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Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton: Where they stand on the big 2016 issues

Are you a Bernie booster or a Hillary head? Or neither?


Aaron Sankin


For Democratic voters, the choice seems simple: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

Sanders, a Vermont senator and self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, is widely considered among the most progressive elected leaders in Washington. Throughout his more than three decades of public service, Sanders has worn a lot of hats—mayor of the city Burlington, congressman, and senator. Yet, so has his opponent in the quest for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination—frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

Clinton, a former first lady, New York senator, and secretary of state, sits slightly to the right of Sanders. As such, she has had to deal with Sanders differently than other candidates—which is to say, she has to take him seriously as a rival and tout her left-leaning policy positions more than she might if her challenger were decidedly more centrist.

It’s a tactic Sanders has employed previously, engaging in an 8-hour quasi-filibuster over the Obama administration’s deal with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts on households earning over $250,000 per year. Sanders’ extended exhortation on the evils of inequality was so popular that not only did the flood of traffic break the streaming function on the Senate’s website, but the speech was also published as a book.

But, what are those policy positions exactly? There are some issues on which Sanders and Clinton agree and others where they diverge—at least in tone, if not in substance. As Clinton has often said during the Democratic debates, the two candidates “vigorously agree” on many issues.

There is some difficulty in comparing Sanders and Clinton’s positions because, as a member of the Obama administration between 2009 and 2013, then-Secretary of State Clinton stayed largely mum on many issues of consequence and has often remained vague in the years since—whereas Sanders, well, it’s usually not difficult to discern where he stands on pretty much anything.

The following are summaries on how the two candidates stack up on a whole host of issues. Now that there is more than one candidate officially in the race, Democratic voters actually have a choice. This is an attempt to help them make it. Granted, the Iowa caucuses aren’t for another 10 months, so you’ll have plenty of time to mull all this over.


Sanders: Sanders has labeled himself a “strong supporter of immigration reform,” but has voted against such efforts when the details haven’t been to his liking. He is in favor of creating a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States and has advocated in favor of programs like the DREAM Act. However, he’s been skeptical of guest worker programs and the expansion of things like H-1B visas that, he argues, largely serve as a way for large corporations to keep wages low. He voted in favor of “sanctuary cities” where law enforcement officials don’t function as immigration police, and he opposed both making English the official language of the U.S. government and building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Clinton: Clinton has been a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform and has advocated for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that includes paying a fine, filling in back taxes, and learning English. She’s sponsored bills intended to fund social services, such as healthcare and education for non-citizens. Clinton was a vocal supporter of President Obama’s executive action as well as the idea of “sanctuary cities.” While in the Senate, Clinton voted in favor of building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border but later backed off the idea during a debate with then-candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential primary, insisting the bill she voted for shouldn’t be enacted as written. 

She’s also called for increases in law enforcement presence along both the Mexican and Canadian borders. She has largely opposed guest-worker programs, but she has made an exception for the agricultural sector. While on the campaign trail in 2008, Clinton spoke approvingly about the idea of giving drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants but then backtracked shortly thereafter. Earlier this year, a Clinton campaign spokesperson noted that she now fully supports the idea.

Campaign finance reform

Sanders: Sanders is pushing a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to unlimited political contributions to political action committees (PACs), and backs strong controls and disclosure requirements on political donations. He has insisted his campaign won’t enlist the help of a super PAC to funnel in an unlimited amount of cash from donors unencumbered by the giving limits imposed on the candidate himself.

Clinton: Asserting that campaign finance reform will be major plank in her campaign platform, Clinton has said that she would support a constitutional amendment reforming the campaign finance system. In 2000, she called for a ban on all soft money donations and, at one point, pushed for public financing of elections. Even so, the Clinton campaign is expected to raise in excess of $1 billion over the course of the 2016 campaign.

Same-sex marriage

Sanders: With a 100-percent rating from the Human Right Campaign as a supporter of LGBT rights, Sanders is a strong proponent of gay marriage, voting against bills in 2004 and 2006 aimed at passing constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. He also voted against a 1999 bill that would have blocked gay people from adopting children in Washington, D.C..

Clinton: Clinton made news when the video officially announcing her presidential campaign featured a same sex couple holding hands and talking about their upcoming wedding. Yet, she ran for president in 2008 as an opponent of gay marriage and recently insisted to NPR’s Terry Gross that her former opposition to marriage equality came from deeply held moral beliefs rather than any kind of political calculation. During Clinton’s tenure as first lady in the 1990s, her husband signed into law Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, and a bill prohibiting people who were HIV+ from entering the United States.


Sanders: Even though Sanders has an “F” rating from the NRA for his opposition to decreasing the waiting period for gun purchases and voted in favor of the 1994 assault-weapons ban, when it comes to gun control, his record is more complicated than the National Rifle Association’s blanket disapproval may suggest. He voted against 1993’s Brady Bill, likely the most substantial gun control law ever signed into law, as well as bills allowing firearms to be carried in checked bags on Amtrak trains and banning lawsuits against gun dealers and manufacturers for crimes committed by their customers.

Clinton: Clinton has long been an advocate of strong gun-control laws. In her book Living History, Clinton wrote that Congress’s inability to pass meaningful gun-control legislation following the Columbine school shooting inspired her to run for Senate in the first place. “We have to rein in what has become almost [an] article of faith, that anybody can own a gun anywhere, anytime,” she said during a speech last year. “And I don’t believe that.”

While in the Senate, Clinton voted against bills shielding gun vendors and manufacturers from liability on actions taken by their customers. She recently said that opponents of gun control regulations, like the universal background checks Congress was unable to enact following the Sandy Hook shootings, “hold a viewpoint that terrorizes the majority of people.” During her 2000 Senate campaign, she favored a national licensing regimen for all firearms, but told debate moderator Tim Russert in 2008 that she had since backed off from the idea.

International trade

Sanders: Sanders not been particularly happy with the Obama administration’s efforts to enact the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a controversial trade deal between 12 countries in North America, South America, Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand. “The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multi-national corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment, and the foundations of American democracy,” he wrote in a statement. “It will also negatively impact some of the poorest people in the world.”

Clinton: During a 2012 speech in Australia, Clinton called the TPP “the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.” In subsequent years, Clinton has been critical of certain elements of the deal. In her book Hard Choices, Clinton argued that giving corporations or their investors “the power to sue foreign governments to weaken their environmental and public health rules” is something to be avoided, and the leaked provisions show that the TPP—the text of which is a secret—does just that. However, she has not come out and directly opposed the agreement.

Domestic surveillance

Sanders: When the Patriot Act, though which though which much of the post-9/11 domestic spying on the electronic communications of American citizens has been justified, initially passed in 2001, Sanders was one of 66 members of the House of Representatives to vote against it. In the years since, he has been one of the leading voices in Washington against domestic surveillance. After the leak of NSA documents by Edward Snowden in 2013, Sanders called the agency’s wholesale collection of cellphone metadata “alarming and absolutely unacceptable.” He also joined with Patriot Act author Rep. James Sensenbrenner on co-authoring a bill that would have prohibited the National Security Agency from collecting the call records of American citizens.

Clinton: In 2001, Clinton voted for the Patriot Act and then voted in favor of reauthorization six years later. Since the Snowden revelations, she has expressed concerns about the NSA’s surveillance programs, but she has largely avoided the issue and not come out with concrete policy proposals. Even when Snowden is brought up in her book Hard Choices, Clinton declines to render an opinion on one side or the other.

War and peace

Sanders: Sanders is as staunchly anti-war as any elected official in Washington. He voted against approving the Iraq War in 2002 and has consistently advocated for deescalating the conflict in Afghanistan. In 2007, he cosponsored a bill that would have required the president to get the explicit approval of the Senate before taking military action against Iran and, even as far back at 1999, voted against putting U.S. ground troops in Kosovo. In the current fight against the Islamic State, Sanders opposes the United States taking a leading role in the conflict.

Clinton: Clinton’s record on foreign policy is one that people like Time‘s Michael Crowley have labeled “unapologetically hawkish.” By the time she left the Senate in 2008, National Journal rated her as the 40th most liberal senator when it came to foreign policy, putting her squarely on the right side of the party.

In the Senate, she voted in favor of the Iraq War in 2002, but later came to admit she “got it wrong. Plain and simple.” As secretary of state, she backed the “surge” in Afghanistan, advocated for arming the Syrian rebels, and has been a strong defender of the military’s use of targeted drone strikes.

Financial reform

Sanders: A fierce critic of Wall Street, Sanders has advocated breaking up big banks to end the era of government bailouts of “too big to fail” financial institutions. He’s similarly skeptical of the Federal Reserve, leading the push to attach an amendment to the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial industry reform law that enacted the first ever audit of the institution.

Clinton: Clinton has, at times, been critical of Wall Street, and she has slammed Republican attempts to roll back certain provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. But the candidate has had a long history of being cozy with America’s financial elite: In fact, the top donors to her campaigns, from 1999 until 2014, include Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase.

The dollar figures do no, however, paint the full picture. And an anecdote Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) recounted to PBS’s Bill Moyers in 2004 is likely instructive. Warren recalled how an op-ed she wrote about a proposed bankruptcy bill in the late 1990s impressed the then-first lady so much that she invited Warren to a meeting. Warren explained to Clinton the myriad problems with the legislation that swung power away from individual bankruptcy filers and toward big banks. At the end of the discussion, Clinton told Warren that they had to do whatever they could to kill the bill and, when it reached her husband’s desk in shortly thereafter, it was slapped with a presidential veto. Warren was heartened, at least until the bill came up again in 2001 and Clinton, now a senator, voted for it.


Sanders: Sanders received a perfect score on his pro-choice voting record from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Clinton: Clinton received a perfect score on her pro-choice voting record from the NARAL.

To further investigate where the candidates stand on a litany of different issues, check out the records of both Clinton and Sanders maintained by

Photo by Marc Nozell/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | AFGE/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

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