pro-free market economist.

How popular are Sanders’ proposals?

We collected recent poll results on most of these proposals and put them into the chart below. The questions in these polls did not identify the ideas as being backed by Sanders, and they offered basic descriptions of the plans, without mentioning complications, such as the cost involved. 

The data shows that — contrary to what Buttigieg said — a large share of Democrats support Sanders’ economic proposals, according to polls. Among Democrats, single-payer health care receives upwards of 58% support, the Green New Deal gets 86%, a $15 minimum wage gets 84%, tuition-free college gets 76%, student-loan forgiveness gets 79%, breaking up big banks gets 60%, and paid family leave gets 94%.

 

Among all Americans, only one of these policies — single-payer health care — gets less than 50% support. Paid family leave got 84% support, while the other policies had support levels in the 53% to 63% range among all voters.

 
Warning signs

That said, other poll results give Buttigieg’s remark some support.

First, when we inquired about his comment, the Buttigieg camp pointed to health insurance.

As it turns out, Buttigieg’s own policy preference — a public option to buy into Medicare for those who want it — wins majority support from all Americans, a level of support significantly stronger than the 30% to 40% national approval rates for a Sanders-style single-payer system.

In February 2020, the Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll found that 44% of voters preferred a public option, compared to 26% of voters who preferred single-payer and 23% who opposed both. Democrats alone also expressed a preference for the public option, with 51% favoring the public option compared to 39% for single-payer.

Second, providing poll respondents with more complete descriptions of a policy option — often including the cost required — usually reduced the levels of support. Here are some examples:

$15 minimum wage. A SurveyMonkey poll conducted for Business Insider asked two questions about the $15 minimum wage. The first was, "Do you support or oppose increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour?" This question elicited 63% support among all respondents.

The second question added that the Congressional Budget Office — the non-partisan number-crunching arm of Congress — found that a $15 minimum wage would increase wages for 27 million workers and lift 1.3 million households out of poverty, but could also eliminate 1.3 million jobs. Adding this caveat dropped support levels to just 37%.

Student loan forgiveness. A Quinnipiac University poll in April 2019 asked two questions about a plan for student loan forgiveness.

First, the pollsters asked, "Do you support or oppose the federal government forgiving up to $50,000 in student loans for individuals who live in households that make less than $250,000 a year?" This won support from 57% of all Americans, and 79% of Democrats.

Then they asked, "Would you support or oppose this plan to forgive student loans if it was paid for by a new tax on wealthy individuals?" On this question, Democratic support remained strong — 72% — but reaction among respondents overall turned negative, with 44% support and 52% opposition.

Paid family leave. A survey sponsored by the libertarian Cato Institute showed strong initial support — 74% among all respondents — for a paid family leave program granting 12 weeks for birth, adoption, or medical need. But support dropped significantly when possible impacts were mentioned. The poll found that only 48% would still support the policy if it cost another $450 a year in taxes.

Green New Deal. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll in July and August 2019 found broad support for individual elements of the Green New Deal, which Sanders backs. These include a jobs guarantee (78%), energy efficiency improvements for existing buildings (70%), a goal of 100 percent of U.S. power coming from emissions-free sources within 10 years (69%), increased federal spending on disaster-prevention infrastructure (67%), new regulations on businesses (61%), and reductions in coal mining jobs (55%).

The one unpopular aspect of the plan? Increasing spending by trillions of dollars, which was backed by just 30% of respondents.

Our ruling

Buttigieg said that Sanders would "go beyond reform and reorder the economy in ways most Democrats — let alone most Americans — don’t support."

In reality, polling consistently shows that most Democrats do approve of key parts of Sanders’ economic agenda, including single-payer health care, the Green New Deal, tuition-free college, student debt forgiveness, a $15 minimum wage, breaking up big banks, and paid family leave. And for each of those issues except single-payer health care, a more modest percentage of all Americans — but still a majority — signal their support.

It’s important to note, however, that support levels by all Americans drop significantly once voters are informed about the policies’ costs, often to majority disapproval. And on health care policy, Buttigieg’s plan — the public option to buy into Medicare — is more popular than Sanders’ single-payer proposal is, both among all voters and among Democrats.

We rate the statement Mostly False.

Our Sources

Associated Press, "Sanders on Top: Key Takeaways From the Nevada Caucuses," Feb. 22, 2020

Bernie Sanders issues webpage

Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, "National Health Expenditures 2018 Highlights," accessed Feb. 4, 2020

Energy Information Administration, "In 2016, U.S. energy expenditures per unit GDP were the lowest since at least 1970," July 30, 2018

Quinnipiac poll, April 2019

Quinnipiac poll, Nov. 2019

NPR/PBS/Marist poll, July 2019

ScottRasmussen.com/HarrisX, April 2019

NORC/Natl Partnership for Women & Families, July 2018

Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll, February 2020

Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, July-August 2019

Washington Post, "Bernie Sanders’s 2020 policy agenda: Medicare for All; action on climate change; $15-an-hour minimum wage," Feb. 19, 2019

New York Times, "What Is the Green New Deal? A Climate Proposal, Explained," Feb. 21, 2019

Business Insider, "A huge majority of Americans want a $15 minimum wage, but they waver after hearing its economic impact," July 18, 2019

Heritage Foundation, "Americans Want a National Paid Family Leave Program—But Not If They Have to Pay For It: New Survey," January 24, 2019

Email interview with Daniel Mitchell, free-market economist, Feb. 24, 2020

Email interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Feb. 24, 2020

Email interview with Roger Noll, Stanford University economist, Feb. 24, 2020

Email interview with David Sirota, spokesman for Bernie Sanders, Feb. 24, 2020

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Polls show most Democrats, many Americans back key Bernie Sanders' policies

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