Yet the biggest obstacle for Mr. Sanders, Vermont’s junior senator, may be the perception that his ideas are too radical — and his persona too cantankerous — to win a general election. Democrats this year are largely united by their obsession with defeating Mr. Trump: More than three in five Democratic voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire said they preferred a candidate who could beat Mr. Trump over one who agreed with them on most issues, according to entrance and exit polls. Among those electability-minded voters, Mr. Sanders finished behind Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., in both states, the polls showed.
As Mr. Buttigieg rises in the polls, he has argued that a moderate candidate like himself is needed to win over swing voters in November. But Mr. Sanders has countered with a different narrative, arguing that he will bring millions of low-propensity voters — particularly young and working-class people — into the political process, giving Democrats an uncommon electoral advantage.
Mr. Sanders’s campaign has pushed a “Bernie Beats Trump” slogan since it began early last year, and his proponents have long pointed to the fact that head-to-head polls tend to show him looking roughly as strong as former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. against Mr. Trump. And to a degree, it is catching on: Mr. Sanders is now seen as the most electable candidate by 24 percent of Democratic voters; in the fall, only one-tenth of Democrats saw him that way.
He is also on the rise among voters of color. He has courted Hispanic voters especially and is now the clear favorite among them — a fact that owes partly to the relative youth of the Latino electorate. He is also increasingly popular among African-Americans, many of whom are facing a hard decision about whom to support, now that Mr. Biden’s star is fading.
If Mr. Biden continues to sink, Mr. Sanders may have a relatively open lane with voters of color, since Mr. Buttigieg, Ms. Warren of Massachusetts and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have all had difficulty gaining traction there.
But Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, has bought over $350 million in television ads since the fall and is aggressively seeking out black and Hispanic voters. Among black voters, he is now polling about evenly with Mr. Sanders, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll, which found that they were each supported by about one-fifth of black Democratic voters.
Much remains in flux, and the results of the coming contests — in Nevada, South Carolina and the 14 states that will vote on Super Tuesday — will have a big impact on the rest of the race. But there are already some hopeful signs for Mr. Sanders.
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